Jewish World Review April 17, 2006/ 19 Nissan,
The devil in the details
I usually stay with the television channel after Fox News Sunday
for the first five minutes of the Rev. Joel Osteen's sermon from Lakewood
Church in Houston. He always begins his message with a joke, often funny,
sometimes a bit corny, but usually with a nugget of insight if not truth.
The other Sunday he told of a big-game hunter out to get a
grizzly bear. He prayed for prey. He tramped through the big woods for
hours, but never saw even a trace of a grizzly. Weary and dejected, he
finally sat down on a hickory stump and leaned his gun against a nearby
sapling, to rest for a while. Suddenly, he looked up to see a mighty grizzly
bearing down on him. With no time to reach for his gun, he breathed a
desperate prayer: "G-d, give this bear religion, so he won't kill me." The
bear halted dead in his tracks, rose on his hind legs, spread his mighty
paws, and looked to the heavens with thanksgiving. "Thank you, G-d," the
bear shouted, "for sending this wonderful meal I'm about to eat."
Mixing religious faith and politics is front-page news, as
anyone who reads a newspaper knows, and the pastor's joke mocks the notion
that G-d answers specific requests. But prayer is not about a wish list, and
a recent study (financed by a foundation grant of $2.4 million) purported to
find that prayers for specific works of G-d, as in curing disease, are not
effective. But the faithful understand that prayer is about seeking the will
of G-d, and being content in it.
President Bush is often criticized, usually by those of no
faith, for talking about his faith in the public square, for referring to it
as guidance in making public policy, but in doing so he is well within the
precedent of those before him as occupants of the Oval Office. The "social
gospel" of the 20th century shaped the civil-rights movement and the
protests against the Vietnam War, for example, and this president's policy
of "compassionate conservatism," of faith-based initiatives, is an attempt
to harness the spiritual energy of believers. Moreover, the president's
faith may be even more central to his foreign policy.
George W. Bush is often compared to Woodrow Wilson, whose father
and grandfather were Presbyterian ministers, and to Ronald Reagan, who saw
the world as split into warring camps of good and evil. Elizabeth Edwards
Spalding finds another comparison. "When it comes to faith and foreign
policy . . . " she writes in the Wilson Quarterly, "it is more fruitful to
compare the Methodist Republican Bush with the Baptist Democrat Harry
President Truman praised faith as a force for good against the
"Bolshevik materialists," for containing communist expansion in the Cold War
and for sending troops to save South Korea. The moral challenge as
articulated by Mr. Truman linked faith and freedom, inspiring him to
confront a foe that denied that "human freedom is born of the belief that
man is created equal in the image of G-d and therefore of governing
When George W. set out to liberate Iraq, his faith contributed
to his belief that America had a mission to shape a balance of power to
favor freedom. Spalding writes that George W. is less a Wilsonian idealist
than a Truman individualist, who believes that our conflicts must be won on
moral grounds. Both presidents have drawn on the story of the Good Samaritan
for both domestic and foreign policy inspiration.
Mr. Truman looked on the East-West dichotomy as an intellectual
and spiritual struggle for men's minds. He saw the Cold War as a battle
between the "world of morals" and the "world of no morals." In his second
inaugural address, with the threat of terrorism looming large, George W.
said that "it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the
growth of democracy movements and institutions in every nation and culture,
with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world." The message was
spiritual in the sense that man will use his free will to create a democracy
if there is no tyrant to tyrannize. The elections in Afghanistan and Iraq
were thus crucial.
Mr. Truman observed a moral dilemma emerging from the communist
rejection of G-d. George W. sees the evil in radical Islam's rejection of
decent and civilized behavior as taught by Judaism, Christianity and the
tolerant strain of Islam. Both men regarded the clash of good and evil as
central in the global battle for men's minds, with the devil always in the
details. Man has free will, but he must sometimes be inspired to choose
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© 2006, Suzanne Fields, Creators Syndicate