Lowered Expectations: American Evangelicals' Love Affair with Their President
By Joshua Seth Anderson
July 02, 2003
When George W. Bush found himself the winner of the two-month post-election scramble in the winter of 2000, the Christian Right basked in the light of their collective victory. Jerry Falwell commented to his church and TV audience after returning from the inauguration of our 43rd President, “I want to stop right here and now and say thanks and congratulations to Bible-believing Christians nationwide…I wish all of you could have been in Washington last week. Jesus Christ was honored.” Other vocal endorsers of W.’s presidency included Pat Robertson, Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum, the Rev. Don Wildmon of American Family Association and James Kennedy’s Center for Reclaiming America. Even normally politically neutral Billy Graham nearly endorsed Bush in an impromptu speech at a church rally. Now, two and a half years later—after terrorist attacks, war, and a still sluggish economy—Bush’s approval ratings among evangelicals still hovers above 90 percent.
On the surface, the Religious Right’s overwhelming optimism about Bush is puzzling. At times, Bush’s administration has been aggressively conservative, but more often in fiscal and foreign policy areas than on the social issues that normally make politically minded conservative Christians’ wheels spin. The once highly touted proposal regarding federal funds for faith-based charities has seemingly disappeared in the black hole of congressional subcommittees. It’s been a long time since anyone’s heard anything about school vouchers, once a major part of Bush’s platform. And while Bush has taken some symbolic measures against abortion—revoking America’s funding of international family-planning efforts, and pushing for a partial-birth abortion ban—in reality, abortions in America happen in about the same way they did under the Clinton Administration.
In any case, it seems it’s something other than politics that is driving evangelical Christians’ fascination with the Presidency of George W. Bush; something to do with faith and character, perhaps. After eight years of Bill Clinton’s sexual escapades and resulting scandals, which for many conservative Christians were at least as embarrassing and enraging as Watergate, George W. Bush is quite literally an answer to prayer. He seems to truly love his wife, and carries no taint of sexual unfaithfulness. He’s had a genuine born-again experience, spurred by a conversation with Rev. Graham. He reportedly starts his days with prayer and a dose of My Utmost for His Highest, the popular devotional. He says his favorite philosopher is Jesus Christ. In addition to all this evidence of a strong private belief in God, it’s Bush’s public demonstrations of his faith and personal conviction that have seemed especially important for evangelicals, especially after the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers. When Bush called the nation to prayer, and led in the collective mourning, it seemed sincere and heartfelt, not merely an expected political gesture. Indeed, after 9/11, a number of my Christian friends and family gratefully remarked to me something along the lines of “thank goodness there’s a man of God in the White House. Can you imagine if Gore had been elected?” When President Bush quoted the Old Testament prophet Isaiah after the Columbia shuttle explosion, and assured the grieving nation that the “Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today,” evangelicals applauded. Recently I got an email forwarded from a member of my church, recounting a story of President Bush praying with and comforting wounded soldiers from the war in Iraq, calling it “a Christ-like example” of compassion, and urging her friends to pray for their leader.
But if Bill Clinton was our first post-modern president ethically, then George W. Bush must certainly be our first post-modern president theologically. Bush has espoused a relationship with Christ that resides in his heart, is completely personal, and by definition, is hard to define. When asked in an election debate what it meant that Jesus changed his heart, Bush replied, “Well, if they [the voters] don’t know, it’s going to be hard to explain.” Replying to an interviewer’s question about what it meant that he was an evangelical, Bush was even harder to pin down. “I’m not sure what the characteristics of an evangelical are in common parlance,” Bush replied. “I think if someone prays—I pray. I do. I believe in the power of prayer. I can’t tell you how comforting it is to me to hear people say, ‘I pray for you’…I think an evangelical believes in the power of prayer.” While this definition of evangelicalism is startling on many different levels, it reveals much about our President’s attitude toward religious faith, which seems to have much more to do with vague internal feelings than ascribing to a specific set of beliefs. When asked to justify in a news interview his proposal to federally fund faith-based charities, Bush asserted, “I think we just need to understand the power of the church, synagogue and mosque to change people’s lives.” Clearly Bush’s personal Christianity does not conflict with his endorsement of the power of Judaism or Islam; in his statement the three religions seem almost synonymous with each other.
This affirmation of the power and value of other religions is no off-hand statement—rather it reflects a message the President consistently communicates. For example, Bush saw no conflict in his faith with attending and speaking at the post 9/11 worship and prayer service at the National Cathedral in Washington, where prayers were offered to the “God of Abraham and Mohammed and Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ.” Later that year, when speaking to Muslims celebrating Eid at the White House, the ceremony marking the end of Ramadan, Bush encouraged them, “this year, Eid is celebrated at the same time as Hanukkah and Advent. So it’s a good time for the people of these great faiths, Islam, Judaism and Christianity, to remember how much we have in common: devotion to family, a commitment to care for those in need, a belief in God and his justice, and the hope for peace on earth.” Even more puzzling after these statements is Bush’s claim in an interview in 2000, speaking of our country’s philosophical and spiritual climate, that “I don’t think [America has] necessarily embraced a society of relativism.”
Regardless of what one believes about the benefits or dangers of relativism, it’s undeniable that the religion Bush is spreading is largely at odds with the one his conservative Christian supporters seem to follow, which nearly universally holds that Islam and Judaism are false religions, and would certainly provide a more exclusive definition for an evangelical than someone who “believes in the power of prayer.” So how can conservative Christians unite so strongly behind a man whose beliefs run counter to much of their own teaching? Some of the answers to that question may lie in an essay written by Marvin Olasky, editor of World Magazine, the news weekly of choice for many evangelicals. In his essay, Olasky attempts to respond to a reader who wonders what to do when President Bush disappoints Christians with his actions. In response, Olasky advises the reader to remember to always “accentuate the positive, try to eliminate the negative…in politics, we should never lower our goals, but we should lower our expectations.” In brief, this seems to be what has is going on with evangelical Christians—they know Bush isn’t perfect, but he isn’t Clinton or Gore either; and if you don’t listen too closely to his theology, he almost sounds like one of their own.
But what are the implications for the evangelical community embracing an overtly religious President who often seems to veer into pluralism and theological “fuzzy math?” Even considering that contemporary American Christians are hardly known for their reflective thinking, it’s telling that no prominent evangelical leader seems to be taking this question seriously. And while there was some vocal criticism of Bush’s attitude towards Islam after 9/11—many Christian leaders rejected Bush’s assertion that “Islam is peace,” for example—those objections have largely quieted, as evangelicals continue to cast their lot with a President whose brand of theology seems to subtly undermine their own beliefs. Perhaps President Bush isn’t the only one in denial about our society’s embrace of relativism. But then under Olasky’s doctrine of “lowered expectations,” it seems that the ends do truly justify the means, and any politician can be supported—as long as he maintains an appearance of righteousness, quotes scripture, and is amiable to the political goals of evangelicals. This seems very far from Jesus’ radical statement to his followers in scripture that “anyone not for us is against us.” Indeed, Olasky’s suggestion, coupled with my Christian friends who refer to Bush as a “man of God” or “a Christ-like example,” evokes a sense of self-confident satisfaction that reminds me of the theologian C.S. Lewis, who said of Christians’ expectations, “We are far too easily pleased.” Only time will tell what the full implications of evangelical support for our current President will be, but another of Christ’s questions seems particularly apt in this discussion. “What good will it be for a man,” Jesus challenged his disciples, “if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?”
DISCLAIMER: THE VIEWS AND OPINIONS EXPRESSED IN OLDSPEAK ARE NOT NECESSARILY THOSE OF THE RUTHERFORD INSTITUTE.