Faith-Based Presidency or Faith-Based Criticism

If you happen to run into the journalist Ron Suskind, be nice to him. He has had a rough time recently as the lead thesis of two of his most prominent and controversial projects have proven conspicuously false soon after the publication.

In The Price of Loyalty, Suskind teamed with the President George W. Bush’s controversial first Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill. Anti-Bush partisans wanted desperately to believe that decision to attack Iraq was made early in the Bush Administration, well before 9/11. Proof of such would lend credence to the belief that the attacks on 9/11 were merely a convenient excuse to go into Iraq.

Suskind and O’Neill believed that O’Neill had seen a smoking gun. Suskind quoted Paul O’Neill has having seen a Pentagon document listing oil contractors for a post-War Iraq. Suskind should have filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the documents like the public interest group Judicial Watch did. If he had, he would have realized that the documents were not what he hoped and believed they were. This particular charge had to wait to be independently debunked and even Paul O’Neill himself backed away from charge. Of course, the thesis persists long after to evidence for it was withered under the harsh sun of open scrutiny.

Then in October 2004, Suskind wrote an investigative piece, “Without a Doubt,” that appeared in the New York Times Magazine. The timing was not uncorrelated with then pending election. The piece led off with a provocative sentence from Republican Bruce Bartlett that, “…if Bush wins, there will be civil war in the Republican Party starting on November 3.” November 2 rolled around, Bush won re-election bringing with him larger majorities in both the House and Senate, the first time any president had done so since 1936, with nary a Fort Sumter in sight.

Suskind was using a technique as old as political reporting. Find a disgruntled ex-administration official whose ego is a little bruised, and you will likely have someone who is anxious to explain how a foolish administration refused to listed to his brilliant ideas and analyses.

In “Without a Doubt,” Suskind’s thesis is that Bush is absolutely certain in his policies, brokers no dissent, and is constrained by his “preternatural faith-induced certainty in uncertain times.” According to Suskind, “The president has demanded unquestioning faith from his followers, his staff, his senior aides and his kindred in the Republican Party.” Suskind views strong religious faith as both a metaphor and reason for Bush’s supposed closed-mind and unflinching approach to governance.

Suskind perpetuates the misunderstanding that the Founding Fathers were “…adamant about erecting a wall between organized religion and political authority.” Of course, Suskind must know the real words of the First Amendment are, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Jefferson referred to a wall of separation in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut, which can hardly claims the force of law, the consensus of the Founding Fathers, or even consistency with Jefferson in other contexts. None of the Founders wanted a state-sponsored religion, but neither did they expect their leaders to exercise judgment without the sustenance of their faith or that religion be removed from the public square. Indeed, what ever “wall” there was did not prevent the Founders from conducting voluntary services in off hours at the Capitol or from referencing the “Creator” in the Declaration of Independence. Suskind drive-by assertion on the Founding Fathers’ view of the appropriate relationship between church and state is embarrassingly puerile.

Less interesting than what Suskind’s article claims to say about George Bush or about the Founders, is what it says about post-modern notions of faith, notions probably shared by many of Suskind’s New York Times readers. To those of faith, Suskind’s article makes no sense. The arrogant intransigence Suskind assigns to Bush is not in the nature of faith, but rather the antithesis of it. However, to the irremediably secular, faith is a blind, uncritical acceptance by people too intellectually and emotionally immature to think critically. Those who are susceptible to religious faith are probably just as uncritical and credulous in other areas as well.

It is presumptuous to speak of anyone else’s faith, but it a service to people with Suskind’s world view to broaden their notions of faith. I am not privileged to peek into Bush’s personal life, but if Bush’s faith is anything like the faith of some of other American presidents, it is a faith that sustains in difficult times. It is a faith that sustains not because things will not go wrong, but because of a conviction that these problems too are part of a grander plan. It is not a faith that stops self-doubt, but allows one to proceed in the face of personal uncertainty. It is not faith that refuses to question. It is faith that requires constant self examination. It is not a faith that presumes that God acts solely through us, but recognizes that we are all imperfect agents.

Perhaps it is best to illustrate a mature faith, with an example from a President that some have foolishly and mistakenly regarded has having little faith: Abraham Lincoln. In the middle of the nineteenth century, politicians often spoke in religious terms, using religious imagery. Hence, it is difficult to separate convenient pious platitudes used for effect, and genuine belief. Abraham Lincoln, fortunately, left a paper trail.

According to Ronald White Jr.’s new book The Eloquent President, Lincoln was in the habit of writing notes to himself on scraps of paper and on the backs of envelopes and then placing these scribblings for safe keeping in his hat. Later Lincoln would ponder these words and ideas, rearrange the notes in different order, as a way to consider, develop, and organize his thoughts. Years after Lincoln’s presidency, meditative notes were found that Lincoln wrote to himself and not for the public. These notes provide key evidence as to the place of faith in Lincoln’s thinking. Lincoln begins his reflection:

“The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one certainly must be wrong. God cannot be for, and against the same thing at the same time.”

Nonetheless, humans must act. Lincoln writes that though God’s purpose can certainly differ from those of either party, “…human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose.” In Lincoln’s faith and I suspect George Bush’s as well, and as expressed in Lincoln Second Inaugural address, a person must proceed, “…with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right…”

What frustrates Bush’s critics is his stead fastness rather than intransigence. They fail to see or acknowledge change and growth which would undermine their thesis of rigidity. When the Civil War began, Lincoln’s goal was the preservation of the Union and issue of slavery was a secondary issue. In 1861, Lincoln wrote,

“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”

Later Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation because he came to understand that saving the Union required the liberation of slaves.

When the War with Iraq began, Bush’s purpose was to secure Americans, to the extent possible, against terror. One way to do this was to remove the threat of weapons of mass destruction from Iraq. Bush’s views have grown and matured. He now appreciates that terrorism is rooted in the lack of freedom and democracy. Freedom and democratic societies are not fertile grounds for terrorists.

The only unreasonable certainty in Suskind’s “Without a Doubt,” is Suskind’s credulity in believing and repeating everything negative he has ever heard about Bush and the small-minded view of faith underpinning his article.

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