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The Opiate of the Bushes

Remarks By President Bush On National Day Of Prayer

... Americans do not presume to equate God's purposes with any purpose of our own. God's will is greater than any man, or any nation built by men. He works His will. He finds His children within every culture and every tribe. And while every human enterprise must end, His kingdom will have no end. Our part, our calling is to align our hearts and action with God's plan, in so far as we can know it. A humble heart is not an indifferent heart. We cannot be neutral in the face of injustice or cruelty or evil. God is not on the side of any nation, yet we know He is on the side of justice. And it is the deepest strength of America that from the hour of our founding, we have chosen justice as our goal.

Our greatest failures as a nation have come when we lost sight of that goal: in slavery, in segregation, and in every wrong that has denied the value and dignity of life. Our finest moments have come when we have faithfully served the cause of justice for our own citizens, and for the people of other lands. And through our nation's history, we have turned to prayer for wisdom to know the good, and for the courage to do the good.

The obvious issue to take with Bush's speech is its monotheo-centrism. He ascribes essentially Christian beliefs to "we Americans," not recognizing that many Americans believe something quite different. I'll leave the details of that case to others who can express them better than me.

What interested me is that, while it's Christian-centric enough to alienate non-Christians, it's pretty poor Christianity. I don't mean that simply in the sense that I think Christianity is consistent with, even demands, the kind of tolerance and impartiality that atheists and pagans would ask for. I think it would be appropriate if Bush spoke from his heart about his faith and what it means to him. But even if we rewrite his remarks to talk in personal, rather than collective, terms, the version of religion he gives is remarkably shallow. The speech is made up mostly of comfortable platitudes and pro forma humility before God. Perhaps part of it is a failed attempt to say something innocuous and uncontroversial in order to placate the non-Christians, and is simply a case of winding up with the worst of both worlds. But I think it's also indicative of a larger kind of malaise that tends to surround Christianity as a de facto national religion.

One of Jesus' major messages, as I see it, was "you cannot be righteous enough to earn God's love, but God loves you anyway." There are two parts there -- one a challenge, the other a reassurance. Both are critical, but Christianity has tended to emphasize the latter. And no wonder -- a message that lifts up the persecuted will have more appeal than one that is critical of the self-assured. The sinners and tax collectors flocked to Jesus while the scribes and Pharisees rejected him. Thus it was the sinners and tax collectors, the people who were most interested in the uplifting side of Jesus' message, who set the tone for the development of Christianity after Jesus' departure.

This balance of emphasis is all well and good when you're preaching to people who need to be uplifted, and Christianity has thrived among people who are persecuted. But the message gets distorted when it's preached to those who have power. For those whose faith comes before their experience, they invent persecutions in order to feel that their life coheres with the Christian message. For those whose experience comes before their faith, the Christian message becomes a sort of reassurance. Bush's speech stays squarely within his, and his audience's, comfort zone. He uses all the familiar phrasings, whose very habitualness saps them of their meaning, turning them into a bit of familiar ritual. The message of the speech is that we Americans are on the right track, that we're Godly people. It's all very self-affirming. And it's not at all what I think Jesus would have said to an audience of the leaders of the most powerful country in history.

If Bush wanted to make his speech memorable and meaningful, he should have tried to reclaim the other side of Jesus' message. This is the side that challenges us, the side that reminds us that we're not good enough, that we don't understand well enough. Perhaps on the occasion of a national day of prayer in a religiously plural nation, it should be a call to really listen to people of other faiths or none, to let their perspective disrupt your assumptions about how you live your life. It should be phrased in fresh and undiplomatic language that would jar listeners and make them think, rather than stroke them with familiar concepts. How can Jesus' message, which was so shocking two millennia ago, have been made so banal in its skewed adoption by a comfortable majority?


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