President's Conversion, 'Sense of Divine Calling' and Struggle
with Sobriety are Subjects of Forthcoming Book
by Bill Berkowitz
November 13, 2003
Did you know George W. Bush was at church with his mom when he first heard "the call" to run for president? Did you know Bush told a prominent television evangelist that he felt God wanted him to be president? Did you know the president "told the leader of Turkey that the two would do well together because they both believe in 'the Almighty'?" If little factoids like these don't get you to log on to your favorite book-selling Internet site or to take a quick trip to your local (independent) bookstore and buy "The Faith of George W. Bush," the soon-to-be released book by Stephen Mansfield, the publishers will be sorely disappointed.
In the past few months, books on the best-seller lists have been about as politically split as the country. There are the negative Bush tomes such as Al Franken's Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, Molly Ivins' Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush's America, and Michael Moore's latest, Dude, Where's My Country? Meanwhile, conservatives are dropping their Benjamins on David Limbaugh's Persecution: How Liberals Are Waging War Against Christianity, Bill O'Reilly's Who's Looking Out for You? or Laura Ingraham's Shut Up and Sing: How Elites from Hollywood, Politics, and the UN are Subverting America.
Will the Mansfield book rise to similar heights? To whom might it appeal? No doubt Bush supporters will be enraptured by his faith-filled path to sobriety. And his well-publicized conversion during his late thirties -- nudged along by the Reverend Billy Graham -- is certainly the stuff of which best sellers are made. In addition, however, to the inspirational, what should bring the book attention is Mansfield's clear-cut assertion that Bush's "sense of divine calling" informs his domestic and foreign policy decisions.
Bush isn't unique in claiming a special relationship with God; that's been a consistent theme of most if not all U.S. presidents. Lyndon Baines Johnson likely invoked the name of the Lord numerous times while watching anti-Vietnam War demonstrators take over the Capitol; During the Watergate crisis Richard Nixon, a Quaker, supposedly shared some kneeling-down time with Henry Kissinger; Jimmy Carter was a born-again Christian, but he alienated fundamentalists by being rather militant in believing in the strict separation of church and state; Ronald Reagan professed a Christian faith but had little time for church; and Bill Clinton, a Baptist, carried a Bible around with him on a fairly regular basis.
"If the presidency is a 'bully pulpit' as Teddy Roosevelt claimed," Mansfield writes in the Introduction, "no one in recent memory has pounded that pulpit for religion's role in government quite like the forty-third president." Bush's "unapologetic religious tone" and his willingness to "speak of being called to the presidency, of a God who rules in the affairs of men, and of the United States owing her origin to Providence," also separate him from his recent predecessors. "One of the most unique characteristics of the Bush presidency and very possibly one of the most defining issues of our time," Mansfield writes, is that Bush daily puts his faith to work. Mansfield claims that in addition to having his legacy established by being president on 9/11, "... another likely pillar of George W. Bush's legacy... is the matter of his religious faith and his attempts to integrate faith as a whole into American public policy."
!Disclosure: Not having access to an advance copy of the book, I relied on the Introduction and Chapter One and several published reports in the preparation of this piece. )
Mansfield, a former senior pastor at the charismatic Belmont Church in Nashville, Tenn., and his research team have pulled together a number of factoids about the president's religious bent. According to the fundamentalist Christian daily news feed, Charisma News Service:
* "Bush first heard 'the call' to run for president during a sermon by the Rev. Mark Craig at Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas. Craig was describing Moses' reluctance to lead God's people, and Bush's mother, Barbara, turned to him and said, 'He was talking to you.'"
* "Before Bush announced his candidacy, he invited Texas-based evangelist James Robison to meet with him. Bush told Robison that he had given his life to Christ and that he felt God wanted him to be president. He also confided in Robison that he felt 'something was going to happen' and that the country would need his leadership in a time of crisis. The 9/11 tragedy struck just nine months after Bush's inauguration."
* "Bush is close friends with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, also an acknowledged Christian. The two have shared Scripture and prayed together."
* The president "has... discussed the cross with the president of Russia, knelt in prayer with the president of Macedonia, and told the leader of Turkey that the two would do well together because they both believe in 'the Almighty'," Mansfield writes in his Introduction.
According to Mansfield "Aides found him [Bush] face down on the floor in prayer in the Oval Office. It became known that he refused to eat sweets while American troops were in Iraq, a partial fast seldom reported of an American president. And he framed America's challenges in nearly biblical language. Saddam Hussein is an evildoer. He has to go."
The author concludes: "... the Bush administration does deeply reflect its leader, and this means that policy, even in military matters, will be processed in terms of the personal, in terms of the moral, and in terms of a sense of divine purpose that propels the present to meet the challenges of its time."
Mansfield contends that no president before Bush "attempt[ed] to apply the power of religion to the responsibilities of the federal government." Unlike his predecessors, Bush maintains that "poverty is related to a crisis in faith," and he has "propose[d] policies for the abolition of poverty that involve[s] religious institutions."
Bush came out of the box trumpeting "compassionate conservatism" and leading with faith: Before the sun set on his first day in office "he called for a day of prayer and cut federal funding on abortion." Before the end of his first month he introduced his Faith-Based Initiative -- the attempted wholesale transfer of social safety net programs to the religious sector -- which was to be the lynchpin of his domestic policy agenda. Although no overriding faith-based legislation has yet been passed by Congress, Bush's initiative is proceeding at a handsome clip through grants given to religious organizations by a number of government agencies.
Mansfield claims that no other White House has "hosted so many weekly Bible studies and prayer meetings, and never have religious leaders been more gratefully welcomed."
Bush's presidency has been, well, a godsend for fundamentalist Christian organizations and their leaders. It has emboldened them to revisit and revive the dormant culture wars. There's been an outpouring of shrill criticism of the so-called liberal courts, an increased antagonism against maintaining the strict separation of church and state, and oodles of conservative columnists make their living contending that Christians are discriminated against -- a claim that has driven David Limbaugh's "Persecution: How Liberals Are Waging War Against Christianity" to a prominent spot on best-seller lists.
It has loosed the tongue of administration officials like Lt. Gen. William "Jerry" Boykin, the former commander of Army Special Forces and current member of a secretive Pentagon anti-terrorism unit, to declare that the war on terrorism is a war against our Christian Nation and that the real enemy is Satan. Boykin's remarks on their own would be terrifying -- but, in fact, they represent the views of many significant Bush administration operatives.
"I think President Bush is God's man at this hour," Timothy Goeglein of the White House Office of Public Liaison told the Christian weekly World, "and I say this with a great sense of humility."
Over the past several weeks, the president demonstrated substantial good faith with his fundamentalist Christian constituency by signing a proclamation embracing Marriage Protection Week and enthusiastically embracing a bill outlawing so-called partial-birth abortion. The organizers of Marriage Protection Week, the Southern Baptist Convention, the American Family Association, the Family Research Council, Dr. James Dobson's Focus on the Family, the Rev. Pat Robertson and the ubiquitous Rev. Jerry Falwell are looking to make same-sex marriage a major campaign issue for the 2004 national elections.
Although his domestic agenda has helped solidify his relationship with fundamentalist Christians, the administration's Middle East policy holds the key to their hearts. Author Michael Lind's Made in Texas: George W. Bush and the Takeover of American Politics looked at "the confluence of religious awakening and foreign policy," writes theglobalist.com, and "argues that the effort to remake the Middle East is rooted in the support offered by fundamentalist Protestants."
Christian Zionists' uncompromising support for Israel is in large part motivated by their belief in the "end-times," which will take place in Israel only after the Jews have returned and solidified their hold on the territory. These fundamentalists believe that after the final battle, or Armageddon, Jesus will descend from Heaven and there will then be a thousand-year reign of peace on Earth.
The two-hundred-plus page "The Faith of George W. Bush" is scheduled for release on November 11. It is the product of what Charisma News Service calls "a unique publishing co-venture between Charisma House [an evangelical Christian publishing outfit] and Penguin Group (USA) Inc., the world's largest publishing empire."
In July, the Independent's Glen Rangwala and Raymond Whitaker documented "20 Lies About the War" while City Pages' Steve Perry was examining "The Bush administration's Top 40 Lies about war and terrorism." AlterNet's Christopher Scheer and Lakshmi Chaudhry and the Los Angeles Times' Robert Scheer have it boiled down to "The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq" -- the title of their soon-to-be-released book. Whatever the number, it is more than ironic that an administration that believes it has been anointed by God would have such a hard time telling the truth.
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.