Bush’s faith: still the same?

I cannot say this with absolute certainty, but the religious aspects of President George W. Bush’s ABC interviews are making bigger waves overseas than in the United States. Part of that might be due to the news of a certain stink emanating from Chicago (even this Indianapolis resident can smell it!). Another aspect may be that U.S. news outlets are less willing to report on a competitor’s exclusive interview.

However, I think that the main reason for the difference in news coverage is that European news outlets have for quite awhile reported a distorted view of Bush’s faith, and this interview is truly earth-shattering news for them.

The truth about what Bush believes has always been somewhat shrouded by both his handlers and his supporters. He is famous among people of Christian faith for stating in a debate that Jesus Christ was his favorite philosopher. His "conversion story" under the influence of Billy Graham and his claim that Jesus changed the direction of his life of alcoholism are all part of the politically-induced narrative that generally has gone unquestioned. And the European press has generally taken every opportunity to find Bush as a religious extremist.

One of the more extreme reactionary "news" articles on this subject comes from The Telegraph, which proclaims in a headline that George Bush says that the "Bible [is] probably not true." Now to give the editors at The Telegraph a tiny bit of credit, the subhead clarifies that imprecise and generally inaccurate statement with a qualifier:

US President George W Bush has said that the Bible is "probably not" literally true and that a belief that God created the world is compatible with the theory of evolution.

The fact that this is such big news in Europe (see this Guardian blogpost headlined "Bush the religious moderate?") demonstrates that for quite awhile European media has generally fed its readership with easily accepted distortions about what Bush believes. Consistent throughout the European press coverage (see here the AFP) of these "revelations" is a failure to cite to anything Bush has said in the past that could be considered inconsistent with what he told ABC.

See here the Guardian‘s analysis:

And while the Texas-raised Dubya might style himself a simple-thinking cowboy, let’s not forget he was born amid the liberal east coast money of New Haven, Connecticut, to a father whose Episcopalian faith was notably less evangelical than his son’s future Methodism.

Is there a sense, perhaps, that Bush junior’s faith, while clearly pivotal in his life, has been overplayed in the narrative of his presidency?

For a more balanced perspective on the contents of the interview, see the Associated Press’s article. Unfortunately, the AP didn’t mention anything that would suggest that any of this is new. Sure, Bush has said that the "theory of intelligent design" should be taught along side evolution, but that doesn’t mean he ever believed in a literal interpretation of Genesis.

What would provide an interesting news article would be an analysis by someone who has followed Bush’s faith (closer than I have) so that we could have something of a professional assessment as to how this interview has changed, if at all, the way history will view the role faith has played in Bush’s life. From my perspective, not a lot has changed, at least in what I thought Bush believed. Perhaps this interview will result in the news media asking tougher and more inquisitive questions about Bush’s faith.

As David Brody noted, how should people distinguish Bush’s personal faith from President-elect Obama’s personal faith? Imagine if this interview had aired before Bush was elected in 2000? Bush strongly indicated in the interview that he believes that he prays to the same God as those of other faiths. One has to ask whether Bush believes Jesus Christ is the sole means to salvation and if not, will people start asking whether Bush can call himself a true Christian?

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  • Stoo

    I’d quite like to know more precisely what Bush means by “god created the world”. Bringing forth everything with a snap of devine fingers, or being the architect of a universe that would one day produce the earth, or something in between?

  • http://perpetuaofcarthage.blogspot.com Perpetua

    Hi Daniel,

    I think there are a lot of Christians who believe Christ is the sole means of salvation, but … that doesn’t mean they assume people who are not Christian are condemned to hell.

    C. S. Lewis dealt with this in Mere Christianity and illustrated it in story form in The Last Battle, when a pagan Calormene soldier is credited with worshipping Aslan all along, even though he didn’t know what he was doing.

  • K-W

    I think reporters need to work out a better question than “is the Bible literally true?” A traditional Christian who has given some thought to the matter could not give a simple yes or no answer.

    Does “literal” mean “completely lacking similes or other figures of speech?” (Who could say yes to that? “The name of the Lord is a strong tower.”)

    Does it mean “a plain meaning, not seeking any hidden meaning?” (Close to what most evangelicals mean when they say–or are described as saying–when asked if the Bible should be read literally.)

    Does literal supposed to mean “not a myth or a ‘just-so’ story?” But the opposite of “mythological” is not “literal”, but more like “historical” or “factual.”

    Does it mean (a la Newsweek) “is the Bible a living document?”

    The question “is the Bible literally true” is almost meaningless without clarification. Perhaps someone who takes a “living document” approach could answer it simply. But someone who has even a mildly traditional approach to scripture would have to either challenge the question, nuance it, or give a rather confused answer. Reporters should not use it. Instead, they should figure out what they mean by the question and ask that question instead. That would make these interviews more interesting–and far more informative.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2677 dpulliam

    Amen K-W. I could have made this post all about how bad the ABC interview was. But picking on TV journalism is too easy these days. A highlight for me was when Bush agreed with the reporter that Muslims pray to the same God, the reporter responded with something along the lines questioning whether Bush believed Al Qaeda prayed to the same God. What a great way to draw a distinction!

  • K-W

    Yeah, I did not really want to single out or pick on ABC, either. One can’t really single out a specific reporter for making the same mistake that most people make. I’m in the middle of writing a paper on the development of the “literal sense” during the middle ages. In such circumstances, it is almost impossible to let the “literally true” question go unchallenged!

  • http://fkclinic.blogsopt.com Nancy Reyes

    Hmm…Bush’s comment that the Bible isn’t always literally true is the same postion taken by a guy name Ratzinger aka Pope Benedict..

    And his comments that evolution being compatible with God’s design was also similar to the Catholic position.

    Guess the Pope isn’t a good Christian.

  • Stoo

    I would guess “literally true” usually means “accurate description of historical events”.

  • Stoo

    Oh, also the Torygraph isn’t a paper I’d expect to go slating Bush as a religious fanatic; it’s much more sympathetic to the american religious right than the Grauniad.

  • http://suburbanbanshee.wordpress.com Maureen

    The Catholic position is that the Bible is literally true, but that “literally” includes poetic license, genre expectations, and idiomatic expressions.

    Literalism, on the other hand, is a fallacy leading to heresy. (If you take “it was raining cats and dogs” to mean “felines and canines were condensing from clouds and falling from the sky at terminal velocity, creating a fine red mist and squashing several unlucky pedestrians and their umbrellas”, you are a literalist.)

  • Julia

    Actually traditional Catholic interpretation of the Bible is fourfold:

    1) literal
    2) allegorical
    3) moral
    4) anagogical

    Here’s a link to an example of how that works allegorically – by Mark Shea

    http://www.mark-shea.com/7.html

    Here’s a link to a discussion of Flannery O’Connor’s anegogical use of Scripture in her stories

    http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3777/is_200410/ai_n9473541

  • FW Ken

    Thank you, Julia. That taxonomy of scriptural interpretation has been ringing in my belfry (but vaguely) since I first read this post and comments thread.

    The issue in this post-Darwin (post-Christian?)society is can we speak of biblical truth without someone wanting to trot out Inherit the Wind to prove that scripture isn’t “true”. The wonderful truths of the Eden narratives (not to mention the beautiful creation poem of Genesis 1) are lost in a sea of fundamentalist and anti-fundamentalist rhetoric. Which is a waste.

  • http://parablemania.ektopos.com/ Jeremy Pierce

    Maybe I’m underestimating how bad the coverage in Europe has been, but I’m pretty sure that the coverage in the U.S. has been pretty downright awful. The suggestion that Bush initiated the Iraq war because he heard God tell him to do it is pretty common, even though he never said anything remotely like that. I’ve never seen it asserted in a news story, but opinion journalists trot it out as if it’s verified fact.

    As for the inclusivism, we did see signs of that right after 9-11, when he said Muslims believe in the same God as Christians. Very conservative evangelicals did, in fact, call him not a genuine Christian at that time.

    I should say, though, that there’s a difference between a Christian saying the God they worship is the true God and saying that people in other religions can be saved without trusting in Christ explicitly, which is yet a further claim from saying that people in other religions can get to God without it being based on the cross of Christ. Exclusivists can believe that Muslims worship the same God as Christians without believing they do so salvifically. They just believe a lot of wrong things about God. The inclusivist move of C.S. Lewis is to suggest that possibly some worship Christ while following another religion, but it might still be based on the objective basis of the cross that they’re saved. It seems to me that Bush may only be going far enough to consider this a possibility. He certainly didn’t assert that there are paths to God that don’t have an objective basis in the cross. Obama, in the 2004 interview, limits his comments about Christ to the “good teacher” and “a pathway to God” kind of thing, which suggests that he doesn’t see a need for atonement, certainly not with a necessary condition of having a certain relationship to Christ via the cross. He doesn’t even accept the existence of heaven and hell, so the comparison with Bush in this interview is really strained anyway, but I’m not sure Bush’s openness to inclusivism is anything like Obama’s.


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