12 August 2004

Public Christianity

More than one Christian friend of mine, having endured my expressions of discontent with President Bush's performance, have responded with one variation or another of the following: "But isn't it great to have a president who is open about his Christian faith?"

Many Web sites have reprinted a long post-9/11 adulation of Bush that includes this claim on the same theme: George W. Bush " ... was the first politician ever in recent memory to name Jesus Christ as the lord of his life on public TV." On some superficial level, this sort of claim has aggravated and grieved me. The public sees this claim concerning a man who made no secret of his comfort with the death penalty in Texas, who seems to have no capacity for humility and self-reflection in encounters with the press, who is comfortable spinning the truth on matters of global importance (for instance, bombings and invasions of other countries), apparently covets the company of the super-rich, and does not demonstrate any attempt to grapple with the command to "love your enemies."

It is this last specific aspect of discipleship that gives me a major heartache. Our struggle with Osama bin Laden and his associates is, for now, the biggest single example of a national "enemy" for us to practice our obedience to the Lord. Their claim to "enemy" status is beyond dispute—even I'm not so sentimental as to deny that. They display both motivation and capacity to inflict great harm on the USA and others. They also claim to be our enemies. 

Osama bin Laden has explained carefully and in detail why this is so in his "Open Letter to Americans." (Its authenticity is not beyond doubt, but informed observers say that it is believable, and in any case reflects attitudes in his circles.)

What would it mean to "love our enemies" in this particular case? Does Jesus mean that we should love those who mildly irritate us, so that we can hold our lethal venom in full reserve for those we deem worthy of total annihilation? Or does he mean what he says? In the Sermon on the Mount, he is not ambiguous—adding that we are to pray for those who persecute us.

"Loving our enemies" does not mean pretending a false fellowship with them. It does not mean avoiding holding them accountable for their actions; it is certainly compatible with resisting their injustices. So, at its most modest and clearly achievable level, what does it mean? Here are some suggestions, of which I've searched in vain for even hints in the rhetoric of our Christian president:
  • curiosity as to what aspects of American behavior might have provoked or contributed to Islamist resentment; or any hint at all that America might bear some responsibility for the unhappy state of the world
  • willingness to reflect publicly on the links between American economic interests and our choices of military targets
  • readiness to confront Osama or his network in public debate about whose worldview is more humane or sustainable
  • willingness to go beyond proclaiming Jesus as Lord and saying something about how Jesus's Lordship makes one's leadership different, perhaps more attentive to what builds credibility for Christianity in the non-Christian world
  • capacity to understand what American "freedom" looks like to conservative societies trying to cope with a tide of American pornography and licentiousness.

In fact it is that language about "freedom" that set off some of these reflections. Around the time of the uprisings in Najaf and Fallujah, the President explained, "We've got tough work there because, you see, there are terrorists there who would rather kill innocent people than allow for the advance of freedom. That’s what you're seeing going on. These people hate freedom. And we love freedom.” I propose that a basic and attainable minimum goal of loving one's enemies is making a far deeper effort to understand them, and then not lying about them in public.

Years ago, Sen. Mark Hatfield described some of the pressures of being a Christian politician in his book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place. (I liked the book a lot, and wrote to tell him so. Even though I was living in Canada at the time, he sent me a courteous response.) The book was very honest about the effect of the constant flattery and conveniences that come with political power.

I wonder whether part of President Bush's problem is that his office or his temperament, or both, cut him off from the additional formation and discipling that he needs to go deeper, to confront the contradictions involved with being a public believer, to grapple with what it means to love one's enemy and pray for one's persecutors.

It doesn't help that he gets all that adulation just for naming Jesus in public. For most of us, that would be a fairly low standard of discipleship, but on the other hand, we wouldn't get lots of extravagant praise for it, either. If we did, perhaps our spiritual immaturity (let's be honest: none of us are fully formed) would be of the same apparent sort as the President's.


Johan Maurer said...

This is a fair suggestion (writing directly to President Bush). I'll work on how to do this with some microscopic hope of efficacy. It's not that I haven't written many times....

Kirby Urner said...

As former Treasury Secretary O'Neill quotes Bush: "I don't negotiate with myself" meaning, I think, that he eschews much introspection, as a coping mechanism, given all the responsibility. Indeed, much has been made of his "from the gut" approach: Bush believes in intuitive responses, and, I think, supposes he's guided by God in them. And how else could he cope? He's the man he is -- not about to turn himself into a voracious reader and scholar while trying to hold down a full time job as president. His handlers know this about him, and that a lot of positive feedback is what keeps him complacent in his views. These campaign stops which admit fans only: they're for his benefit more than the voters. He gets that he's looked up to, soaks up the adulation. Keeps him going. It's all pretty simple (much too simple, which is the scary thing).