Conservative evangelical Christians have many reasons to be disappointed or even furious with George W. Bush. During his presidency, there have been roughly five million abortions. He has focused on partial-birth abortions, but the courts have held up the law.
What’s more, I believe the Bush presidency will be viewed as a boon for gays (the Federal Marriage Amendment is headed where?). And when faced with slight resistance, Bush threw overboard his dramatic proposal to fuel “armies of compassion” by allowing non-itemizers to deduct charitable contributions.
Yet despite all this, his support among evangelicals is absolutely undiminished. In fact, the Bush campaign is relying on evangelicals’ voting for him in even greater numbers than last time (and their turnout for Bush in 2000 was already a bit better than the national average).
Why do evangelicals love Bush so much?
It’s often explained that they like him because he’s “one of them” and uses religious language, and that’s true. But it only scratches the surface. Two new books on Bush and faith help us to see the real roots of the appeal. Both books–God and George W. Bush by Paul Kengor and The Faith of George W. Bush by Stephen Mansfield–are campaign-season books in the Coulter/Franken tradition, leaving out information that might undercut their arguments. But they provide fodder for helping to understand the roots of the Bush-evangelical connection: persecution, transformation, calling, and clarity.
First, many Christians feel persecuted. This idea is nearly unfathomable to people in New York City or non-evangelicals: “How could they feel persecuted? The country is 83 percent Christian! They’re always trying to impose their views on us.” But many evangelical Christians believe they are despised, misunderstood, and discriminated against by journalists, Hollywood, elites, and almost anyone not in their pack.
And there is a grain of truth to their concerns. A recent poll showed that while most Americans say a presidential candidate’s religion would not affect their vote, there is one religious type that many would vote against just because of their beliefs: an evangelical Christian. (Well, actually, there were three: a Christian, a Muslim and an atheist–perhaps they should form a new coalition?)
George Bush, the authors of these two books argue, has been persecuted and misunderstood for his beliefs, too. God and George Bush devotes two sentences to Bush’s comment in a campaign debate that Jesus Christ was his favorite philosopher–and four pages to the hostile reaction that followed. The media “wrung its hands” and showed its “scorn,” but Bush bravely stood his ground. “It’s my foundation and if it costs me votes to have answered the question that way, so be it,” Bush declared.
Feeling persecuted has special resonance for Christians for obvious reasons: It’s Christ-like. The more liberals beat up on Bush’s faith, the better for Bush.
Beyond that, every time Bush speaks of his faith, he is signaling to those Christians who feel marginalized that they have, in fact, arrived at the center of American society. They have a president who’s just like them, so they need not feel ashamed or embattled. He is bearing their cross.
Second, Bush was transformed. If Bush had grown up in an evangelical household and been a practicing Christian his whole life, he probably wouldn’t be president today. St. Paul’s story is powerful because he started out as an anti-Christian sinner; he was lost and then was found. That’s why Bush and his Christian supporters love talking about his drinking problems and recklessness. To be saved, you must first be fallen.
This was doubly important because Bush was a child of privilege. America has elected such men, but only when they have overcome adversity or challenges: FDR had polio, and JFK and the elder Bush had their war heroism.
Bush didn’t have those kinds of obstacles, so he and his hagiographers have emphasized somewhat more pedestrian failings. For instance: “That Bush might be dyslexic makes his academic struggles and success all the more poignant,” Mansfield writes. He was a business failure, a wise-ass, and a drunk. His friend John Ellis sums it up: “To go through every stage of life and be found wanting and know that people find you wanting, that’s a real grind.”
But in the context of a Christian transformation this is good stuff. Mansfield writes, “The burden might have crushed him. Men have committed suicide over less, ruined marriages and children in their attempt at self rescue. But before long something would change in Bush, and it would give him the direction his life had lacked. In Ellis’s words, ‘he gathered it together.’ Though he was ‘going nowhere at forty…. At the age of 52, he’s the frontrunner for the Republican president nomination.’ That’s a pretty incredible turnaround.”
And the transformation happened, Bush says, because of faith: “There is only one reason that I am in the Oval office and not in a bar. I found faith. I found God.”
When Beliefnet nominated Bush as a finalist in its 2001 Most Inspiring Person awards, it was because we were flooded with messages like this one: “The manner in which he emerged over the last year from being one who did not even win the popular vote … to the man today is a remarkable metamorphosis! He is so real, so genuine. What you see is what you get! He’s so human, willing to mention the name of God without fear or shame. Never has there been such a change in one man.”
Third, Bush was called. Moses was reluctant to lead but God called him. Jonah did not want to go to Ninevah, but God called him. Seldom do Biblical leaders lobby for their positions.
Both books make a big deal of Bush’s hearing the sermon of Rev. Mark Craig in which he discussed Moses’ calling. Bush’s mother turned to George after the sermon and said, “He was talking to you.” Mansfield goes on to say: “Not long after, Bush called James Robison (a prominent minister) and told him, ‘I’ve heard the call. I believe God wants me to run for President.’” Richard Land of the Southern Bapstist convention heard Bush say something similar: “Among the things he said to us was ‘I believe that God wants me to be president.’”
After 9/11, the sense that God had chosen Bush certainly increased among his supporters, and perhaps in him. “I think that God picked the right man at the right time for the right purpose,” said popular Christian broadcaster Janet Parshall. Others began to find their own evidence. General William Boykin got in trouble in part because of his comment that God must have put Bush in the White House, since the voters didn’t: “Why is this man in the White House? The majority of Americans did not vote for him. He’s in the White House because God put him there for a time such as this.”
Even George H. W. Bush speculated that perhaps he needed to be defeated so that his son might become president. “If I’d won that election in 1992, my oldest son would not be president of the United States of America. … I think the Lord works in mysterious ways.” This notion was strengthened after 9/11 when Bush so clearly rose to the challenge. That fed the evangelical view that his election was part of God’s mysterious strategy.
Finally, there is the war on moral relativism. For many evangelicals, the root of all Baby Boomer evil is moral relativism, the sense that there is no good or evil. So when Bush so clearly and frequently uses those terms, it has resonance well beyond foreign policy. Moral clarity is essential for fighting not only terror but also American cultural rot.
There are other, more pedestrian reasons evangelicals love Bush. Evangelicals tend to be conservative, so they like his policies. After all, they mostly voted for the very non-evangelical Gerry Ford over born-again Christian Jimmy Carter. But the connection between Bush and evangelicals is deep and personal–indeed, it’s grounded in their reading of how God transforms men and chooses leaders.
–Steven Waldman is the editor in chief and co-founder of Beliefnet.