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Public Theology: The Sin of Pride - Martin Marty on George W. Bush
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The Sin of Pride - Martin Marty on George W. Bush
Vision Thing: A scholar wonders if Bush has the humility to see the nuance of this conflict.

By Martin E. Marty

Martin Marty is the most respected historian of religion in the United States. He is also one who is very careful in what he says. The article below appeared in Newsweek in its March 10, 2003, issue. It is made available here because Marty is perhaps the first to use the phrase "public theology" and the subject matter is so important for an honest perspective on the Iraq war. Marty edits a newsletter called Context.

“God bless America.” For decades, chief executives have acted like priests of the national religion. Sometimes they soothe—think of shuttle disasters or terrorist attacks—and sometimes they inflame, as in times of war.

NEVER HAVE WE historians been busier making sense of presidential God talk than now. We all knew that after a reckless youth and a fall into alcohol addiction, George W. Bush experienced a Christian conversion of the now standard “born again” sort and settled down. On the path to the presidency he saw that his newfound faith appealed to a core constituency of religious conservatives and they appealed to him. His religious rhetoric became more public and more political.

After September 11 and the president’s decision to attack Iraq, the talk that other nations found mildly amusing or merely arrogant has taken on international and historical significance. It rouses many Americans to an uncertain cause and raises antagonism among millions elsewhere. Few doubt that Bush is sincere in his faith, a worthy virtue when he alone must decide whether to lead 270 million people into war, possibly killing thousands of others. The problem isn’t with Bush’s sincerity, but with his evident conviction that he’s doing God’s will.

Some criticism comes from cynics abroad, who charge hypocrisy. George M. Cohan once said, “Many a bum show has been saved by the flag,” and these critics hear Bush’s God talk as a trumped-up strategy for saving a military bum show. All kinds of less suspicious voices have also been heard from clerics here at home. A few worry about whether Bush’s advocacy of “faith-based initiatives” for social programs would violate the traditional separation of church and state. More have political concerns; they fear the faith-based programs will replace governmental support for those in need, but will not be strong enough.

The concerns of world religious leaders about this war have not induced the White House to open its door to a broader theological debate. The pope and the American Roman Catholic bishops—as well as Protestant bishops and many other —lay and clerical leaders outside the president’s core constituency—got no hearing, only dismissal. These clerics have legitimate concerns that extend to the geopolitical scene—as well as to the American soul: how will the only remaining world power assume the burden of building a new empire? One hopes that the Bush people will keep in mind that claims of God’s always being on our side are alienating to many former or would-be allies.

More dangerous is that Bush’s God talk will set the tinderbox that is the Muslim world on fire. Neither the president nor the American Christian majority have to yield their own faith in order to get along, but how they express it matters. Here the president has shown signs of change and growth. His first understandable outburst against terrorism led him to call for a “crusade” against terrorists. Raging reaction was instant and total among offended Muslims. The term never again appeared in White House language.

Often the company the president keeps gets him into trouble. True, the administration distances itself from the most extreme statements against Islam and the Muslim Scriptures, the Qur’an, when clerics who are otherwise congenial to the White House voice them. The billion humans in the Muslim world, leaders and followers alike, had good reason to seethe when the evangelist who prayed at Bush’s Inaugural—and who remains close to the president—persisted in calling Islam “a very evil and wicked religion.” The administration had to reject that claim—and it did. Regular appearances by the president at meetings of certain evangelical groups, however, make it hard for friendly Muslims not to hear the word “Islam” whenever Bush portrays “terrorists” as absolute evils. And, as evangelical theologian Richard Mouw points out, “Those inflammatory statements stimulate further antagonism on the part of Muslim extremists,” who can go recruiting among moderates.

Christian theologians are wary when Bush uses the words of Jesus to draw neat lines and challenge the whole rest of the world: if you are not for us, or with us, you are against us. Without question, belief in American democracy as one of God’s blessings is part of the move against Iraq. But, as theologians in a number of faiths remind us, the demonization of the enemy—an “us and them” mentality—can inhibit self-examination and repentant action, critical components of any faith.

Long having professed that “our nation is chosen by God and commissioned by history to be a model to the world of justice,” President Bush boasts that we are the only remaining superpower left. He gives notice that our military power and moral choices will dominate the world. He follows and leads ever since he first, as he put it, “heard the call” to seek the presidency, and after Iraq he promises to transform the Middle East into utopia.

But the Bible presents a more nuanced God. Fifty years ago, patriot and cold warrior Reinhold Niebuhr, the most noted theologian of the time, reminded citizens of a judgment against pride of nations by quoting Psalm 2:4: God “who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord has them in derision.” That same God, Niebuhr reminded readers, is also a God of mercy, who holds people responsible and, yes, will honor human aspiration. Even Bush’s critics are obliged to see that many of our own convictions may be wrong or misguided. And so we should confront the administration in the spirit of Oliver Cromwell: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.” One of this president’s virtues is that he has, historically, corrected his mistakes.

In the future, when Bush speaks about God and this country, as he assuredly will, one hopes he will heed the example of Abraham Lincoln. In other desperate times Lincoln had to seek Almighty guidance for what he called this ” almost chosen people.” That president accompanied his seeking with a theological affirmation too rarely heard now: “The Almighty has His own purposes.” These purposes may not always match our own, even if we are called to highest office. Awareness of this might bring the nation and its political and religious leaders alike under judgment as we pursue, by our best lights, responsible action.


Marty is professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, a Lutheran minister and a former president of the American Catholic Historical Association.

© 2003 Newsweek, Inc.

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Date Added: 4/1/2003 Date Revised: 4/1/2003 12:25:50 PM

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