Is George W. Bush a Christian?

Amy Sullivan, guest blogging at Political Animal, cites an interesting TAP piece arguing that President Bush isn’t nearly as religious as people think.

Ayelish McGarvey, “As God Is His Witness: Bush is no devout evangelical. In fact, he may not be a Christian at all.”

Like no president in recent memory, George W. Bush wields his Christian righteousness like a flaming sword. Indeed, hundreds of news stories and nearly half a dozen books have evinced a White House that, according to BBC Washington correspondent Justin Webb, “hums to the sound of prayer.” Yet for the past four years the mainstream press has trod lightly, rarely venturing beyond the biographical to probe the depth, or sincerity, of Bush’s Christian beliefs. Bush has no doubt benefited from the media’s reluctance; Newsweek, for example, in the heat of the run-up to the Iraq War, ran a cover package on the president’s faith under the headline “Bush and God” — a story whose timing lent the war the aura of having heavenly sanction. Even lefty believers like Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners, and Amy Sullivan, journalist and Democratic adviser, politely maintain that Bush’s faith is strong, if misguided.

Bush does not demonstrate a life of faith by his actions, and neither Methodists, evangelicals, nor fundamentalists can rightly call him brother. In fact, the available evidence raises serious questions about whether Bush is really a Christian at all.

***

Ironically for a man who once famously named Jesus as his favorite political philosopher during a campaign debate, it is remarkably difficult to pinpoint a single instance wherein Christian teaching has won out over partisan politics in the Bush White House. Though Bush easily weaves Christian language and themes into his political communication, empty religious jargon is no substitute for a bedrock faith. Even little children in Sunday school know that Jesus taught his disciples to live according to his commandments, not simply to talk about them a lot. In Bush’s case, faith without works is not just dead faith — it’s evangelical agitprop.

This is a rather powerful charge. What evidence does she proffer?

Judging him on his record, George W. Bush̢۪s spiritual transformation seems to have consisted of little more than staying on the wagon, with Jesus as a sort of talismanic Alcoholics Anonymous counselor. Bush came to his faith through a small group program created by Community Bible Study, which de-emphasizes sin and resembles a sort of Jesus-centered therapy session.

But sin is crucial to Christianity. To be born again, a seeker must painfully acknowledge his or her innate sinfulness, and then turn away from it completely. And though today Bush is sober, he does not live and govern like a man who “walks” with God, using the Bible as a moral compass for his decision making. Twice in the past year — once during an April press conference and most recently at a presidential debate — the president was unable to name any mistake he has made during his term. His steadfast unwillingness to fess up to a single error betrays a strikingly un-Christian lack of attention to the importance of self-criticism, the pervasiveness of sin, and the centrality of humility, repentance, and redemption. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine George W. Bush delivering an address like Jimmy Carter’s legendary “malaise” speech (in which he did not actually say the word “malaise”) in 1979.

No references to Commandments broken or lack of faith here. Bush isn’t a Christian because he is more arrogant than Jimmy Carter? That’s mighty thin gruel, methinks. And then there’s this:

Once and for all: George W. Bush is neither born again nor evangelical. As Alan Cooperman reported in The Washington Post last month, the president has been careful never to use either term to describe his faith. Unlike millions of evangelicals, Bush did not have a single born-again experience; instead, he slowly came to Christianity over the course of several years, beginning with a deep conversation with the Reverend Billy Graham in the mid-1980s. And there is virtually no evidence that Bush places any emphasis on evangelizing — or spreading the gospel — in either his personal or professional life. Contrast this to Carter, who notoriously told every foreign dignitary he encountered about the good news of Jesus Christ.

Whether the conversion that transformed Bush from an drunkard to a fitness nut constitutes being “born again” is a debate that I find of rather little consequence. But it’s hard to imagine a president more evangelical than Bush. He constantly and publically references the impact that his faith has had on him. He’s even started federal programs to aid faith-based volunteerism. McGarvey claims that this is all mere rhetorical posturing, a charge that defies falsification. One would presume, however, that the burden of proof falls on her to disprove what seems true on its face rather than on Bush’s defenders to prove what’s in the man’s heart.

What else?

Bush, on the other hand, is no ascetic firebrand. The president has a net worth of nearly $20 million, and there is no indication that he is on the brink of abandoning his fortune to live righteously with the poor. And unlike Wesley, Bush has never compromised his political standing to challenge the conservative status quo — regardless of its Christian righteousness.

So, one can’t actually be a Christian unless one takes a vow of poverty and adopts a leftist social agenda? Since when?

McGarvey begins with a view of Christianity that is very much in the liberal Catholic/Episcopal tradition and then uses it to test a conservative evangelical. Obviously, he’s not going to pass it. But it’s a very strange test indeed. The overwhelming majority of evangelicals–indeed, religious people, period– in this country support Bush and his policies. Are they not Christians, either?

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2004, Religion
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. McGehee says:

    Evangelical? The Bushes are Methodists.

  2. MichaelW says:

    The overwhelming majority of evangelicals–indeed, religious people, period– in this country support Bush and his policies. Are they not Christians, either?

    Seems more like this was an attempt to separate Bush from that particular flock. Of course, in the end, it might have the perverse result of securing for Bush an independent voter who might otherwise vote against the President because of his perceived theocratic fervor.

  3. Paul says:

    So the liberals pee and moan about him being a Christian until 2 weeks before the election when they think they might piss of his base if they say he ain’t.

    These people are shameless.

  4. M. Murcek says:

    Heavy smell of desperation in all this…

  5. jen says:

    Unlike millions of evangelicals, Bush did not have a single born-again experience; instead, he slowly came to Christianity over the course of several years, beginning with a deep conversation with the Reverend Billy Graham in the mid-1980s.

    I’m a born again Christian and I disagree with this assessment. For most who come to faith in Christ, it’s a long process and not one single defining, lightning bolt moment. To question his faith on this is laughable – each person’s journey of faith is deeply personal and unique.

    And there is virtually no evidence that Bush places any emphasis on evangelizing — or spreading the gospel — in either his personal or professional life. Contrast this to Carter, who notoriously told every foreign dignitary he encountered about the good news of Jesus Christ.

    Not all Christians are outwardly evangelical. Given the hostile climate to Christianity in politics these days, I’m not surprised that the President doesn’t invoke the name of Jesus everywhere he goes – look at how his naming of Jesus as a great philosopher was treated before he was President. There are countless Christians who are very quiet in the way they share their faith with the people in their lives.

  6. Eltaha says:

    “So, one can’t actually be a Christian unless one takes a vow of poverty…?”

    Well actually:

    “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24)

  7. Boyd says:

    This is the kind of article you get when the writer thinks up a controversial subject, then writes without having any knowledge of the subject matter.

  8. MichaelW says:

    “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”

    OT and OE (overly esoteric): The “eye of a needle” was actually a reference to the hole in the walls of Jerusalem (and other cities) through which visitors must pass. While the hole was big enough for a man, and most animals, such as donkeys, to venture through with no effort, a camel had considerably more difficulty. The camels did pass through “eye of the needle” quite frequently, however.

  9. paladin says:

    This kind of stuff drives me crazy! Beginning with Ron Reagan delivering cheap shots at GWB at his father’s funeral, to the recent interview with Al Gore (don’t remember, Harpers or some leftist rag) all these people (including Amy) feel qualified to look into the heart and soul of GWB and pronounce that his religion is for political purposes only. I’m not particularly religious myself, but when I see political opponents decry GWB’s religion as false, my first instinct is to say “prove it”. Supposedly, the left is all about tolerance and broad-mindedness – so where is the tolerance when discussing religion?

  10. Bellesouth says:

    MichaelW — And your point is?! It still stands that it is harder for rich men to enter into the kingdom of God, doesn’t it?

  11. Boyd says:

    Bellesouth: Harder, yes. Impossible, no.

  12. dw says:

    Jen and Boyd pretty much covered my points. Millions of evangelicals DON’T have lightning-bolt conversions (including me). This reads like someone who has zero understanding of Protestant thought. Heck, they barely understand Catholics, either. If anything, he’s arguing that Bush isn’t a Methodist, which I can believe — his belief system is closer to evangelical Congregationalism than Methodism. But not being a Methodist makes him not a Christian as much as not being a native Texan makes him not an American.

    Now, from a theological perspective you can talk and argue about whether his beliefs are too narrow (or, in the title of that book of a couple of generations ago, whether his God is too small). I certainly have a problem with someone who doesn’t have a holisitic view of life that includes the death penalty as well as abortion, and I worry that within Christendom there’s been selective amnesia about God’s charge against Judah of neglecting the poor. But that’s a different argument from what this guy is making altogether.

  13. MichaelW says:

    Bellesouth: Boyd expressed my point, albeit a minor and insignificant one, quite succintly.

    As an act of contrition for even picking an argument about something so stupid, it turns out that the “hole in the wall” story may be entirely made up after all. It seems that

    The original Greek tells not of a camel, but a rope (kamilos ). When it was translated into Latin, kamilos was confused with kamelos ( camel). This translation error has been perpetuated into almost every language in which the Scriptures has been printed.

    Anyway, this camel has been flogged … sorry for the thread-jacking.

  14. Boyd says:

    I think the underlying point remains, Michael. The Biblical quote we’re discussing wasn’t meant to say that the rich cannot go to heaven. It’s a call for charity, for fairness in dealing with others (with the expectation that because of that fairness, you’re going to lose out to the less scrupulous on occasion), and other similar facets to being a Christian.

    But there remains, as it has been for over 2000 years, one criterion for entering heaven in the Christian faith: belief in Jesus Christ as one’s savior. That’s it.

  15. ken says:

    This is an interesting discussion because I have for years maintained that GW Bush not a good Christian, if indeed, he is a Christian at all.

    I will not argue with those who point out that he ‘claims’ to be a Christian and that his claim is heartfelt and honest. I will only say that his likewise sincere belief that he is is a ‘war president’ is a claim I could just as truthfully make about him as it is based upon clearly discernable evidence.

    But what evidence do I have, besides his claim, that Bush is a Christian? NONE.

    In my lifetime we have two presidents who claimed to be led by Christ: one was Jimmy Carter, the other is GW Bush. Carter’s entire life provides mountains of evidence in his belief in Christ. Even during his presidency he continued to teach Sunday school whenever he could. In addition his policies where clearly informed by his faith. Bush on the other hand NEVER even goes to church. And his policies are based, not of faith in Christ, but in faith in Bush.

    I do not see any reason to believe that Bush is s Christian regardless of his claim. I think he holds a mistaken belief.

  16. ken says:

    “The overwhelming majority of evangelicals–indeed, religious people, period– in this country support Bush and his policies. Are they not Christians, either? ”

    Perhaps they are not as good Christians as Christ wants them to be.

    Hitler (I know, I know, Goodwin’s Law and all that) was a Catholic and went to church about as frequently as Bush does. Hitler had a very Christian country supporting him and his policies. Did that mean that they were not Christians?

    In other words you cannot use the support of Christians to prove someone is a Christian. Otherwise the whole concept of Christanity is entirely meaningless.

  17. ken says:

    “But there remains, as it has been for over 2000 years, one criterion for entering heaven in the Christian faith: belief in Jesus Christ as one’s savior. That’s it.”

    Wrong.

    Perhaps there is no other single group of people with a more sincere belief in Jesus Christ as savior that the Catholic priests. But no matter how sincerely one holds that belief while buggering the alter boy he will not be entering heaven if he dies without contrition.

    Belief without acts is meaningless, both here on earth and to Our Heavenly Father.

  18. Rhesa says:

    “Perhaps they are not as good Christians as Christ wants them to be.”

    Perhaps you should keep your judgments to yourself? Are you speaking for Christ all of a sudden just because a number of other Christians don’t agree with you on political policy?

    “I do not see any reason to believe that Bush is s Christian regardless of his claim. I think he holds a mistaken belief.”

    Umm…that’s wonderful. For YOU.

  19. Rhesa says:

    “But what evidence do I have, besides his claim, that Bush is a Christian? NONE.

    In my lifetime we have two presidents who claimed to be led by Christ: one was Jimmy Carter, the other is GW Bush. Carter’s entire life provides mountains of evidence in his belief in Christ. Even during his presidency he continued to teach Sunday school whenever he could. In addition his policies where clearly informed by his faith. Bush on the other hand NEVER even goes to church. And his policies are based, not of faith in Christ, but in faith in Bush.”

    Using your own faulty logic, what evidence do we have that YOU are a Christian? You’ve spent three comments alone questioning Bush’s faith. Where exactly in the Bible do you have the necessary backup to question somebody else’s faith because it doesn’t align with your own political values?

    Jimmy Carter isn’t the best example to use to contrast with Bush, by the way. All of his recent actions may portray him as a man of “peace,” but it doesn’t necessarily mean everybody–even Christians–respects him for it.

  20. Ayelish McGarvey says:

    Actually, James, I’m an evangelical Christian from a small town in rural Illinois. My father was a pastor in a conservative denomination for 20 years. And I attend an evangelical church with Michael Gerson (Bush’s speechwriter) and his family in suburban Virginia. So the tradition I’m coming from is conservative–socially, and theologically.

    I realize the article was a long one, but I would encourage you to read to the end–judging by your post, I’m not sure that you did. I give plenty of biblical evidence to support my charge. The essence of the piece is summed up in this line, which you conveniently left off:

    “Ironically for a man who once famously named Jesus as his favorite political philosopher during a campaign debate, it is remarkably difficult to pinpoint a single instance wherein Christian teaching has won out over partisan politics in the Bush White House…George W. Bush does not live or govern under the complete authority of the Bible — just the parts that work to his political advantage.”

    Does a good Christian employ someone like Karl Rove to smear John McCain, Ann Richards and John Kerry with vile lies? I believe that’s the Ninth Commandment at work. Try reading to the end of the piece. It’s all there.

  21. ken says:

    Rhesa, it is not my faith (or lack thereof) that is the issue. Please try to keep up. We are discussing whether GW Bush is indeed a real Christian or not. I say show me the evidence.

    Where can you show me that Bush has acted in a Christ like manner, ever? In his whole life? Show me one, just one, selfless act he has done?

    Look, I suspect you may be considering yourself a Christian and as a republican you feel a sense of obligation to defend Bush on this subject. OK. I see that. But my point to James was that just because an entire Christian nation got wildly behind Hitler (or Mussalini if you like) – that didn’t prove either one of them a real Christian. Neither does Christian voters support of Bush prove he is a Christian.

    And BTW, what kind of Christian cannot respect Jimmy Carter for being a man of peace? A republican? Just asking.

  22. Lana says:

    Gotta laugh at Ayelish McGarvey’s comment:

    “Does a good Christian employ someone like Karl Rove to smear John McCain, Ann Richards and John Kerry with vile lies?”

    Oh Gosh. Let’s take, er Jesus, for example. Did Jesus have someone like those dang crappy disciples following him around during his time on earth? Peter, the hot-head who denied Christ and Doubting Thomas who didn’t even believe in the resurrection until he put his real live hand to Jesus’ hide??

    If even Jesus himself realized it’s a fallen world and the only fellow travelers on the journey are going to be sinners so he worked with what he had, helper-wise, why not cut Bush some slack?

    Christ, he ain’t.

  23. Brooke says:

    ““But there remains, as it has been for over 2000 years, one criterion for entering heaven in the Christian faith: belief in Jesus Christ as ones savior. Thats it.”

    Wrong.

    …But no matter how sincerely one holds that belief while buggering the alter boy he will not be entering heaven if he dies without contrition.

    Belief without acts is meaningless, both here on earth and to Our Heavenly Father.” ”

    No Ken, you’re wrong; Boyd is right. Salvation is not acheived by faith AND works. Salvation comes ONLY and SOLELY with the belief that Jesus Christ is God (part of the Holy Trinity), that he lived amongst us, and then died for the sake of our eternal fate. Now, I am going to throw out some scripture to back this truth up.

    ‘Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who BELIEVES in Him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever BELIEVES in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world THROUGH HIM.’ John 3:14-17 (emphasis added)

    ‘I tell you the truth that whoever hears My word and BELIEVES Him who sent Me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.’ John 5:24 (it says nothing of works) (emphasis added)

    ‘Therefore, since we have been justified through FAITH, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ through whom we have gained access by FAITH into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.’ Romans 5:1-2 (emphasis added)

    ‘And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were (i.e. still by works), grace would no longer be grace.’ Rom. 11:6 (parenthesis: (still by works) added)

    You see, Jesus freed all peoples from the strict laws and commandments the Jews kept in order to gain the favor of the Lord. We are saved by grace; all peoples are saved by grace. There is nothing in the Bible that says one must believe AND have works in order to receive salvation. The only way to be saved is to repent and ask Jesus Christ to save you.

  24. Attila Girl says:

    I truly believe that in some people faith in God is best expressed by effectiveness here on earth. For instance, I believe God worked through Ronald Reagan, though he almost never went to church.

    And I have no interest in evaluating somene else’s relationship with the Almighty. None at all.

    I believe that the way Bush speaks of his faith, though it’s a little more quiet than the classic style of evangalizing, is evangalizing nonetheless. Again–the difference is, it’s more likely to be effective than what many other Christians do.

  25. ken says:

    There seems to be a very peculiar strain of Christanity on the loose hereabouts. It says that to be a Christian all one has to do is say one is a Christian. That’s it. Saved.

    It is as if Christ never lived or taught or did a damn thing worthy of emulation here on earth. He died. Your saved. Move on.

    Nothing else matters to this brand of Christians. They can act in any manner whatsoever without fear of consequences because someone has already pulled their fat out the fire.

    Sorry folks, that won’t wash. God did not become man and die on a cross only to give some people a holiday from responsibility.

  26. RalphieTB says:

    McGehee, John Wesley was the original evangelical from what I understand. The term has come to mean something else these days.

    As for the rest of you, welcome to the wonderful debate of Sola Fidelis! Been ongoing since the beginning of time!

    “Sorry folks, that won’t wash. God did not become man and die on a cross only to give some people a holiday from responsibility.”

    ken, what about the crucified thief that was nailed up next to him? The one he saved? Think on that – and don’t be so judgemental. You’re arguing dogma, after all. Try not to be so cranky.

  27. Rhesa says:

    “Rhesa, it is not my faith (or lack thereof) that is the issue. Please try to keep up.”

    Um, I have kept up with you till now. Way to shoot down someone you disagree with by being condescending.

    “We are discussing whether GW Bush is indeed a real Christian or not. I say show me the evidence.”

    And I say leave the judgment of Bush’s level of Christian faith to someone higher than yourself. Like, God, for instance.

    “Look, I suspect you may be considering yourself a Christian and as a republican you feel a sense of obligation to defend Bush on this subject. OK. I see that.”

    I’m not a Republican and I’m quite lacking in my own faith, thanks. Why don’t you try not putting words in my mouth, to start with?

    “But my point to James was that just because an entire Christian nation got wildly behind Hitler (or Mussalini if you like) – that didn’t prove either one of them a real Christian. Neither does Christian voters support of Bush prove he is a Christian.”

    You’re using strawmen to jump from one group to a conclusion that may not be true because you personally don’t have much evidence for it. Er, right.

    ” And BTW, what kind of Christian cannot respect Jimmy Carter for being a man of peace? A republican? Just asking.”

    Like I said, I’m not a Republican. Jimmy Carter may be a “man of peace,” but I sure as heck don’t agree with what he did and said so he could get to that position. He’s willing to forego national sovereignty in order to make peace with dictators. That won’t wash with me.

  28. ken says:

    “We are discussing whether GW Bush is indeed a real Christian or not. I say show me the evidence.”

    Rhesa said “And I say leave the judgment of Bush’s level of Christian faith to someone higher than yourself. Like, God, for instance.”
    ————————————–
    But Rhesa, that is the whole point of this thread, titled, Is George Bush a Christian, is it not?

    Again I ask, what evidence is their that Bush is a Christian? I have plenty of evidence that he is a ‘war president’ I can point to concrete things he has done that make this claim true. But I see no evidence anywhere in his life that he is a Christian.

  29. Juliette says:

    ” But what evidence do I have, besides his claim, that Bush is a Christian? NONE.”

    As I understand how this works, it’s not required for GWB (or any other person proclaiming belief that Christ is his/her Savior) to show evidence to another human being that he/she is a Christian.

  30. Tom Mant says:

    It is encourgaing to see a few posts here that indicate that some Christians have taken a deeper look beyond the “conventional wisdom” the GW Bush is a Christian.

    Thanks much to Ayelish McGarvey for writing an in-depth article on this subject. I just hope that this information gets beyond a few obscure “corners” of the internet and out to many of the moderate and apolitical Christians that will vote for Bush based on the fact that they believe him to be a Christian.

  31. Clayton says:

    For those who insist that George Bush’s faith is genuine, you may be interested that (apparently) Bush doesn’t actually believe the central doctrine that I have always thought defines Christianity – that is, the doctrine of Jesus being the only way to salvation. Indeed, I was very surprised to read that George Bush, who apparently prays and reads the Bible every day, believes that Muslims also go to heaven. On the other hand, I do admit that the cynical side of me has always caused me to wonder if Bush merely highlighted his Christian commitment to get more of the Christian vote… I hope I’m wrong…

    Anyway, the following is an exerpt taken from “Good Morning America”, on October 26th this year (found on the internet – I’m assuming it’s not a “hoax”, but who knows these days??):

    “CHARLES GIBSON: Do we all worship the same God, Christian and Muslim?

    PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I think we do.

    CHARLES GIBSON: Do Christians and non-Christians and Muslims go to heaven
    in your mind?

    PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Yes, they do. We have different routes of getting there. But I will, I, I want you to understand, I want your listeners to understand, I don’t get to decide who goes to heaven. The almighty God decides who goes to heaven. And I am on my personal walk.”

    A fuller version of the transcript can be found at: http://www.gaconstitutionparty.org/s.nl/category.4/it.I/id.98/.f

    or
    http://www.evervigilant.net/news/gmatranscript102604.html

    By the way, I’m not a Democrat OR a Republican. I’m an Australian with an interest in what’s happening in the world.