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Jewish World Review Feb. 2, 2001 /10 Shevat, 5761

Tony Snow

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Our testifying president

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- GEORGE W. BUSH'S religious faith has become a source of wonderment in the Capital of the Free World. Sages don't know what to make of the fact that our president speaks the name of G-d with plain reverence, rather than out of political calculation.

Evan Thomas of Newsweek, a churchgoing man himself, noted in a largely favorable piece about Bush that the president "presses his eyes tight shut when he prays and often reads the Bible in the early morning." To the average Beltway swell, this behavior marks Bush as an atavistic weirdo caught up in a cult akin to necromancy or Zoroastrianism. Political reporters don't close their eyes out of deference to the Almighty: They clench their lids only when presented with direct evidence of Clinton criminality.

Religious devotion has fallen completely out of vogue in Washington. Not even the "reverends" running around town seem wedded to Scripture, except to run interference for someone's criminal defense or political agenda. The common lot of religious activists -- liberal and conservative -- seem to fit Ambrose Bierce's definition of a Christian: "One who believes in the teachings of Jesus Christ insofar as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin."

But then along comes George W. Bush to throw everybody for a loop. Capital insiders have forgotten how to deal with authentic discourse after eight years of artifice-worship. Adepts have become accustomed to searching for loopholes and ulterior motives in every presidential utterance.

But what can one say about Bush's Inaugural Address, sprinkled with references to "a power larger than ourselves, Who creates us equal in His image" and "(history's) Author, Who fills time and eternity with His purpose?" What about a man who acknowledges the central roles of "church, the synagogue and the mosque" and talks about "love" -- meaning agape, not eros? It's no great mystery, really. Bush believes what he says. But his affirmations sting Beltway insiders like ice hurled by the winter winds because they remind the Washington elite that it has little or no connection to the tens of millions of Americans for whom religion not merely is tonic, but is the essence of life and truth.

Our Testifying President has done something more: He has begun to restore one of the oldest traditions in American politics, the ideal of civil religion. Put simply, civil religion acknowledges the existence of G-d but doesn't speculate about divine attributes. Bush thus recited the language of Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln -- Author, Creator, L-rd -- without promoting any sectarian theological views, including his own.

In so doing, the new president unleashed a debate about the proper nature and role of our government. One view of the matter was expressed at the outset of John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address: "(M)an holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty ..." It is hard to imagine anything view more idealistic or wrong-headed. Kennedy's declaration laid the sentimental foundation for a government that subsequently became more ambitious, avaricious and ineffective.

Proponents of governmental activism -- whether it be in the area of guaranteeing wages, providing a "fairer" distribution of wealth or apportioning health care -- commit two fallacies. They assume everyone behaves and thinks the same way (or should); and they presume to possess enough knowledge to satisfy all the people all the time without eradicating individual liberty.

Civil religion poses a direct threat to this creed because it questions any person's ability to discern truth and behave with the dispassion necessary for true fairness and justice. It questions the very foundation of big-government ideology. This explains why activist interest groups worked so hard to push civic religion out of the public square.

Now, Bush presents a contrasting view. His belief in an Author of Truth -- a divine logos -- leads to the natural and obvious conclusion that neither he nor anybody else in Washington has any final answers.

This view encourages humility, a scarce resource in political circles. Whenever someone claims to have discovered an "answer" to a widespread social ill, that person merely mints a fad. But just as one pours melted ore into ingot molds, social innovators pour their pride into their creations. As a result, they seldom confess error. This is how many a failed government program becomes a permanent fixture in Washington and an eternal drain on the public fisc.

Civil religion begins with the proclamation that men are not godlike. This humility and sense of proportion already seem a hallmark of Bush's governance, and could inspire a fresh look at what we have done and where we are going. In contrast to the messianic claims of his predecessor, the president seems already to have echoed St. Augustine's cry: "What more proud, than for me to assert in my strange madness that I am by nature what you are?"


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