The Other Messiah

Obama may be America’s new messiah, but Bush was evangelicals’ ultimate political savior. Or so they thought

Published on PatrolMag, By David Sessions, Jan 16, 2009.

IT’S BEEN fun to watch people from without and from within—both the qualified and the hopelessly, hilariously unqualified—attempt to make sense of the evangelical right’s unprecedented relationship with George W. Bush. What was that magic spark that married such a huge percentage of a religious community—passionately and happily—to an American president? From whence came this deep entwinement of patriotism and faith?

Now that the Bush administration is ending—and ending in such a fashion—we get the chance to really look back …

… The great cliché of the Bush years is that he taught evangelicals a lesson about staking their credibility on one man. That’s a nice thought, but a wishful one. Bush planned, executed, and solidified the notion that the religious right’s man—or woman—should openly and boldly announce their evangelicalism, and prove it by adhering to a very specific policy dogma. Survey says the taste of having a Bible-believing president hasn’t left the Christian tongue: their response to the Republican primary candidates, not to mention Sarah Palin, illustrated that faith and folksiness still mattered as much or more than policy specifics. That campaign was mired in trifling religiosity: Romney’s Mormonism, McCain’s un-religiousness, Giuliani’s family values. In the general election, stance on abortion mattered more than basic things like whether or not a candidate was qualified for office. Christians believed faith-based doomsday Obama scenarios despite their lack of plausibility.

For others under the wide and diverse tent of Christianity, watching Bush had a different effect. There was nothing like studying for a public policy degree during the Bush years—learning all about why people want to be president, studying the ideal and watching someone so … not ideal. To understand the history of the office and the various styles of leadership that brought success and failure is to unlock whole new ways of thinking about and voting for presidents.

Slowly, Bush’s “Christian leadership” begins to look a lot like an excuse for lack of leadership. It’s much simpler to stonewall behind a bifurcated worldview and intellectually crude domestic policies than it is to understand—and persuade—diverse dissenters. (Bush has admitted as much: “I don’t do nuance.”) Perhaps even worse is someone who admits the fact so openly, leaving the world with the impression that America’s main man has no explanation for his actions. When we see how these behaviors matter, picking the leader of the free world based on his self-described religious faith begins to look at best hopelessly naive, at worst frightening and dangerous.

Many in the Christian right still don’t see that. But during the next few years of exile, let us hope it can develop a broader, more theologically grounded approach to politics. It may mean undoing the reflexive habits developed in the Bush years, growing in our understanding of both the nuts and bolts of policy and the grander ideas of leadership. We shouldn’t be afraid of a politician who can be pragmatic and compromise—a successful one should. When it comes to policy, we should pick someone who won’t let the perfect be the enemy of the better. Never be swayed by campaigning people’s religion, or religious people’s campaigning. If a candidate talks too much trash and doesn’t read newspapers, send her back to her small town, even if she’s a Christian mom. Don’t insist that our president make showy displays of church attendance, recount the details of his conversion, or reference our “Christian nation.”

Most of all, focus on temperament—how this person will act—and why it may be the paramount presidential virtue. The man makes the office, and, a surprising number of times, his personal qualities have more to do with his quality than the issues on which he campaigns. If you’re interested in reading about presidential leadership styles, this book’s a good start. Changing sides may not be the answer, but electing skillful, broad-minded men and women is crucial. “A candidate may well change his or her position on, say, universal health care or Bosnia,” Christopher Hitchens wrote in November, “but he or she cannot change the fact—if it happens to be a fact—that he or she is a pathological liar, or a dimwit, or a proud ignoramus.” A candidate’s faith should never lead us to overlook someone who is ill-prepared for the monumental task of leading our nation. (full text).

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