Skip to comments.Just the Right Amount of God
Posted on 01/22/2005 6:48:52 AM PST by Pokey78
"WHO IS YOUR FAVORITE political philosopher?" a group of Republican candidates were asked early in the 2000 race for president. And the frontrunner at the time, a Texas governor named George W. Bush, calmly answered, "Christ, because he changed my life."
Well. You could barely hear the other candidates' answers in the crash and clatter of overturned chairs as reporters scrambled to reach the phones and call in the story. Some commentators decided Bush was nakedly pandering to Evangelical voters in a Machiavellian ploy so bold that he should have said his favorite political philosopher was, um, Machiavelli.
Most of the nation's chatterers, however, decided that this wasn't the devious Bush but the stupid Bush. Couldn't he come up with the name of an actual philosopher? Plato had a scribble called the Republic, Aristotle managed to jot down a few notes on politics, and in the long years since the ancient Greeks there have been a few other philosophical types who've set out a thought or two on the political order. A little more study time--a little less fraternizing with his drinking buddies--and Bush might have heard their names while he was an undergraduate, even at Yale.
And then there was the mockery the candidate faced for his confusion of piety with philosophy. The holy name of Jesus doesn't have much purchase on people for whom "Christian" is mostly shorthand for "life-denying bigots who want to burn all the books they're too ignorant to read." Besides, from Genesis to Revelation, the Bible that Bush claims to follow manifests deep suspicion of the philosophical. The Lord will do "a marvelous work among this people, even a marvelous work and a wonder," as the prophet Isaiah put it, "for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid." If Bush understood the Book of Acts, he'd remember the Apostle Paul didn't have much success preaching the Resurrection to philosophers in Athens.
Bad theology, bad philosophy, and bad politics--this was the high-minded consensus at the time. The identification of Jesus as a life-changing political philosopher was either a stroke of electoral genius, or a mark of jaw-dropping feeblemindedness, or--well, that's always been the problem for Bush's opponents, hasn't it? "I can't believe I'm losing to this idiot," John Kerry whined to his aides during the 2004 campaign, and George W. Bush still remains impenetrable to those who persist in seeing him as some impossible combination of Dr. Evil and Forrest Gump. Anyway, the consensus was that he didn't mean--couldn't mean--anything philosophical by his answer to a reporter's question.
Funny thing. On a cold, bright day in January 2005, with the sun off the snow crinkling his eyes, President Bush gave his second inaugural address. And it seems he did actually mean what he had said before. The speech was as clear an assertion of a particular Christian political philosophy as we're likely to hear in these latter days. "We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom," the president declared. "Not because history runs on the wheels of inevitability; it is human choices that move events. Not because we consider ourselves a chosen nation; God moves and chooses as He wills. We have confidence because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul." There's even a name for this kind of theistical philosophy. It's called natural law. An inaugural address, by its very national purpose, walks the tightrope between powerful abstractions and empty platitudes, and sometimes it's hard to tell the difference. "In America's ideal of freedom, the exercise of rights is ennobled by service, and mercy, and a heart for the weak," Bush said, and is that a truth or a truism? A wrenching call to greatness or a self-congratulatory pat on the back?
A little of both, no doubt. But the most interesting things in Bush's inaugural rhetoric are the moments where justifications are offered for the various truths and truisms. The chain of explanation in his speech is always the logical progression of the natural-law argument. "Americans, of all people, should never be surprised by the power of our ideals," Bush insisted. And why? Because there is, in fact, a universal human nature: "Eventually, the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul." If "across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government," the reason must reside in the enduring essence of human beings as simultaneously corruptible and morally valuable: "Because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave."
As it happens, a natural-law explanation carries philosophical reasoning a step beyond the mere assertion of a nature for human beings. The problem for ethics is always how to match empirical and logical claims ("Humans want to be free") with moral claims ("Humans should
Now, any philosopher would point out that this is possible only if the moral law itself is real: a set of eternal truths that vary not in content but only in application as the temporal order changes. And, sure enough, there the necessary postulate is in Bush's speech: "Americans move forward in every generation by reaffirming all that is good and true that came before--ideals of justice and conduct that are the same yesterday, today, and forever."
And watch it all come together as Bush reaches toward his peroration in the speech's penultimate moment: "When our Founders declared a new order of the ages; when soldiers died in wave upon wave for a union based on liberty; when citizens marched in peaceful outrage under the banner 'Freedom Now'--they were acting on an ancient hope that is meant to be fulfilled. History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty."
So, we've got an enduring and universal human nature ("ancient hope"). We've got final causation ("meant to be fulfilled"). We've got a moral problematic (the "ebb and flow of justice"). We've got intelligible formal causes (the ideal of "liberty" as shaping a "visible direction" for history). And we've even got a prime mover ("the Author of Liberty"). There isn't much more a natural-law philosopher could want in an American president's inaugural address about nature and nature's God. I'd guess not a lot of gloating is allowed around the throne of the Maker of heaven and earth, but somewhere in the vicinity, St. Thomas Aquinas must be smiling.
BUT IN CERTAIN SUBLUNARY REALMS, there are others who are not smiling at all. "Way Too Much God" ran the headline in the Wall Street Journal, over a column in which former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan bemoaned the president's triumphalist religiosity. The speech concerned Bush's "evolving thoughts on freedom in the world," Noonan observed. And "those thoughts seemed marked by deep moral seriousness and no moral modesty." She had in mind, of course, the curious humility and even melancholy of Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address--as well she ought, for Lincoln remains the high-water mark of presidential rhetoric, and Bush's speech was clearly striving at points to echo its unmatchable predecessor.
And if a solid Republican like Peggy Noonan is bothered by the president's God-besotted, un-Lincolnian immodesty, you can imagine what the reaction was among the president's detractors. But what's missed by all those who unfairly compare Bush's zeal with Lincoln's call to humility is, in part, the timing of the latter, for the end of the Civil War was at hand by the time Lincoln spoke, while we are still in the thick of the struggle Bush describes. Even more, there is a hard edge of determination for victory that runs through Lincoln's speech--a steel in his sadness that gives a hidden force to his demand for national humility. The 1865 inaugural address was not the breast-beating some read in it today.
Perhaps that's why Abraham Lincoln delivered the most theological presidential speech ever given. It is our great national sermon. "Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'"
In this sense, Bush's speech in the Washington snow isn't theological at all. This is not Christ the sacrificial lamb, or Christ the New Adam who breaks the curse of Original Sin. This is rather Christ the philosopher--and George W. Bush has just delivered the most purely philosophical address in the history of America's inaugurations.
As it happens, the natural-law philosophy the speech asserted has a little bit to bother everyone in it. The president's Evangelical supporters may have been reassured by the public religiosity of the occasion--the prayers, the Navy choir singing "God of Our Fathers," the bowed heads. But the god of the philosophers ain't much of a god to be going home with. A deistical clockmaker, an impersonal prime mover, a demiurge instead of a redeemer: This is hardly the faith Christian Americans imagine the president shares with them. There was not a mention of the Divine in Bush's speech that Thomas Jefferson couldn't have uttered.
Still, all that God-talk--all that natural-law reasoning--was heading somewhere in Bush's speech, and the president's cultured despisers, those who tremble or rage at any trace of divinity in public, are right to be afraid. Just not for the reason they think. It would take an act of perverse will to suppose that the 2005 inaugural address signaled the onset of a Christian theocracy in America. Every rhetorical gesture toward God was either universalized up into a sectless abstraction ("Author of Liberty"? Which faith group can't say that?) or spread down in careful pluralistic specificity ("the truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the words of the Koran, and the varied faiths of our people").
No, President Bush's opponents should be afraid of this speech because it signals the emergence of a single coherent philosophy within the conservative movement. Natural-law reasoning about the national moral character gradually disappeared from America in the generations after the Founding Fathers, squeezed out between a triumphant emotive liberalism, on the one side, and a defensive emotive Evangelicalism, on the other. Preserved mostly by the Catholics, natural law made its return to public discourse primarily through the effort to find a nontheological ground for opposition to abortion. And now, three decades after Roe v. Wade, it is simply the way conservatives talk--about everything. With his inaugural address, President Bush has just delivered a foreign-policy discourse that relies entirely on classical concepts of natural law, and, agreeing or not, everybody in America understood what he was talking about.
In other words, the argument over abortion changed the way the nation speaks of every moral issue. "We will persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation: The moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right. America will not pretend that jailed dissidents prefer their chains, or that women welcome humiliation and servitude, or that any human being aspires to live at the mercy of bullies," the president declares--and thereby carries natural law out to the world.
This is a claim about the universal, which the old foreign-policy realists rejected. This is a claim about the moral, which the libertarians despised. And this is a claim about the eternal, which the Social Darwinists renounced. But these older strains of conservatism have lost the battle to set the nation's rhetoric. They are welcome to come along for the ride, but George W. Bush announced, there in the bright cold of a Washington January, that the nation would be moving to the beat of a different political philosophy.
Turns out he really did mean what he said five years ago.
Joseph Bottum is Books & Arts editor of The Weekly Standard.
Yes, I think this is a very accurate analysis, really well put together and researched.
He doesn't read, he isn't curious, he's never even been out of the country so he couldn't possibly have a good foreign policy.
Only the other day I heard an 'expert' saying that because Bush hadn't travelled outside the country he was less fit to be the President than Bill Clinton who had travelled abroad.
No sense going into that ridiculous statement.
They still don't get it and the saddest thing of all is to see some of our own media types bashing the President for his faith in the future.
Incredibly good analysis. I hadn't thought of it in terms of Natural Law (something we were discussing a few days ago on the religion forum, oddly enough), but Bottum is absolutely right.
"However, I do think that we need to take a more critical look at this man, because--like it or not--he has in many ways become a figurehead for modern Christianity in our country."
President Bush is like a breathe of fresh air to me!
Ping! IIRC, we were among those discussing the Natural Law question a few days ago. What do you think of this?
Consider that George W. has just been re-elected with a much larger mandate than Clinton had and that his Natural Law philosophy, as magnificently analyzed by Joseph Bottum, is subscribed to by a large portion of the electorate. This address not only puts on notice tin pot dictators, and monarchies such as the Saudis, but our State Department, that a major course correction is coming. Add the appointement of Dr. Rice, another Christian, and you have the possible start of a realignment of our foreign policy to drop the hypocritical backing of any government, no matter how dismal its human rights record, just for the expediency of the short term goal. It will be exciting to see how that body responds to having its paradigm shifted away from all its cynically pragmatic old accomodations with evil.
The speech sounded like it may have been written in consultation with "Christian Philosophist" Rick Warren or the local Masonic Lodge.
Nice religious language...but too bad it wasn't Christian.
Eh? Any Christian knows that Christ is the head of the church; Bush a figurehead? To who? This is the BOLDEST speech I've heard since Reagan said "Tear down this wall."
Bush's speech addresses the moral direction of this country and reminds us that as Americans we will stand for what is morally right. I think Noonan and the like don't enjoy hearing that because they know that taking this kind of stand comes with a cost....and I think deep down in Noonan she does not believe that Americans can do it....so she blames it on God.
We have confidence because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul."
This is hard to explain, but I've been struggling to figure out how to describe why I, a complete and utter atheist, have a fair amount of faith in Bush. I disagree with him on certain issues, but overall, I am happy as a clam that he won. And this quote makes me feel like, although his faith and my atheism place us quite a ways apart philsophically, I feel like we are just close enough to reach out and touch fingertips, E.T. style. And the place where the fingers meet is this quote.
I saw it also as a sort of revised Monroe Doctrine: that is, because the fundamental interest of the US is freedom (which it actually is, even if people are only thinking of it in an economic sense), any place in the world that threatens this interest is now threatening us.
I thought it was a pretty breathtaking concept, and like you, I could scarcely believe that I was hearing something so momentous in an Inaugural Address, which is normally the time for meaningless platitudes (I guess that was what Peggy Noonan was expecting!).
Actually, if we go back to the Natural Law concept, we can see why he mentioned the Koran. Natural Law was used by Christian philosophers to explain why even pagans could develop concepts of the good, right and wrong, etc. That is, all men are created in the Image of God, and they can recognize the law of their beings, even dimly.
That said, I have no use for the Koran and think it was the ravings of a lunatic who plagiarized some bits of the Old Testament and used them for his own purposes (banditry and mayhem). However, the millions of people all around the world who follow this cult, mostly because they have been born into it, are not to blame for that and many of them probably seek in it the principles of natural law that we are all created to seek.
It's unlikely that they're going to change their beliefs right away (although I do think we Christians should go back to evangelizing and trying to make converts), but they could certainly arrive at national states that are at least politically free. And I think Bush had to add the Koran, or otherwise the large constituency of folks in Iraq and elsewhere whom we are trying to encourage to accept freedom would simply shut out the entire message that he was sending.
I completely agree with everything you said.
I believe C.S. Lewis said something about how all religions have a bit of the truth, because we are all still made in God's image, no matter how flawed.
It is not religion and it really has little to do with his Christianity. It is pure political philosophy. That is why he could so easily include the Koran. He is just saying that religion and morality are the supports of free government, public interests DEPEND on private morality. This has been said many different ways throughout our history. It is THE crux, the crucial point, of our liberty. It is not about his personal religion. He included the Koran so that everyone would know IT WAS NOT ABOUT HIS PERSONAL RELIGION.
What a thoughtful analysis.
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