The White House: Gospel On The Potomac

Whenever a president speaks openly of his religious faith, citizens want to know how that faith affects his political priorities. And so we look for clues. But the lines between religious convictions and public policy are seldom clear, even in retrospect.

Consider: for the past 10 years the world's most powerful nation has been led by white, Southern, churchgoing evangelical Protestants--Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Each opted to attend the church of his wife's choice. And in both cases that choice was Methodist. But in religion--as in politics--the two presidents could not be less alike. For Clinton, hymn-singing and Gospel preaching are performance arts, and Sunday in the White House wasn't Sunday without a stroll down the street, Bible in hand, for an hour of gregarious fellowship. In this Clinton remained--and remains--Baptist to the core. Bush's religion is cut from a more personal fabric of faith.

The lesson is that denominational labels no longer tell much about those who wear them. Woodrow Wilson, a Presbyterian and Calvinist to the core, was one of the few American presidents of whom it could be said that to know his religious pedigree was to know the man. John F. Kennedy's Catholicism was a political factor in the 1960 presidential race, but in his life it was little more than clan inheritance. Ronald Reagan was the first president of our post-denominational society; he rarely attended church and his religious rhetoric was generic Christian.

Like the current president, Jimmy Carter is a born-again Christian. But his spiritual rebirth was an adolescent rite of passage built into the socially constructed rituals of Southern Baptist culture. Everyone (except some folks in the media) knew where this Sunday-school teacher in the White House was coming from. In contrast, Bush's spiritual transformation occurred outside the conventional church context; it emerged from the self-confessing, testimony-giving intimacy of a Christian support group. This makes Bush's understanding of faith different from other presidents, but hardly unique. According to Princeton's Robert Wuthnow, four out of every 10 adult Americans are involved in what he calls "the small-group movement"-- 12-step programs, prayer circles and Bible-study groups.

There is, however, nothing in the personal piety of small-group Christianity that can ground a faith-based vision for governing the body politic. Translating faith into political principles is what denominations try to do. But Bush's "compassionate conservatism" could not be less like the United Methodist Church's relentlessly liberal social creed. Early in his presidency, Bush drew on confidants like Princeton professor John DiIulio, the point man for his faith-based initiative, who tutored him in the philosophy of Catholic social doctrine. His statements on abortion and stem-cell research reflect papal teachings. More recently, Bush's invocation of "Providence" and "God's will" for the world echo Calvinist theology. But that is also the Biblically derived language of the American civil religion that, as sociologist Robert Bellah pointed out 37 years ago, is the rhetoric that our leaders have always used to link the nation's purposes to those of a transcendent God--especially in times of war.

The first President Bush admitted he had no gift for what he called "the vision thing." His son, at least, recognizes the need for one. That a president invokes the Almighty should no longer surprise us. But the danger of invoking God for any political or military purpose is the presumption that he is on our side. The lesson of history is that no individual or nation is exempt from Divine judgment.