Whose side is God on?" the caller wanted to know. Whose side is God on? I was a guest recently on local talk show where we were talking about religious rhetoric and how it has been used to lead America closer to the edge of war with Iraq.
"God is on the side of humanity," I answered in a rapid-fire tone. "God is on the side of humanity."
As I heard the mocking, condescending tone of his voice, I realized he was trying to make sense of it all. How does one analyze and then understand presidential God talk, in the midst of preparation for war?
"The terrorists hate the fact that we can worship God Almighty as we see fit," is what President Bush reportedly told a group of religious broadcasters in late February. Then he laid out his sense of vision that the United States is called to bring God's gift of liberty "to every human being in the world."
It is this direct language, that speaking from a sense of a call from God, that is causing concern among sincere people of both secular and religious faith, and among those who study religion.
In a recent article in Newsweek, Martin Marty wrote that "Few doubt that Mr. Bush is sincere in his faith." Marty, a Lutheran minister and professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, is viewed as one of country's leading religious historians. "The problem is with his evident conviction that he's doing God's will."
Marty isn't alone in his concern. "It's a little scary to think that Bush might view himself as an instrument of God's will," says Ted Jelen, a professor and chair of the political science department at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. "His religious imagery is particularly problematic for those on the secular side who don't think religion has any relevance to political life."
At the heart of this then, for those troubled by what appears to be Bush's conviction that he is doing God's will, is a kernel of legitimate concern. The same kernel that was there in the 1960s, when some voters harbored anti-Catholic sentiments.
"People wondered about John F. Kennedy, whether he would be a president who just followed what the pope said," says John West, an associate professor of political science at Seattle Pacific University. "Should a president base his stance on politics with how he bases his stance on God?"
The answers to this question vary depending on whom you ask.
"Some Christians argue that government and faith should be separate. Others, like President Bush, believe that faith should shape one's perspective on government. Some Christian politicians believe that a Christian view of government means that anything a Christian finds to be sinful should be illegal, or that anything biblically required for the Christian life, like prayer, should be required by law," says Julia Stronks, a political science professor at Whitworth College. After studying this issue for twenty years, she disagrees.
"I have come to believe that Christian perspective requires an understanding of the different unique callings of the government and the church," Stronks says. "The church calls us to a life of worship and community in Christ. The government's unique, biblical responsibility is to call us to provide justice for all people, whatever their own worldviews might be. There may be cases when a person's worldview is harmful to others; in these cases the government's calling is to limit the harm."
Stronks' colleague Mike Ingram, an associate professor and chair of the communication studies department, thinks something else is at work in all of this concern about presidential God Talk.
"I think you might look at religious people as falling into two camps," says Ingram. "The more conservative religious folk are willing to speak with certainty: 'God is speaking to me. X is right. Y is wrong. God is giving me a mission.' The more liberal folk are less forceful, and less direct in their religious belief, and won't project that this absolutely is God's will."
With all of its forcefulness, presidential God talk in the 21st century appears to lack the humility of some of the great religious rhetoric of presidents in previous centuries. According to Jelen, Abraham Lincoln once said not so much that God was on our side, but rather we needed to make sure that we were on God's side.
"Lincoln regarded both sides in the Civil War as highly culpable, both were responsible for the war for it was a consequence of their sin," says Jelen. "Whereas Bush puts all the evil on the other side. This is what bothers both the non-religious and the authentically religious. His faith is fairly undisciplined, for he came out of a self-help group. Jesus is his comforter, one who makes alcoholics feel good, as opposed to someone who has demands. For Bush it's too easy."
Yet what President Bush read on the morning of February 10, before he spoke to the religious broadcasters about America's call to bring God's gift of liberty to the world, was anything but easy. From the Christian classic, Oswald Chambers' My Utmost for His Highest, which Bush reportedly reads every morning, it was these words that seem to inspire him.
"You will be powerless when faced with difficulties, and will be forced to endure in darkness. If your power to see has been blinded, don't look back on your own experiences, but look to God. Go beyond yourself and away from the faces of your idols and away from everything else that has been blinding your thinking. Wake up and deliberately turn your thoughts and your eyes to God."
Later that day Bush did turn "his imagination" to God. While admitting the prospect of war was "weighing heavy" on him, he reportedly said that, "America had to see that it is 'encountering evil' in the form of Saddam Hussein. If anyone can be at peace," Bush said, "I am at peace about this."
Some of those who aren't at peace wonder what Bush might say in his own private thoughts 'about being at peace,' were he to turn his imagination to the words of a great religious teacher, from a tradition different than his own:
"What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction [of war] is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?" asked Mahatma Gandhi. Indeed, what difference does it make whose side God is on unless God is on the side of humanity?