George W. Bush: A Pious President

George W Bush

by Claire Martin

In a country that espouses the separation of church and state, the Presidency of Republican George W. Bush has generated considerable debate about the extent that religious beliefs and values influenced the domestic and foreign policies during his tenure. During his Presidency, Bush instigated a policy known as the ‘faith-based initiatives’, a domestic policy that developed as a direct result of his own personal transformation by faith. However, Bush’s beliefs were not the only way in which religion characterised domestic policies under his administration. The ‘Sanctity of Life’ issues surrounding abortion, stem-cell research and capital punishment were policies where religious political factions yielded a strong influence. Much of this can be ascribed to the Religious Right, a faction with immense political power under the Bush administration who advocated for the preservation or neglect of the ‘Sanctity of Life’ as it suited them. In order to galvanise political and public support for his ‘War on Terror’ foreign policy after 9/11, he favoured religious rhetoric portraying America as on a messianic mission to promote its values in the Middle East. Bush’s ‘War on Terror’ policy was influenced by a neoconservative ideology which had a religious component. However, while it was 9/11 that provided the neoconservative policy impetus, it was his faith that convinced him American power could be used as a potent force in the Middle East. Ultimately, through the exploration of Bush’s domestic and foreign policies, we can observe that religion significantly infiltrated all aspects of his presidency even though, at time, it may have been inconspicuous. 

Core to Bush’s ‘faith-based initiatives’ were his beliefs and personal experiences with his christian faith. During his 2000 presidential campaign, Bush propagated ‘Compassionate conservatism’ to change the public’s perception of Republicans as greedy and heartless, ideas which had proliferated since the Reagan administration. ‘Compassionate conservatism’ under the Bush administration is most aptly explained by his chief speech writer Michael Gerson as ‘the theory that should encourage the effective provision of social services without providing the service itself’. Within this initiative, he permitted federal funding to be allocated to private religious organisations providing social services, a policy that had been blocked under the previous administration. Bush’s own personal experiences with faith was pivotal in shaping his faith-based initiative, believing religion could help tackle social issues. In his memoir, Decision Points, he states that ‘faith showed [him] the way out’, of a life of heaving-drinking, smoking and a lack of direction to a life of sobriety, productivity and piety.’ Given the internal transformation within himself, Bush declared at a speech in Philadelphia in 2002, that faith-based initiatives ‘can change America one heart, one conscience, one soul at a time.’ As a result of his convictions, Bush utilised the executive branch to pass measures of the initiative in his first term despite the cynicism and lack of attention Congress gave it. Despite believing in the good that religion could bring, Bush attempted to maintain the separation of church and state, providing tax credits only for faith-based organisations that pledged not to proselytise and discriminate based on an individual’s religious beliefs. Despite this, Reverend Eugene Rivers of Boston lamented that the faith-based initiatives became a ‘financial watering hole for the right-wing evangelicals.’ His comment came in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, where the majority of the funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency predominantly went to right-wing evangelist Pat Robertson’s ‘Operation Blessing’ organisation. Compounding this issue, Robertson’s aid relief organisation was discriminatory, as his organization did not provide for African American neighbourhoods. Historians like Eric Alterman, argue that the initiatives purposefully allowed organisations like that of Reverend John D. Castellani’s ‘Teen Challenge’ program to proselytise to disadvantaged non-Christians. However, these realities can also be explained by the administrative limitations the White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives had in vetting every organisation, not that Bush was imposing a preferred religious ideology. Nonetheless, due to his own personal salvation through faith, Bush saw the positive role that religion could have on social issues which ultimately characterised the nature of these initiatives. 

Bush’s policies towards ‘sanctity of life’ issues proved to be complexly influenced by his own religious beliefs as well as the Religious Right’s beliefs, with the latter in some policies yielding more influence. The ‘sanctity of life’ is a religious principle that argues that human life is sacred and not to be violated without reason. As a result, issues like stem-cell research and abortion have been opposed by many denominations of Christianity and have always been controversial. The potential for human embryonic stem-cells to cure diseases like Alzheimer’s had only been recently discovered in the late 1990’s; however, under the Bush administration this potential was thwarted. Federal funding was cut in August of 2001, limiting research to a restricted number of stem-cell sources and prohibiting existing embryonic stem-cell research. Bush’s reasoning for the ban can be explained partly by his own religiosity. Bush believed in the sanctity of life, stating in his memoir that stem-cell research ‘technology should respect moral boundaries and not destroy the potential for human life.’ However, the decision to cut stem-cell research is far more nuanced than just his personal beliefs. The sanctity of human life is also valued by many of the cultural conservatives who formed a large proportion of Bush’s political support base and were instrumental in Bush winning the 2000 Republican Presidential candidacy. The extent of their influence is substantiated by Bush’s decision to ban federal funding despite evidence that not only did many prominent members within the GOP support stem-cell research, but so did two-thirds of the American public. Curbing Abortion legislation was also crucial to Bush’s strategy to appeal to the Religious Right. In 2003 he curtailed abortions drastically, banning late-term abortion or ‘partial-birth abortion’, deeming it a ‘brutal practice.’ In an early 2004 speech to the National Association of Evangelical Associations, Bush committed to ‘build[ing] a culture of life’ because ‘human life is a creation of God, not a commodity to be exploited by man.’ Although Bush believed in preserving the sanctity of life, the timing of the partial-birth abortion act and his speech to the evangelicals so late in his first term is no coincidence. The support of the Religious Right in the 2004 Presidential election was paramount for his re-election. When considering that 77% of American’s were in favour of allowing abortion to be publicly available including Bush’s wife and mother (albeit to a lesser degree), the influence the Religious Right was clear. This was made even more apparent in Bush’s advocacy for capital punishment, which has historically been sanctioned by powerful evangelical factions, despite identifying as a Methodist (a denomination who believe the death penalty violates the ‘Sanctity of Life’). Ultimately, Bush’s policies surrounding the sanctity of life, to varying degrees, were not only influenced by his own religious beliefs but also those of the politically powerful Religious Right.

Bush used both religious and traditional American political rhetoric in his speeches to garner public support for his ‘War on Terror’ policy. In an address to the nation on September 11, 2001, the day the planes flew into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon,  Bush called the attacks perpetrated by Al-Qaeda ‘evil’, declaring a new policy of  ‘War on Terror’ which would be ‘a monumental struggle of good versus evil, but good will prevail.’ This Manichean view promoted the might of America, but also facilitated an expansion of those who could be considered evil. In the days after the attack, Bush explained to the American people that the attacks were committed by terrorists (including those who supported them) who ‘hate our freedoms’. This was instrumental in authorising the invasion of Afghanistan in October of 2001. However, his statement was also paramount for popularising the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Deemed an ‘axis of evil’, Bush intended to overthrow Iraq’s leader, Saddam Hussein, publicly announcing that Saddam had links with Al-Qaeda and possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction that were capable of killing US citizens and his local population. Thus Bush conveyed his agenda in a way that portrayed America as the messianic liberator. In a speech concerning the ‘War on Terror’ in 2004 at the National Association of Evangelicals Convention, Bush linked divine proclamations with the promotion of freedom and democracy: ‘America is a nation with a mission. We’re called to fight terrorism around the world…we are called to expand the world of human liberty.’ This statement demonstrates the use of religion to frame his policy and muster support from important political groups. Bush’s frequent interlinking of American values with divine commands, perhaps due to his own religiosity, can also be explained by the American Civil Religion theory, which contends that there is a distinct national set of values that defines America irrespective of denomination. Developed by Robert Bellah in 1967, it argues that there is a belief in America that ‘freedom comes through God from government.’ Whilst the theory indicates that there is a natural tendency for Presidents to fuse divine proclamations with national values, Bush certainly exaggerated religious elements in order to garner support from important religious constituencies and the religious public. Thus from his public statements, we can observe religion imbued within the promotion of American values, but also his own distinct religious rhetoric of good and evil in an attempt to galvanise support for his “War on Terror”.

George Bush’s development of his ‘War on Terror’ policy was driven by a neoconservative ideology that also had a religious base, but his most influential force was the conviction that American power could be used to create a new world order in the Middle East. In his memoir Bush admitted ‘9/11 changed my lens through which to see the world’ and embarked on a unilateral and pre-emptive foreign policy to eliminate any perceived threats to American security. Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld who as Deputy and Secretary of Defence respectively, encouraged this train of thought by insisting that an invasion of Iraq would ‘show a major commitment to anti-terrorism.’ Despite dubious evidence of Iraq leader Saddam Hussein ever possessing the controversial WMD or being connected to Al-Qaeda, the vulnerability of America was exposed by 9/11. According to Wolfowitz, there was no need for ‘proof beyond reasonable doubt’ to invade countries that were perceived as a threat. The neoconservative-hallmark push for pre-emptive warfare in Iraq however, also had a religious component to it. 

Neoconservative pioneers like Irving Kristol were repulsed by movements that denigrated American ideals such as the counterculture movement in the 1960’s and the Democrats’ international pacifism during the Cold War. Using the rhetoric of Protestant Christianity to counterbalance these phenomena, neoconservative ideology has often invoked American Exceptionalism to justify its agenda. America serves a special mission (as ordained by God) to democratise and liberate other nations. As a result, with a neoconservative administration backing him, Bush’s faith gave him moral conviction to develop his War on Terror. A Leaked Downing Street Memo of July 2002 between Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair indicated that they were not primarily concerned with the veracity of the claims against Saddam, nor the UN’s edicts, in order to validate war. Under the aegis of 9/11, it was faith that created Bush’s need for America as liberator regardless of the political realities. Ultimately the decision-making process in response to the devastation of 9/11 was shaped by a neoconservative foreign policy with religious elements, but Bush’s own personal faith convinced him that American power was justified in taking drastic action in the name of liberty and freedom. 

Through the exploration of President George Bush’s domestic and foreign policies we are able to determine that religion exerted a powerful force in influencing his policies. Bush’s ‘faith-based initiatives’ were policies that were influenced primarily by his own personal transformation through faith, as he believed that the morality of religion could help tackle social issues. However, it was not just Bush’s religious beliefs that influenced public policy but also those of the Religious Right who, due to their political monopoly, played a key role in Bush’s social policies. Although Bush’s personal beliefs contributed to preserving the ‘Sanctity of Life’ regarding abortion and stem-cell research policies, the role of religion in these policies is better explained by considering the Religious Right. Religion was integral in framing and mobilising support for Bush’s ‘War on Terror’ policy with the promotion of quasi-religious American values such as democracy and freedom combined with overt religious rhetoric in his speeches. And while 9/11 provided the dimensions for the nature of Bush’s foreign policy, the most potent force was his faith, which necessitated the conviction that it was American power that would pave the way for a liberated Middle East. Ultimately, the religious influence on Bush’s decision making cannot be ignored when evaluating his domestic and foreign policy throughout his tenure as president. 

Image source: https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/government/fbci/FBCI-summit/index.html

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