October 19, 2004 | Commentary on Religion and Civil Society

Faith-based, but broad ideals

Politicians who invoke religion are always in for a rough ride. In his debates with Stephen Douglas over slavery, Abraham Lincoln was pilloried for his "proneness for quoting Scripture." Yet today a Methodist president who admits he prays for God's guidance is accused of "faith-based extremism" not unlike that of Osama bin Laden. Columnist Bruce Bartlett, quoted in this week's New York Times Magazine, claims that George W. Bush understands the dark vision of Islamic terrorists "because he's just like them."

Bush-bashing, it seems, has morphed into antireligious bigotry. It's doubtful any occupant of the White House has been so vilified for his attachment to traditional Christianity.

In his final presidential debate with Sen. John Kerry, Bush was asked how religion influences his policy decisions. He immediately cited his faith-based initiative to enlist more religious charities to help the needy. His rationale: "I believe we ought to love our neighbor like we love ourselves."

This is religious radicalism?

Nevertheless, many look at Bush's positions on social issues - abortion, gay marriage, stem-cell research - and see the shadow of the Inquisition. Fueled by his own religious zeal (and that of his conservative base), Bush supposedly wants to turn back the clock on civil rights and reverse the march of medicine. At the Democratic National Convention, Ron Reagan denounced "the theology of a few" who would "forestall the health and well-being of the many."

It's worth noting that Bush never quotes the Bible when he talks about these issues. On gay marriage, he worries about judges overturning the democratic will of legislative majorities (as do some gay activists). On partial-birth abortion or stem-cell research, he wants a "culture of life" (borrowing from Pope John Paul II) to uphold the dignity of every individual. To the bitter disappointment of many on his right, Bush often reaches for a principled compromise - and is hesitant to act unless he sees a strong consensus to do so.

Bush's faith does indeed factor into major policy initiatives, but often in directions resisted by his own party. In promoting his $15 billion Global AIDS Initiative, he recalls America's religious tradition of helping the most vulnerable. It's the same for issues such as sex trafficking, religious persecution, and genocide in Sudan. In each case, Bush cites his belief in the God-given worth of every person as the moral basis for his agenda. In each case, he's drawn support from Christian conservatives to push human-rights concerns closer to the center of foreign policy.

Yet the President is called a "messianic militarist" for his willingness to use force to challenge dangerous and despotic regimes. It's true that Bush links democratic freedom to divine will. "Freedom is God's gift to everyone in the world," he likes to say - but so has every president since Washington. His reformist vision for Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East, though sometimes sounding wildly optimistic, is not much different from the anti-Communist rhetoric of Eisenhower, Truman or Kennedy. Moreover, Bush has strenuously denied that the fight against Islamic terrorism is a holy crusade.

What offends many critics is Bush's moral vocabulary - axis of evil, evildoers, and the conflict between good and evil - to describe the war on radical Islam. This is the language of faith, and to some it signals the politics of arrogance and sanctimony. To be sure, the danger here is that national leaders become blind to their weaknesses even as they pursue a cause to defend democratic values.

But there's an upside to Bush's blunt formulation as well. By insisting on universal values, he interrupts the modern reflex to rationalize terrorism - a sure road to appeasement. While others search endlessly for the "root causes" of Islamist rage, Bush sees the problem primarily as one of human nature: men with monstrous egos who manipulate religion and exploit political grievances for their own ends.

The President's religious beliefs make him hopeful about the human longing for freedom and justice. But they also make him realistic about human wickedness, with all its soul-destroying fury. The next president will surely need more of this kind of faith to confront the political challenges ahead, not less.

Joseph Loconte is the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at the Heritage Foundation and editor of the forthcoming book, The End of Illusions: America's Churches and Hitler's Gathering Storm.

About the Author

Joseph Loconte William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society

First appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer