Monday, March 27, 2006

The President's Simplistic Use of Faith

Kevin Phillips is making the media rounds promoting his book "American Theocracy" and you can hear one of his stops with Terry Gross here. I have yet to read it, but I've put this expose of "radical religion, oil, and borrowed money" high on my must read list. And from what I've heard it's definitely not a quaint little bed time story to put you at ease for a blissful night of slumber.

With regards to the President's seemingly over-reliance on his own personal evangelical Christian faith, I wrote a commentary piece on this that appeared in the June 16, 2004 Albuquerque Tribune. A version of it appears below.

Not by Faith Alone

Benjamin Franklin once wrote, "The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason."[1] In other words, blind faith in some religious doctrine alone is woefully inadequate for framing one's worldview. Such a narrow perspective, formulated in the absence of other viewpoints, provides a limited understanding of the world. And yet this is precisely our president's perspective.

President Bush is an evangelical, born again Christian. By his own admission, he feels he was called by God to be president.[2] He sees the world in terms of black and white, good and evil. In his worldview, the United States is on a divine mission to shine the light of democracy on the rest of the world, freeing it from the grip of terrorism. And if you aren't with us, then you're with the terrorists.

This line of thinking solidified for our president after 9/11, and now forms the basis for much of our unilateralist foreign policy. Our president is confident in his stance, but this confidence stems from shutting out conflicting viewpoints and relying on his own interpretation of divine guidance.
When Bob Woodward asked the president if he sought his own father's advice on Iraq (a prudent course of action considering Bush senior's war with Iraq), the president responded, "You know, he is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength. There is a higher father that I appeal to."[3] He was so confident and comfortable that he didn't even ask most of his top advisors what they thought prior to making his final decision.[4]

Is it any wonder that much of the world - including atheists, agnostics, other Christian denominations, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Native American religious practitioners, etc. - is troubled by our president's actions? The leader of the most powerful nation on earth is formulating his policies within the narrow framework of one religious doctrine - evangelical Christianity. I think we should all be a bit nervous.

I'm not trying to degrade religion here. In fact, from an evolutionary standpoint, religion has been adaptable for individuals and groups in a variety of ways.

Across cultures and stretching back through time, religion has aided people in cooperating together as cohesive units through the establishment of moral codes, social structures, and strong social bonds.[5] It often helps establish a sense of family and community, as well as providing ties to the past and a sense of continuity. But problems arise when competition with others turns destructive.

The leader of the most powerful nation on earth has the obligation to acknowledge this and account for the cultural and religious mix that is our world. Otherwise we cannot avoid these destructive interactions.

Any leader that makes decisions based largely on an appeal to his/her own perception of God is bound to make a general mess of things by offending or oppressing those who have different (or no) conceptions of a higher being; hence the Founding Father's wise implementation of the separation of church and state.

For example, we're now all familiar with the president's use of the term "crusade" in describing our war on terrorism and how it made the Muslim world nervous and distrustful of our actions. This was a first rate blunder that could easily have been avoided.

Equally bad was the following. Recounting a conversation with President Bush, former Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas quoted the president in a June 24, 2003 article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz as saying, "God told me to strike at al Qaeda and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did, and now I am determined to solve the problem in the Middle East."[6]

The world is not black and white, or at least the world's definitions of black and white are not the same. At a global scale then this dichotomy blends to many shades of gray with distinctly dark and light ends. A president who decides to send troops to war in a relative vacuum, based on an appeal to one religion's narrow interpretation of a higher father, is able to make that decision far too easy for my taste.

I'm not calling for the president to abandon his faith. Nor do I think that one can divorce himself/herself from his/her own spiritual beliefs when looking at the rest of the world. But instead of closing both "eyes of reason" to see by faith, perhaps the president would be wise to keep one eye open and examine the multiple perspectives of any issue before making a decision.


[1] Benjamin Franklin, "Poor Richard's Almanack," 1758; from George Seldes, ed., The Great Quotations, Secaucus, New Jersey: The Citadel Press, 1983, p. 259.

[2] PBS Frontline: The Jesus Factor. Written, Produced, and Directed by Raney Aronson.

[3] Fineman, H. and T. Lipper. 2004. The Gospel According to George. Newsweek, April 26, 2004, pp. 18-21.

[4] Thomas, E. 2004. "I Haven't Suffered Doubt." Newsweek, April 26, 2004, pp. 22-25.

[5] Wilson, D. S. 2002 Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.

[6] Regular, A. 2003. `Road map is a life saver for us,' PM Abbas tells Hamas. Haaretz, June 24, 2003.