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Bush: Back to Holy Warrior?

Are there some signs that U.S. President George W. Bush puts the separation of church and state at risk?

January 20, 2002

Are there some signs that U.S. President George W. Bush puts the separation of church and state at risk?

After September 11, 2001, when the spotlight fell on the Muslim world, many analysts ascribed the chronic inability of Islamic political leaders to speak out against religious fundamentalists in their countries as an indication of Islam’s lack of separation between church and state.

From Christianity’s beginnings, there has been a strong conviction in the religion that the two spheres should be distinct. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” is one of the most quoted of Christ’s admonitions in the New Testament. There are no similar statements in the Koran.

In the West and elsewhere, however, true separation of church and state is a new concept, dating from the Enlightenment and the French Revolution in the late 18th century. Before that, state religions were a rule in Europe, rather than an exception, and religious wars were commonplace.

The Russian Czar was the titular head of the Russian Orthodox Church until 1917. The Japanese Emperor was even more than that — a God, according to the Shinto religion — until 1945. Sectarian violence tears apart countries in the heart of Europe, such as Northern Ireland and Yugoslavia, even to this day.

Many American colonies before the Revolutionary War proved no exception. On the contrary, since some colonies were founded specifically by religious sects, they naturally gravitated toward theocracy.

One of the New World’s most successful homegrown religions, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or Mormons, for a time even established a bona fide religious state after its followers were expelled to Utah in the late 1830s.

The Founding Fathers and the framers of the U.S. Constitution were so concerned about mixing politics and religion that they stressed the separation of church and state twice.

Not content with what they’d written on the subject in the original Constitution, they also made religious freedom the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Exhibit No. 1: Heralding faith As all of his predecessors did before him, George W. Bush, the 43rd President of the United States, swore to uphold the Constitution at his inauguration. And thus far, he has done so. In fact, the only true test of Bush’s commitment to separation of church and state — his much-hyped faith-based approach to help the indigent — has foundered.

But if you were among the lucky recipients of a Season’s Greeting card from the Bushes in 2001, you might have been put off by its outright religiosity. The card quotes from the book of Psalms at the top of the greeting, and reads as: ” Thy face Lord do I seek: I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living (Psalms 27:8).”

In less politically charged times, choosing this quote might have been innocuous enough. But we live in times where words are weighed carefully by a number of different audiences. With its strong Biblical emphasis, the Bushes’ greeting card shows an apparent oversight of religious minorities and secular Americans.

Are we exaggerating our appeal to the President’s sense of religious balance? Well, just imagine how many Americans might feel if the presidents of strategically vital democracies such as Egypt or Indonesia had sent New Year’s greetings full of references to Allah. In these touchy times, the potential for misunderstanding would have been large — and opinion in America and elsewhere might take nervous offense to the statements.

It’s well known that Mr. Bush loves his ranch in Crawford, Texas. But media-attentive people may have noticed that the locale is only now regularly referred to as “Prairie Chapel.” Even though the name “Prairie Chapel” has nothing to do with religion (it is named after “Prairie Chapel Rd.,” the ranch’s address), it has a strong echo of religiosity.

And one may worry about this profound shift away from calling the ranch “Crawford” (after the nearest town) in the post September 11 environment. We went back and checked media references. As it turns out, this shift has nothing to do with the terrorist incident. The shift to “Prairie Chapel” has occurred in major media since August 2001, thus well before the events of September 11.

Still, this begs the question: What happened in August that made Bush’s PR staff feel more comfortable about making allusions to religion? Clearly, George W. seems to be reveling in expressing his personal religious beliefs. He originally won the hearts of America’s religious right when he advertised his born-again status during the 2000 election campaign.

According to his own account, finding Jesus turned a not so youthful Mr. Bush away from alcohol and onto a path that eventually led him to the White House. It’s a claim that Bush also proudly affirmed in a presidential debate ahead of the 2000 elections.

The religious right in the United States has supported Mr. Bush so ardently that, upon the resignation of Reverend Pat Robertson as head of the Christian Coalition in late 2001, the lobbying group refused to name a successor. Many preachers and religious political activists claim that Mr. Bush is now the de facto leader of that organization.

The world can only hope that the President of the United States tempers his apparent tendency to indulge in acts of religious symbolism. With much of the Muslim world currently a tinder box, statesmanship requires no less than to end the dalliance with church-minded infusion into the sphere of the state — however sly and miniscule its appearances may be.