Fear of God

The more a politician talks about God, the more the press gets uncomfortable and weird.

If you want to drive the political media crazy these days, mention God. They'll immediately start acting strangely, running for the exits.

In his news conference last week, President Bush said, "Freedom is the Almighty's gift to every man and woman in this world. And as the greatest power on the face of the Earth, we have an obligation to help the spread of freedom."

This was no stunner. He's said pretty much the same thing before, using similar language. Presidents have always evoked God. But anyone who has watched Bush these past few years knows that when he talks about God, he really means it. He genuinely seems to believe he's on a divine mission. He also knows a huge percentage of Americans love it when he talks this way, so he does it again and again.

This is a gigantic story, the sort of thing that should be front and center as the country looks back at how we got into this war and tries to figure out whether this president deserves another term.

Yet the more a politician talks about God, the more the press gets uncomfortable and weird. With scattered exceptions, including a thoughtful cover story by Carl M. Cannon in this magazine several months back and good work by Newsweek's Howard Fineman, the major political media have been less than eager lately to take on God.

The aversion has been on florid display these past few weeks. Right after the Bush news conference, the new Bob Woodward book, Plan of Attack, hit the street, with a few memorable God moments. Speaking of the eve of the Iraq war, Bush tells Woodward, "Going into this period, I was praying for strength to do the Lord's will.... I'm surely not going to justify war based upon God. Understand that. Nevertheless, in my case I pray that I be as good a messenger of His will as possible. And then, of course, I pray for personal strength and for forgiveness."

Near the end of the book, Woodward asks Bush whether, when he was facing the decision about war in Iraq, he'd consulted his father. In the midst of Bush's answer, which goes on for more than a page, he says, "You know, he is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength. There is a higher father that I appeal to."

All kinds of people pray for strength. But in the context of what we already know about Bush's religious convictions, these statements bolstered the culture's dawning sense of how we really got into this war.

The media don't ignore such moments. Far from it. But there's a kind of tic, a routinized response that involves nodding at the news value of Bush's God talk, while deftly changing the subject, without appearing to have done so.

For various practical and cultural reasons, religion makes the media squirm more than any other subject. Journalists dwell in a world of facts (most do, anyway), a pragmatic place in which news is something that can be verified. Eternity is a tough one to pin down—the sources are conflicting and all the stories sound totally made up. There are plenty of religious journalists, but the culture and values of the profession are overwhelmingly secular. In a nation of so many believers, we find ourselves in a delicate position.

So the trade has figured out ways to talk about God without really talking about God. I don't think it's conscious avoidance—it seems to be largely unconscious. It takes several forms:

* Edit God out. After the news conference, The Washington Post's David S. Broder turned in a column assessing the president's strengths and weakness. He praised "the genuine idealism that informs George Bush's basic policy decisions. He embodies and gives voice to the belief that goes back to the very founding of this nation—that America's historic role is to demonstrate the blessings of freedom here at home, to be the bulwark of freedom in the world and to share the gift of freedom as widely as possible." Notice how this passage neatly excises the divine from Bush's statements that evening, diluting religion to the much blander, safer "idealism."

* Move on. When Woodward appeared on 60 Minutes, Mike Wallace asked him whether Bush had asked his father for advice on the war. Woodward offered the Bush quote about "the higher father." Rather than pursue it, Wallace veered quickly away: "Beyond not asking his father about going to war, Woodward was startled to learn the president did not ask key Cabinet members, either." The "father" quotation gets the same treatment in most news coverage about the book; it's given a wide berth—mentioned, but not explored in real depth. Though arguably much more important than anything we could learn about administration infighting over the war, the God angle gets far less ink and airtime.

* Make it political. Last week, Democratic strategist Ronald A. Klain wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times arguing that it would be politically stupid for Democrats to belittle Bush's God talk. Klain was invited on CNBC to discuss it. Now that's the kind of religious talk a journalist can love—God and the Electoral College. Before you knew it, the CNBC chat had abandoned God for budget appropriations. When they're not calculating operatives, the pundits who weigh in on Bush's God statements tend to be ideological warriors. The center steers clear.

Oh, some media folk are trying. This week, The Philadelphia Inquirer published a news piece about Bush's "faith-driven policies," quoting several academic experts and, a bit oddly, Ralph Nader. It was the sort of piece we should be seeing a lot more of these days. It ran to only 753 words, deep inside the paper.