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President’s Private Faith Undergoes Public Scrutiny

Americans may have gotten past the notion that polite people don’t discuss politics and religion in public. But when an article about the president’s religion appears in the Baptist Standard, the editor’s phone lines and e-mail load up.

Before “George W. Bush: Presidential Preacher” went to press in our Feb. 17 paper, the staff discussed the story at length. Deborah Caldwell, former pioneering religion editor for the Dallas Morning News, now with the respected religion website Beliefnet, wrote the article. Caldwell lived up to her reputation for fairness by interviewing and quoting people who think the president appropriately balances faith and constitutional responsibility and others who feel he inappropriately marches his faith up and down the public square.

An unscientific sampling of readers validates Caldwell’s fairness. Calls and letters have evenly split between two reads: The piece was a puffball for the president, presenting an apologetic for a leader who misuses his position to proselytize. Or the article unfairly maligned a decent and dedicated layman who’s simply trying to live out his faith under public scrutiny. (The only consensus was disdain for the illustration that accompanied the story–a “portrait” of the president comprised of tiny paintings of Jesus. No matter how readers feel about Bush, they seem to hate that painting.)

The response to the president’s faith expression should come as no surprise. When Jimmy Carter ran for president in 1976, the whole world learned he was a Baptist Sunday School teacher from a small Southern town who naturally spoke the language of his faith. A generation before Bush entered the Oval Office, Carter received public rebuff for his personal faith. Then and now, the most pervasive medium, national network television, couldn’t and can’t figure out how to discuss faith in substantive terms. Almost every religious image is framed in a parody of Roman Catholicism, and the faith-life of an average evangelical Christian layperson makes no more sense to the typical TV news producer than the grooming habits of a whippoorwill.

Although their faith leads them to numerous different destinations, Carter and Bush remind me of each other to some degree. Anyone who’s ever participated in a lay renewal weekend or heard Christian “testimonies” recognizes the terms, phrases and cadences of both presidents. Reported private conversations sound similar: They talk about the importance of prayer and Bible study. They describe the peace they receive through their relationship to God in Christ. They speculate how life would be different for them without that saving relationship.

Carter no doubt understands the spiritual challenges currently facing Bush. The Middle East provided the apex (the Egypt/Israel Camp David accords) and nadir (the Iranian hostage crisis) of Carter’s presidency. Similarly, it has provided Bush with galvanizing resolve (the war on terror, Iraq) and confusing quandary (the Palestine/Israel conflict). Ironically, the same group that banded together to remove Carter from office, the Religious Right, also coalesced to ensure Bush’s election.

The president shouldn’t be required to put his faith in a blind trust before moving into the White House. Of course, he must remember he is the president of all America, not national pastor to a single constituency. Like all believers, he also must seek a well-rounded faith, a daunting challenge under the best of circumstances, much less under an international microscope. The public faith of three presidents instructs all of us:

President Carter’s personal piety and sense of righteousness propelled him to become the nation’s greatest former president. However, those virtues sometimes left him inflexible and contributed to shortening his tenure in office.

President Clinton’s understanding of justice made him sensitive to the plight of minorities and compassionate for the disadvantaged. However, his notorious blind spot regarding personal morality undermined his credibility and permanently stained his reputation.

President Bush’s adult conversion cast his sense of personal morality, as his victory over alcoholism and his strong marriage attest. His passion for duty and honor affords him strength in the face of virulent forces. However, his idea of righteousness does not seem to extend to the root causes of institutional evil that inflict suffering on the poor and the powerless.

May we learn from the strengths and weaknesses of our leaders as we seek to follow Christ.

Marv Knox is editor of the Baptist Standard. Used by permission.