The news reports* that Bush spends time with Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Malaki discussing their shared faith in God, is not good news. It seems that Bush is an easy mark for anyone who professes a belief in God.
When Putin revealed the cross he wears on a neck chain, one given him by his mother, it is reported that Bush further warmed to the Russian leader. Bush confesses to trust those who profess a belief in God. But history does not give support the reliability of Bush’s approach. Rather, it suggests that Bush is recklessly naïve in this regard. Belief in God is not by itself a reliable benchmark of anything of substance.
In the various cultures of the world many different Gods are promoted, Gods that represent a wide variety of disparate values, ideals, and ethics. Has Bush forgotten that Osama bin Laden is also a man of professed deep faith in God? In Bush’s world that should provide the basis for meeting bin Laden at the table. If we look back over the past century no political leader anywhere has been more God-fearing than Adolf Hitler. In numerous public pronouncements he made reference to God, explicitly claiming divine endorsement for his murderous political agenda.
Any reference to God made by anyone must be followed by some kind of curiosity about the particular values, ideals, and ethics that the referenced God represents. Hitler’s God represented political and national domination by the means of extreme violence. He was not the first in history to conceive of God as a God of war and domination.
Bush may have been especially pleased to see Putin’s cross because that suggests that Putin embraces the Christian God. That too is illusory. Even among Christians it is not possible to assume that God-fearers hold to similar values, ideals, and ethics. The Irish are not the only peoples to have demonstrated that. Christians worshipping the same God, using the same language and subscribing to similar doctrines have slaughtered each other from the beginning of the Christian era. While they may use the same basic religious language, they have been willing to attack and slaughter each other, wives and children included.
By giving credibility and weight to a belief in God, Bush has likely set himself up for ambush, and put the nation at risk. Bush needs to forget about whether al-Malaki and Putin believe in God, and to wonder what values, ideals, and ethics they personally hold.
The religious questions Bush ought to be asking himself about all those persons he has to deal with are more complex questions, and ones that are not easily answered. Questions like: What kind of vision does this person have for the social order? What constitutes justice for this person? Does this person seek an oligarchy of the few, or a commonwealth for all? Does this person tolerate dissent, or do they feel free to destroy contrary voices?
When the Soviet Union was collapsing, the atheist Michael Gorbachev had the military power to make a defensive stand that could have resulted in a nuclear holocaust. Had Gorbachev been some kind of God-fearing hyper-nationalist of the “better dead than red” sort, the world would likely have been an uninhabitable nuclear wasteland by now. But the humane, atheist Gorbachev was no murderous God-fearing nationalist. Thank God for that atheist Michael Gorbachev!
Bush’s confidence in persons who profess a belief in God is astonishingly naïve, and puts the nation at risk.
An American president, or any political leader, needs to know if his or her correspondent is a trickster or a person of humane values. A professed belief or faith in God will not lead to such knowledge.
RAYMOND J. LAWRENCE is the recently retired Director of Pastoral Care, New York Presbyterian Hospital, Columbia University Medical Center. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
*”Bush and Iraq: Frequent Talks, Limited Results,” Jim Rutenberg and Alissa J. Rubin, The New York Times, page 1, July 15, 2007