Not since Jimmy Carter’s confession that he had lusted in his heart after women other than his wife have Americans been so interested in the religious life of the man occupying the Oval Office. While pursuing the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, George W. Bush declared that Jesus was his favorite political philosopher. During his news conference just before the full deployment of troops to Iraq, Bush allowed that he relied daily on the prayers of Americans. Howard Fineman’s cover story in Newsweek just a few days earlier gushed that the Bush presidency was the “most resolutely ‘faith-based’ in modern times.” Had Fineman never heard of the thirty-ninth President, who is also the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize laureate?
The differences between the two men, Presidents Carter and Bush, are instructive. Just as Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural acknowledged that both sides in the Civil War, Union and Confederate, read the same Bible and prayed to the same God, so too are Carter and Bush evangelical Christians who read the same Bible. But Bush’s God is the eye-for-an-eye God of the Hebrew prophets and the Book of Revelation, the God of vengeance and retribution, whereas Carter’s God is the Jesus of the New Testament, the revolutionary who declared “blessed are the peacemakers” and enjoined his followers to turn the other cheek.
The theological distinctions between Carter and Bush go well beyond the tired categories of theological liberalism and conservativism. In reaction to twentieth-century liberal nostrums about human goodness, Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr formulated his “theology of crisis,” which, in the face of the atrocities of Nazism in World War II, demanded that people of faith abandon their quaint naïveté about human progress and unite to resist evil–by force, if necessary.
Carter spoke often about his indebtedness to Niebuhrian theology, but his religious convictions about fairness and decency also compelled him to reconfigure the Panama Canal treaty (thereby expending considerable political capital early in his term) and to lure Israel’s Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat of Egypt, ancient and implacable enemies, to the peace table. Bush’s understanding of the faith, on the other hand, tends toward a dualistic view of the world, the titanic and unambiguous struggle between the forces of righteousness allied against the “axis of evil.” Whereas Carter famously agonized about deploying military force in an attempt to rescue the hostages held at the American Embassy in Iran, Bush appears to have suffered little compunction about unleashing American troops and weapons of mass destruction against Iraq.
While the divergent theological emphases of the two Presidents reveal a great deal about their character and their policies, their political fortunes reveal even more about Americans themselves. The electorate denied Carter a second term, in large measure because his foreign policy was viewed as weak and ineffective. Bush’s popularity, on the other hand, has very nearly reached the stratospheric altitudes his father attained during the first Gulf War.
How Bush 43’s policies and popularity will play out in the long term remains to be seen, but the alignment of evangelical Christians behind him is telling. Evangelicals, an internally diverse group of Protestant Christians who make up approximately 46 percent of the US population, overwhelmingly support the invasion of Iraq, despite its apparent contradictions of the teachings of Jesus. Many of those same evangelical Christians bitterly opposed Jimmy Carter during his Administration, even though he had declared himself to be a “born again” evangelical Christian. The origins of the religious right, in fact, can be traced to the Carter presidency; his failure to win re-election in 1980 was due, in no small measure, to the defection of evangelicals. (Pollster Louis Harris estimated that Carter would have won the popular vote by 1 percent if evangelicals had not deserted him for Ronald Reagan.)
The leaders of the religious right–Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Beverly LaHaye, Ralph Reed and James Dobson, among others–often say the United States is a “Christian nation.” But their political views and their actions belie that claim. A nation pursuing a truly “Christian” foreign policy would only fight a war that was truly defensive. A Christian nation would tirelessly exhaust all diplomatic means before launching an attack.
Bush’s current popularity indicates that, for all the rhetoric about America’s being a Christian nation, we Americans–evangelicals included–have little patience for a foreign policy based on New Testament principles. We much prefer the determined pugilism of George W. Bush to the relative pacifism of Jimmy Carter.