Not since 1960 has a presidential candidate’s faith been so widely discussed as that of George W. Bush. No matter who wins, the tropes employed to discuss Bush’s religiosity are likely to be with us for a long time. And American Jews are particularly vulnerable to them.
The New York Times, in particular, has made a fetish of Bush’s beliefs. The October 17 New York Times Magazine, devoted nearly a dozen pages to dissecting the President’s religious faith. Author Ron Susskind accuses Bush of viewing himself as the recipient of messages directly from G-d, and of being unwilling, as a result, to reexamine his choices in light of changing circumstances.
Times op-ed contributor Robert Wright suggests that the President has abandoned "rational analysis and critical reevaluation for ineffable intuition and iron certainty." He not so subtly compares Bush with Osama bin Laden, suggesting "people who take drastic action based on divine-feeling feelings, and view the ensuing death and destruction with equanimity, have in recent years tended to be the problem, not the solution."
The claim that the President’s faith has turned him into a fanatical dim-wit, oblivious to empirical reality, does not bear scrutiny. Far from being unable to adjust to changing circumstances and new facts, perhaps the most astounding aspect of President Bush’s presidency has been his very responsiveness to the new world revealed by 9/11. Almost from the day of the attack, he broke radically with his own prescriptions as a candidate in 2000 and the foreign policy "realism" of his father. As a candidate, he expressed disdain for the project of "nation-building." As president, he has undertaken to transform failed Arab societies by injecting them with a dose of liberty.
The quest for stability by propping up corrupt Arab dictators, Bush realized, had brought neither stability nor security. Similarly, he recognized that the status quo doctrine of deterrence could no longer work against a new enemy: Islamist terrorism. Nowhere did he break more sharply with the longstanding presumptions of American policy than with respect to the Arab-Israeli conflict by making clear that the pressure on Israel for new territorial concessions would cease until the Palestinians show themselves capable and desirous of living in peace.
Not a single premise of Bush’s foreign policy depends on religious doctrine. Indeed its leading proponents are neo-conservatives – the "Likud-lobby" in the Pentagon, in Michael Moore’s rant – who neither share the President’s religion nor are notably observant of their own. Norman Podhoretz devoted 38-pages in the September Commentary to a defense of Bush’s foreign policy postulates. Podhoretz will never be confused with an evangelical Christian.
Doubtless the President felt a strong sense of mission in the wake of 9/11, and that sense of mission was intensified by his religious faith. Far from being a negative attribute, however, his sense of having been placed in a certain position at a certain moment in time, can provide the courage to make the right decisions over politically expedient ones. Lincoln’s diaries are suffused with the same awareness of his mission during the dark early days of the Civil War, as he fought to preserve the "last best hope of mankind."
EQUALLY FANCIFUL IS THE VIEW that the absence of religious faith sharpens attachment to empirical reality. A beautiful theory trumps a hundred unruly facts every time for many of the intellectuals so contemptuous of the President’s faith. As a Tom Stoppard character comments, "If a person is smart enough, you can convince him of anything."
Freudianism provides the classic example. It held sway over nearly the entirety of 20th century intellectual life, despite the near total absence of evidence for the efficacy of psychoanalysis as a therapeutic tool over short-term therapies and pharmacological tools. Worse, as Frederick Crews has shown, Freud likely falsified many of his major case studies.
Closer to home, consider the idée fixe favored by the entire European diplomatic corps and Council of Foreign Relations stalwarts Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft that the Arab-Israeli conflict lies at the root of all Middle East instability. What did Israel have to do with the million people killed in the Iraq-Iran war, with Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, with the Syrians slaughter of 25,000 of their own citizens at Homa, the Algerian civil war, or the million lives lost in Sudan?
How is Israel responsible for the fact that the Arab states rank the lowest on the freedom scale of any nations in the world or that the GNP of 22 Arab nations with a total population of 280 million is less than that of Spain with 40 million? It’s the Arabs’ persistent failure to keep apace, not Israel, that causes them to hate the West and fantasize about a reconstituted caliphate.
Often it is the emotional satisfaction of a beautiful ideal that blinds intellectuals to reality. A world government linking all mankind in harmony is one such ideal. And it has given rise to the pernicious belief that only a U.N. Security Council resolution confers moral legitimacy on the use of military force. That claim requires remaining willfully blind to the U.N.’s inability to stop the slaughter of a million Tutsis in Rwanda, ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, or that in Sudan today. What moral authority attaches to an organization, in which Syria can chair the Security Council, Saddam’s Iraq the U.N. Commission on Nuclear Disarmament, and Libya the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, and whose corrupt bureaucracy colluded in Saddam’s skimming off billions of dollars in kickbacks in order to maintain himself lavishly in power?
No group is more contemptuous and frightened of the President’s faith than American Jewry. Eighty per cent of these clear-eyed realists say they will vote for Senator Kerry, along with 90% of Arab-Americans and nearly 100% of university professors and students who view America as the Big Satan and Israel as the Little Satan. Despite this odd assortment of bedfellows, American Jews have salved their conscience by convincing themselves that Kerry will be better for Israel because he will re-engage in Middle East peacemaking. Apparently they have forgotten that the most intense American "peacemaking" led directly to four years of war and the deaths of over a thousand Israeli Jews.
The secularism of the intellectuals (and so many Jews) is itself a quasi-religion – only devoid of any restrictions on personal behavior – that distorts reality every bit as much as anything believed by President Bush.