Does God belong in politics?

August 18, 2004|By Emmanuel De Veirman

BEFORE I ARRIVED in the United States, I thought I knew what Christianity was all about.

As I remembered from primary school, God's most important message was, quite simply, that we should all try to love and understand each other. Christianity stood for empathy, tolerance and modesty.

Back home in Belgium, religion has become far less present in day-to-day life than it once was. In particular, it is less apparent a factor on the political scene.

While we do have a Christian party, its politicians rarely mention their faith in public. Never would they add words with religious connotations to policy discussions that are not related to religion per se.

When I came to the United States four years ago, I entered a new world. President Bush often mentions his faith in public. He sometimes adds a religious flavor to policy announcements. All the while, he applies a concept of religion that is very different from the one that I had known.

Maybe you agree with the president's religious vocabulary. Maybe you find it annoying. But do you think it is harmless?

I don't.

Three days after 9/11, Mr. Bush addressed a prayer service at the Washington National Cathedral. At the time, it was natural for the president to appeal to religion as a source of consolation for the loss of thousands of lives. But he went far beyond "praying for the missing and the dead."

In a key passage, Mr. Bush asserted: "This nation is peaceful, but fierce when stirred to anger." He saw it as our responsibility "to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil."

Is that still a prayer, or is it a war speech? Is it Christian to make such a quick leap from sadness to revenge? In Luke and Matthew, Jesus calls on us to love our enemies and teaches us to turn the other cheek. Isn't Christianity a religion of absolute peacefulness and forgiveness? At least, that was my concept of Christianity before I came to the States.

The National Cathedral address may have been the first occasion in which the president subtly used religious language to legitimize his political decisions. This is not as harmless as you may think.

By implicitly claiming God's blessing for his actions, Mr. Bush may sound more convincing to some of us merely because God seems to be involved. But should a political leader appeal to God's authority in an attempt to strengthen our approval of policies that are mostly unrelated to religion? In a healthy democracy, citizens use their own criteria to judge whether, in their opinion, a decision is sound. No politician should invoke God's blessing to twist their arms.

Can religion be used as a treat to attract voters?

The president often refers to his faith in public. Are we witnessing purely spontaneous expressions of faith by a man who has indeed been a sincere believer for 20 years? In my opinion, there isn't too much spontaneity involved.

To all appearances, the president's speech is masterfully tailored to appeal to religious voters but to alienate as few others as possible. For all of his religious language and convictions, I never heard him refer to himself as evangelical.

Similarly, he likes to draw words from biblical passages or religious hymns, but usually doesn't mention the source of those words.

For example, the term "wonder-working power," which Mr. Bush used in his 2003 State of the Union address, comes from an evangelical hymn, "Power in the Blood." Those who know that may have been pleased when Mr. Bush used it. Those who don't probably didn't feel offended.

But should a president, or any candidate for president, purposefully exhibit his faith to a very controlled extent so as to maximize the number of people who vote for him? Religion shouldn't be used in such an earthly manner.

The United States may be the only modern, developed society in which religion plays an important role in the political landscape. Is that a good thing for religion? Is it a good thing for society?

Emmanuel De Veirman is a doctoral candidate in economics at Johns Hopkins University.

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