The Blinding Glare of His Certainty

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George W. Bush lives at the intersection of faith and inexperience. This is not a reassuring address, especially in a time of trouble. His public utterances are often measured and elegant, but there are frequent and rather grating lapses too. There is a tendency to ricochet between piety and puerility, an odd juxtaposition that raises a discomforting theological question: What is it about the President's religious faith that makes him seem so jaunty as he faces the most fateful decision a President can make?

Last week Bush careened from restrained but persistent evangelism before a convention of religious broadcasters to casual trash-talking with sailors in Jacksonville, Fla. "The terrorists brought this war to us — and now we're takin' it back to them," he told the troops, leaning an elbow on the lectern, squinting crosswise at the camera, tossing a breathy Clint Eastwood chuckle. "We're on their trail, we're smokin' them out, we've got 'em on the run." One imagined the French Foreign Minister watching this lunch-hour martial spectacle and choking on his baguette.

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There has been a great deal of nonsense written about Bush's religious convictions, much of it emanating from Europe — a continent where God has been relegated to the back pews — and from secular intellectuals at home. So let's be clear: Bush's public piety is not unique or extreme among Presidents. At the dawn of the cold war, Harry Truman said, "I have the feeling that God has created us and brought us to our present position of power and strength for some great purpose. And up to now we have been shirking it."

Furthermore, there is scant evidence that the President is either messianic or a hard-edged religious determinist. Bush and I had several discussions about faith (and faith-based social programs) back when he was Governor of Texas, and he never displayed the vaguest hint of dogmatism or sense of destiny. Quite the contrary: his faith was humble and, well, soft. It softened his cowboy-preppie heart, especially when he was in the presence of poverty and despair. He used words like love and heart more than any other presidential candidate I've ever seen. It was a rudimentary form of compassion, to be sure. When suffering became an abstraction — a budget item — Bush lost the sensitivity he had when he confronted poor people directly. His faith enabled him to appreciate those who gave their lives to the poor, but it didn't force him to struggle toward a deeper, detailed understanding of poverty or what could be done about it.

And this, I think, is at the heart of what is disturbing about Bush's faith in this moment of national crisis: it does not discomfort him enough; it does not impel him to have second thoughts, to explore other intellectual possibilities or question the possible consequences of his actions. I asked one of Bush's closest advisers last week if the President had struggled with his Iraq decision. "No," he said, peremptorily, then quickly amended, "He understands the enormity of it, he understands the nuances, but has there been hand-wringing or existential angst along the way? No." (This, in contrast to his torturous quasi-Solomonic decision on stem-cell research.)

There are religious traditions — the Jesuits, the Jews, the Shi'ites, certain suffering segments of Protestantism — for which grace is a constant anguish, a goal never quite attained but approached through learning or good works. "The Evangelicals take their marching orders from Paul, who said you have to 'work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,'" Martin E. Marty, the University of Chicago theologian, told me last week. "The implication is that once you've worked it out, once you've been born again, you don't have to be fearful or tremble so much anymore."

There are plenty of thoughtful, angst-ridden Evangelicals, of course; the President's simple swagger isn't merely a consequence of his religious faith. He has long disdained the tortured moral relativism he first encountered at Yale. He doesn't come from the most introspective of families. And he has recently found an intellectual home in the secular evangelism of the neoconservatives, who posit a stark world of American good and authoritarian evil. But George W. Bush's faith offers no speed bumps on the road to Baghdad; it does not give him pause or force him to reflect. It is a source of comfort and strength but not of wisdom.

The American tradition of wartime leadership seems more subdued. The most memorable images are gaunt and painful: the haunted Lincoln; the dark circles under Franklin Roosevelt's eyes; Kennedy standing alone, in shadows, during the Cuban missile crisis. This is a moment far more ambiguous than any of those; intellectual anguish is permissible. War may be the correct choice, but it can't be an easy one. The world might have more confidence in the judgment of this President if he weren't always bathed in the blinding glare of his own certainty.