Has President Bush crossed the line between religion and politics? At his April 13 news conference, he offered this justification for his Iraq policy: "I also have this ... strong belief that freedom is not this country's gift to the world. 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."
On Larry King Live, journalist Bob Woodward, the author of Plan of Attack, reported how Bush responded when questioned about consulting his father on the war. "When I asked about his father, he said, 'In terms of finding strength, I appeal to a higher father,' meaning God," Woodward said. "And when he ordered war, he prayed. And he prayed that he be a good messenger of God's will."
On 60 Minutes, Woodward observed, "The president still believes with some conviction that this was absolutely the right thing, that he has the duty to free people, to liberate people. And this was his moment."
Those statements set off alarm bells in some quarters. Independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader called Bush "a messianic militarist." According to The Christian Science Monitor, Nader added at a reporters' breakfast: "Talk about the separation of church and state—it is not separated at all in Bush's brain. And this is extremely disturbing."
Some religious leaders are also uncomfortable with Bush's language. The Rev. William Tully, rector of St. Bartholomew's Church in New York City, said, "When someone implies that there is a direct connection between [his] faith and a certain position, then we become uncomfortable because we are familiar with people of deep faith coming out in different places."
Presidents Carter and Clinton talked about their faith. Such talk is almost expected of politicians these days. "We live in an age when we demand a level of personal disclosure that maybe we haven't always demanded," Tully said. Democratic strategist Ronald Klain recalled, "I worked with Vice President Gore, who, when asked in the 2000 campaign how he made decisions, said the first thing he asked himself was 'WWJD?'—'What would Jesus do?' So, I think that political figures relying on their faith to guide them is not uncommon and not inappropriate."
What is the appropriate place to draw the line between religion and politics? Tully, the religious leader, sees it this way: "Yes, talk about what animates you and what is in your heart." But, he added, "I would say you have to be careful about identifying the divine will with your position."
Klain, the political strategist, says, "It is perfectly legitimate that Bush's personal political philosophy derives from his religious views. But to suggest that his authority to govern our country—or his mission in Iraq—comes from above, that's a different sort of thing.
"President Bush should be accountable if he tries to invoke a higher authority for his legitimacy," Klain added. "If he makes too close an insistence on his religious sensibilities and a policy position, then I think it is fair to criticize him."
Both are saying that a line should be drawn between the personal and the policy—that faith should be a source of personal inspiration, but not a justification for a political position. Democrats may ask whether Bush crossed that line in making his case for war in Iraq. But they have to be careful how they do it.
Klain warns his party, "We live in a country that is widely a country of believers. And to the extent that President Bush is making a more modest claim—that his views and values are influenced by his faith—that's something most Americans probably agree with."
The gap between the churched and the unchurched has become a central feature of American politics and shows no signs of diminishing. In a recent Gallup Poll, churchgoers favored Bush over John Kerry by 10 points. Nonchurchgoers preferred Kerry by 7 points. Religion also influenced views on Iraq. A majority of churchgoers endorsed the view that going to war in Iraq was worth the cost. A majority of nonchurchgoers said it wasn't. For many voters—just as for Bush—belief structures values, and values structure policy positions.
Americans' religiousness creates a barrier between the United States and its Western allies. European countries are overwhelmingly secular. The collapse of churchgoing is one of the most widely noted trends since the 1960s, even in Canada, a country otherwise similar to the United States. To Europeans, Bush's religious language carries a dangerous message of self-righteous moralism. Many Muslims find it threatening. When Bush talks about his duty to liberate oppressed Muslims, they hear echoes of the Crusades.
Bush's religiosity also creates a dilemma for Democrats. They can't afford to write off people of faith. "We are going to need the votes of many people of faith this election year," Klain said, "and we should get their votes, because they should be as disappointed with the president's policies as Democrats are." The implication, perhaps unconscious, is that Democrats and people of faith have become separate political camps.
Just as it would be politically dangerous for Bush to justify his Iraq policy in religious terms, it would be dangerous for Democrats to challenge the personal faith behind Bush's political values. Both actions would cross the line between politics and religion.