Friday, April 30, 2004

The Messianic Presidency?
Last night I watched a Frontline special on PBS called, “The Jesus Factor.” It was an examination of how George W. Bush’s faith has influenced his politics. It was really interesting, and, all-in-all, a pretty worthwhile way to spend an hour. I had a couple of gripes, naturally(!), with the program. I’ll start with those.

- They frequently referred to Bush as a Methodist and there were some assumptions (implicit and explicit) that Bush’s belief system was standard for Methodists. However, in United Methodism (as in every other religious/denominational tradition) there’s a pretty broad spectrum of belief and Christian practice. I think it might have been important to note that many United Methodists have some serious disagreements over policy positions advocated by Bush and his staff. Further, there are some disagreements (major and minor) between Bush’s political positions and the United Methodist Social Principles. For instance, the Social Principles oppose the death penalty, while Bush is an enthusiastic supporter. United Methodists don’t require members to agree to the social principles, but it should show the breadth of belief and values within the United Methodist tradition.

- They described Bush’s supporters as “evangelical Christians.” This highlights a problem with labels – while they communicate ideas quickly, they also strip ideas of their inherent complexity. Not all conservative Christians “practice” in the evangelical tradition. Not all evangelical Christians are politically conservative. The program missed the complexity of the intertwining of religious and political values in the US.

I might have more to say later. Also check out a transcript of their interview with Jim Wallis (founder and editor of Sojourners Magazine). He has an interesting perspective on how 9/11 transformed Bush’s faith.

One more thing. They also interviewed Richard Land, director of the Southern Baptist Convention. He made a comment that I thought was very interesting.

“The problem with the left is that some of them don't think God has a side. George Bush and most of George Bush's supporters believe God has a side, and we believe that side is freedom. We believe that side is democracy. We believe that side is respect for basic human rights. We don't see the word starkly in terms of black and white. But we do see that there is a good and there is an evil, and that there is no moral equivalence between Saddam Hussein and the United States of America.”

As much as I’m a big advocate for democracy, I don’t recall Jesus mentioning it anywhere. If you think about it, the modern incarnation of democracy didn’t exist until almost 1,800 years after Christ’s ministry on earth. I’ve always been intrigued by the combining of Christianity and Americanism (for lack of a better word) in evangelical/fundamentalist Protestantism. Wallis makes an excellent point about this in his interview. If we really believe the universality of the gospel, why is America special? I’m not sure it is – I think the creation of a theology of American exceptionalism makes us feel less guilty about our wealth and incredible privilege.

I’ll continue this later – an interesting side discussion would be to talk about syncretism, Christianity and American exceptionalism.



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