Believing and Doing: The President’s Religion

Asked to comment on the role of faith in contemporary politics at his April 28, 2005, news conference, President Bush responded with three salient statements, enumerated here in order of their delivery:

1) “I view religion as a personal matter”;
2) “I think a person ought to be judged on how he or she lives his life, or lives her life. And that’s how I’ve tried to live my life, through example”;
3) “The great thing about America … is that you should be allowed to worship any way you want, and if you choose not to worship, you’re equally as patriotic as somebody who does worship. And if you choose to worship, you’re equally American if you’re a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim.”

There is, of course, an obvious sense to calling religion “a personal matter” (statement 1). Across traditions, the notion that religion ultimately resides in personal commitment and individual conscience is a familiar one. But we should think carefully about what the president means when he calls religion “a personal matter.” After all, this is a president who, in the third presidential debate, said that “I believe we ought to love our neighbor like we love ourself [sic]. That’s manifested in public policy through the faith-based initiative …. I believe that God wants everybody to be free …. And that’s one part of my foreign policy.” In his 2004 State of the Union address, the president drew on his religious faith to justify the Iraqi invasion: “The cause we serve is right, because it is the cause of all mankind …. We can trust in that greater power who guides the unfolding of the years. And in all that is to come, we can know that His purposes are just and true.” In that same address, he referred to religious values in approaching the debate around gay marriage: “Our nation must defend the sanctity of marriage. The outcome of this debate is important — and so is the way we conduct it. The same moral tradition that defines marriage also teaches that each individual has dignity and value in God’s sight.” Examples could be multiplied.

It is clear that religion is not merely a personal matter, but is intertwined with the president’s politics — hardly a controversial point. More interesting is the way in which President Bush’s description of religion as “a personal matter” and his equation of faith with worship (statement 3) suggest precisely the sort of “privatization of religion” that for decades has made evangelical activists and other public figures motivated by religious values cringe. As University of Chicago Divinity School professor Jean Bethke Elshtain points out, “a private religion is no religion at all.” Critics as politically divergent as Stephen Carter and Richard John Neuhaus claim that American liberalism relegates religion to the sphere of individual belief, undercutting the legitimacy of religion in politics.

Of course, this view — the one that Elshtain, Carter, and Neuhaus denounce — is clearly not the president’s. He did not mean to sever values from the public realm. As we see in statement 2, the president shifts from an emphasis on religion as something personal, or as the way in which one worships, to the doing of deeds: What one believes is second to what one does. The practical payoff of religion, then, lies not in theology but in ethics. And in emphasizing ethics, the president mutes theological questions and reaches out to non-evangelicals with similar ethical systems, toward a more inclusive conservatism that encompasses not only evangelicals, but also pro-life Catholics, orthodox Jews, orthodox Muslims, and secular traditionalists.

There are intriguing echoes, in this emphasis on ethical action over theological belief, of the imagery of sheep and lambs in Matthew 25. What separates those welcomed into paradise from those thrown into the lake of fire? Not religion as “a personal matter,” but as a matter of benevolent actions: visiting prisoners, giving up coats, providing food. People will be judged, to use the president’s terms, according to how they lived their lives, by the examples they set. Charitable deeds “toward the least of these,” elevated by the president’s emphasis on doing, are also political tasks having to do with how we divide our collective prosperity.

Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting prisoners are, however, precisely the sort of tasks that the president continues to reject as budgetary priorities, ranking them, in terms of governmental commitment, far below tax cuts for the wealthy, militarization of global politics, reliance on foreign fossil fuels, and draining Social Security coffers. Perhaps most insidiously, the president’s description of religion as “a personal matter” insulates the refusal to engage in such charitable acts from the censure of a religious, or any other, community.

If religion truly is “a personal matter,” if the “great thing about America” is the freedom of worship (and not, for example, the freedom to take one’s deepest commitments into the public realm on issues of war and peace, care for the needy, and so on), then we retain only a stunted version of what a robustly religious polity might look like. The president’s truncated religious sensibility runs counter to a deeply American, and deeply religious, tradition of charity, compassion, inclusion, and justice.

Republished from Sightings with permission of the University of Chicago Divinity School.