Monday, November 24, 2003

It’s not easy being the theologian-in-chief. George W. Bush often gives lectures in Islam as “the religion of peace” between denunciations of suicide bombers in Israel and terrorist slayers of American soldiers in Iraq, and last week in London he had to pause in the midst of a state visit to instruct an inquiring British mind in the nature of God.

A British reporter asked the president whether “Muslims worship the same Almighty” that he does.

The president could have replied that the question should be addressed to a Muslim, since not even a president of the United States, as wise as such men must be, can know what’s in the mind of a Muslim, or even another Methodist. But a theologian-in-chief plunges bravely ahead:

“I do say that freedom is the Almighty’s gift to every person. I also condition it by saying freedom is America’s gift to the world. It’s much greater than that, of course. And I believe we worship the same God.”

This appeared to be a deliberate attempt to satisfy the questioner with an abundance of argle-bargle — if the Almighty has given freedom to everybody, how is it that America gives it to the world? But some of our divines apparently didn’t catch the president’s wink. They thought the theologian-in-chief wanted a debate.

Richard D. Land, the chief of the public-affairs office of the Southern Baptist Convention, said the theologian-in-chief was “simply mistaken.” He told The Washington Post in a subsequent interview: “We should always remember that he is commander-in-chief, not theologian-in-chief. The Bible is clear on this: The one and true God is Jehovah, and His only begotten Son is Jesus Christ.” The Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, contradicted Mr. Bush, too. “The Christian God encourages freedom, love, forgiveness, prosperity and health. The Muslim God appears to value the opposite. The personalities of each God are evidence in the cultures, civilizations and dispositions of the peoples that serve them.”

All true, but this was not the question the theologian-in-chief was trying to answer in London. Since Christianity, Judaism and Islam are all monotheistic religions, worshipping a single God, Mr. Bush was both theologically (and politically) correct. The three religions approach God in different ways.

“God talk” upsets the chattering class, and the reporter in London was no doubt trying to stir up a little mischief. The British chattering class, like the chattering class in Europe and in America, is contemptuous of the president’s religious faith, which he talks about only when asked about it, and never tries to force it into a conversation, either privately or in public. What the chatterers object to is that the president has a faith at all; he should be, like them, aggressively heathen.

The president, in fact, has considerably less to say about religious faith than most of his predecessors. George Washington proclaimed an official, government-mandated Thanksgiving in 1789, and it had nothing to do with turkeys, cranberry sauce, and sweet potatoes with or without the marshmallow topping. His countrymen should be grateful because “it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly implore His protection and favor.”

Thomas Jefferson, not exactly a Bible-thumper, nevertheless spoke of his “need” for “the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life.”

Andrew Jackson proclaimed his “firm reliance on the goodness of that Power whose providence mercifully protected our national infancy.” Abraham Lincoln got down to specifics that would have given both CAIR and the ACLU heartburn, calling on “intelligence, patriotism, Christianity and a firm reliance on Him who has never yet forsaken this favored land.” When Teddy Roosevelt finished his oath of office, he leaned forward, took the Bible in his hands and kissed it, and said: “No people on earth have more cause to be thankful than ours, and this is said reverently, in no spirit of boastfulness of our own strength.” Franklin D. Roosevelt, concluding a meeting with Winston Churchill on the deck of an American destroyer on the eve of World War II, even asked the assembled crew to join him in a chorus of “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” Not exactly deference to the faithless.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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