I have never quite understood New York Times columnist Bill Keller’s take on George W. Bush. Every time Keller tries to zero in on the president — as in a long Times Magazine piece a while back, or in a column today about Bush’s God thing — he starts shuffling his feet, hedging and making apologies. He tells us that he understands important criticisms of the president, but then he finds some grounds upon which to explain that they don’t matter, or they’re not the point, or we shouldn’t worry about them.
In today’s column, Keller tries to argue that, yes, George Bush is driven by his religious belief, but that — since he does not have an overt agenda of converting the heathen or deriving specific political policies from his born-again faith — we should not worry too much. The president’s sense of divine mission? His apparent belief that every decision he makes is the right one because he is fulfilling God’s plan? No fear, says Keller — what’s wrong with self-confidence? Then he cites “John Green of the University of Akron, a scholar of religion in politics,” who “sees it as a perfectly ordinary way for a religious man to understand a task history has presented him.” “For Bush to conclude that this was God’s plan,” Green declares, “is not a whole lot different from a plumber in Akron deciding that God wants him to serve lunch to homeless people.”
Huh? I mean, I’d be delighted if Bush concluded that God wanted him to serve lunch to homeless people! The point that eludes Mr. Green is that the plumber in Akron is not making life-or-death decisions for millions of people, and devising policies that will shape the world economy for a generation. We worry when national leaders assume a mantle of divine destiny. The worry is based on history, not faith.
But the most bizarre passage in Keller’s column is his citation — with what I can only guess is approval — of a particularly ridiculous quote from the writer Gregg Easterbrook, trying to explain how Bush’s Christian faith shapes his policies: ” ‘I suspect Bush takes the view (which may prove right) that the ultimate argument will be between people who believe in something larger than themselves, and people who believe that it’s all an accident of chemistry,’ Mr. Easterbrook said.”
First, note the way Easterbrook — whom the article describes as “a liberal Christian” — stacks his language. If he’d said, “the ultimate argument will be between people who believe in supernatural mumbojumbo, and people who believe in their own powers of observation and reasoning,” we’d complain, rightly, that he’d injected a wildly unfair bias in his description of the disagreement between people of faith and nonbelievers. Instead, he’s turned that bias around and made it invisible — draping all the contradictions and difficulties of religion in the high-flying rhetoric of selfless dedication, and casually denigrating all the insights of the scientific worldview.
Easterbrook, on behalf of Bush, chooses to draw a wildly oversimplified spectrum of personal belief: There seem to be no other choices besides “belief in something larger than yourself” or belief that “it’s all an accident of chemistry.” Yet the two positions are hardly exclusive. I can forthrightly say that I have no belief in any traditional deity; put me firmly in the “accident of chemistry” camp. Yet such an accident is hardly trivial — it is itself full of beauty and wonder. It is very much “something larger than ourselves.” Indeed, there are many things “larger than ourselves” that I, despite my failure to be a “person of faith,” can and do embrace: Empathy, justice, generosity, creativity — none of these require the walls of a church, or trust in a “higher power.” Participants in institutional religions have no monopoly on the possibility of belief.
The real arrogance in Easterbrook’s stance — and one that I think also undergirds Bush’s worldview — is this implication that only people who have accepted Jesus, or Yahweh (or, Bush will add, opening the flaps of his “big tent,” Mohammed), can possibly find meaning in life. And only they can be trusted to find a moral path through life.
This is more complex, and probably more dangerous, than simple religious chauvinism of the “my god is better than your god” brand. Rather, it reflects a wistful desire, if not an active campaign, to turn back the clock to an era when being a non-believer actively disqualified one from participation in civic life. Of course Bush isn’t about to propose religious belief as a qualification for public office; but if we believe former speechwriter David Frum’s statement (repeated by Keller) that, in Bush’s White House, “attendance at Bible study was, if not compulsory, not quite uncompulsory,” then it’s also hard not to believe that Bush would be happy to impose such a requirement if he thought it had any chance of passing constitutional muster.
Keller, of course, is way too muddled to point out the final absurdity in the Easterbrook argument: its dichotomy plainly puts George Bush on the same team as the Sept. 11 killers. Warped and vicious they undoubtedly were; but who can question that they committed their suicidal act on behalf of “something larger than themselves”? No, Mohammed Atta and his crew did not see human life as an “accident of chemistry.” They believed in Allah. Their belief may have been a perversion of mainstream Islam. But belief it was, nonetheless.
So, pace Keller, I’ll continue to put my moral antennae on alert any time a leader starts using his or her own religious faith as a touchstone of civic virtue. It’s not always and inevitably a bad thing — the obvious and legitimate counterargument is the Rev. Martin Luther King. But it’s usually a sign to watch out.
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