Bush the universalist

bushmosqueEvery time President Bush speaks of his Christian faith, the mainstream media get all roiled up. Here’s how a 2003 story in The Christian Science Monitor began:

President Bush has never been shy about injecting his faith into the public arena — his campaign remark that Jesus Christ was his “favorite political philosopher” was an early signal. But his rising use of religious language and imagery in recent months, especially with regard to the US role in the world, has stirred concern both at home and abroad.

In this year’s State of the Union address, for example, Bush quoted an evangelical hymn that refers to the power of Christ. “‘There’s power, wonder-working power,’ in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people,” he said.

The media have written extensively, if poorly, about Bush’s faith. There was that New York Times Sunday Magazine cover story about Bush’s faith. And countless others which we’ve all read over the past decade.

And yet when President Bush celebrates other religions or otherwise expresses his universalism — which he has done repeatedly — the media barely notice. In an Oct. 4 interview with Al Arabiya, President Bush said:

Well, first of all, I believe in an almighty God, and I believe that all the world, whether they be Muslim, Christian, or any other religion, prays to the same God. That’s what I believe. I believe that Islam is a great religion that preaches peace.

I don’t know if the media ignore it because it doesn’t fit with their preconceived notion of Bush as an evangelical extremist, but several days later, I have found only two stories about the interview. Mark Silva, writing for the Tribune Company’s The Swamp blog/Washington notebook (I found it in The Sun) had this:

Touting his Iftaar Dinner last night for an evening breaking of the Ramadan fast, Bush refuted any notion in this interview intended for Arab home viewing that he is out to destroy Islam.

“I want to remind your listeners that one of the first things I did after September the 11th is I went to the local mosque. And I did because I wanted to send a message that those who came to kill Americans were young terrorists, and they do not reflect the views of the vast majority of peaceful people in the Middle East.”

Jon Ward, The Washington Times‘ White House correspondent, also wrote up the remarks, which were similar to those Bush made in previous years. Here, for instance, is what he said in a 2004 interview with Charles Gibson:

CHARLES GIBSON: Do we all worship the same God, Christian and Muslim?


CHARLES GIBSON: Do Christians and non-Christians and Muslims go to heaven in your mind?

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Yes, they do. We have different routes of getting there.

coexistIt’s so interesting to me that the people who support, say, a priest who believes she is both Muslim and Christian tend to oppose “evangelicals” such as President Bush. And the evangelical support for President Bush doesn’t carry over to someone like Hillary Clinton — whose profession of faith is at least as strong as Bush’s.

But perhaps part of the reason for this is how the media cover the various players.

On that note, here’s another part of that interview with Bush:

And I believe people who murder the innocent to achieve political objectives aren’t religious people, whether they be a Christian who does that — we had a person blow up our — blow up a federal building in Oklahoma City who professed to be a Christian, but that’s not a Christian act to kill innocent people.

Um, someone might want to let President Bush know that Timothy McVeigh professed no religious belief. Lou Michel, the author of a well-researched book on McVeigh (he spent countless hours interviewing the terrorist before he was executed), had this to say during a CNN chat:

Question from chat room: Does McVeigh have any spiritual-religious beliefs?

Lou Michel: McVeigh is agnostic. He doesn’t believe in God, but he won’t rule out the possibility. I asked him, “What if there is a heaven and hell?”

He said that once he crosses over the line from life to death, if there is something on the other side, he will — and this is using his military jargon — “adapt, improvise, and overcome.” Death to him is all part of the adventure.

Now some might be concerned that Bush equates terrorism done in the name of Islam with terrorism not done in the name of Christianity. Of course, near as I can tell, no mainstream media have even noticed this Bush statement.

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  • Jerry

    And yet when President Bush celebrates other religions or otherwise expresses his universalism — which he has done repeatedly — the media barely notice.

    That is absolutely unsurprising. Given how deliberately polarizing Bush’s policies are and given the controversy-loving media, anything that Bush does that does not fit into that image is naturally ignored.

    The media is so focused on Iraq and politically charged issues like SCHIP, the child insurance program, that they are ignoring the gains of the Taliban and the doubling of our troops in Afghanistan. Personally I think the Afghanistan story is more important than Iraq to America’s security and am thus not happy about the lack of coverage.

    And beyond that, the left takes Bush to be the devil incarnate. So the assumption is that he must have a sinister and ulterior motive or maybe he’s just lying or maybe doing what Cheney told him to do.

    If David Brooks is any indication, the right is concerned about their implosion in the post-Bush era and just wants to work on picking up the pieces. They seem to be focused on how to minimize congressional losses next year and who they can find to beat Hillary.

  • F.Scottie

    It seems to me that Bush is portrayed as being to the “right” in both politics and religion when, in reality, he’s really a pluralist in his faith and a moderate conservative in politics. I guess the question is why he is mistakenly portrayed that way.

  • brian

    “as I can tell, no mainstream media have even noticed this Bush statement.”

    That’s because Pres. Bush obviously picked up the “McVeigh was a Christian terrorist” idea from the media. It’s a pretty standard card that gets played to try to “prove” that all religions are responsible for terrorism. For all that the president gets accused of a lack of “intellectual curiousity” one would think his critics in the media would do a bit better at checking their own “facts.”

    Jerry said: “how deliberately polarizing Bush’s policies are”

    What a strange and groundless comment, given the story at hand.

  • Tim

    I would agree with the last poster: the “Christian terrorists blew up the Oklahoma City building” is pretty standard in political-social conversation these days, and very common in my field, academia, since people are searching for some sort of moral equivalency.

    I don’t remember the details of the Oklahoma City bombing, but McVeigh had an accomplice, didn’t he? And weren’t there some associations with a ‘Christian’ militia? So Bush’s comment may not be so far off the mark. But, given how often I hear the McVeigh-was-a-Christian canard, it IS interesting to learn that this is not the case, and to reflect on how much this misunderstanding has grown.

    I thought the left were supposed to be the guardians of “complexity and ambiguity,” the ones with the intellectual sophistication to see shades of grey where others only see black and white. So if McVeigh was not Christian, isn’t there a little more complexity here, a complexity that does not allow one to blame Christianity wholesale, in the way I have seen done so often?

  • http://terrenceberres.com/ Terrence Berres

    On the Bush “favorite political philosopher” quote, the Des Moines Register reported at the time,

    Each candidate was asked what “political philosopher or thinker” he identified with most. (In an interview Tuesday morning with Des Moines Register reporters and editors, Bush said he understood the question to be, “Who”s had the most influence on your life?”)

    Bush, the third candidate to answer in the debate, said, “Christ, because he changed my heart.”

  • http://jandyongenesis.blogspot.com Alice C. Linsley

    Our President needs a good solid course in Comparative Religions.

  • http://onlinefaith.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    Well, here’s the curious thing: seeing the “E” word being tossed about here, I said to myself, “self, isn’t Bush a Methodist?” And Self went to Wikipedia, and sure enough, there it was. But the interesting part is that to cite this fact, Wikipedia goes to a 2004 Wash. Post article by Alan Cooperman. And that article is very revealing, because it shows Bush fitting very neatly into the classic Baptodisterian mainstream of American political religion; any political reporter of fifty years ago would have instantly recognized him as one of that (at the time very common) type. His “universalist” utterances are entirely in character with this; the only thing that is unusual about him is his willingness to talk about it in surprisingly open, churchy terms.

    Which brings us to the other side of the coin, the McVeigh side: there’s a decided innocence/naivete to Bush’s personal religion that is an easy setup to having made the McVeigh mistake. It seems to have, for Bush, the benefit that his religion isn’t being subjected to the kind of litmus tests that Democratic candidates are all being subjected to. (Cooperman’s article, I should point out, appeared in the context of the campaign with Kerry, who was loudly so tested.) The Liberal Establishment likes totrutred souls who make these teeth-gritting, passionate commitments. Bush certainly is not that kind of a person, for better or worse.

  • Brian V

    The “mainstream” may be ignoring it, but not everyone. Here’s something on a link someone just sent me, a website for GLBT in the Orthodox Church (even though some of my erstwhile Protestant, now Orthodox, friends insist there are no gays in Orthodoxy):


    Does Andrew Sullivan ever ponder the ecumenical implications of a high Christology?

  • Pingback: Not Always Mayberry » Blog Archive » Have your cake and eat it too.

  • jim louiselle

    After hearing president Bush make the statements he did concerning God and all religions, I find myself moving even further away from him in support than I already have.
    His assertion that we all pray to the same God is troubling for two reasons.
    He either belives this, in which case he does not actually read the Bible, or he reads the Bible and does not belive what it says.
    The soverignty of God and the path to heavan through and only through Jesus is Christianity 101, as basic as it gets theologically.
    If he rejects this, then he needs to stop calling himself a Christian.