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Dialogue: Faith and War

May 6, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST
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PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I also have this belief, strong belief, that freedom is not this country’s gift to the world. Freedom is the Almighty’s gift to every man and woman in this world.

JEFFREY BROWN: When President Bush talks about the war against terrorism and Iraq, he often uses words that invoke his religious faith. Here, for example, at his recent press conference.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We have an obligation to work toward a more free world. That’s our obligation. That is what we have been called to do, as far as I’m concerned.

JEFFREY BROWN: And when the president speaks of a “calling” from the Almighty, or of evil versus good, among those listening most carefully are Jean Bethke Elshtain and Martin Marty, colleagues, friends, and sometimes intellectual adversaries at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School.

JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN, in classroom: Evil is a turning away from God that is perverse. It is the will itself.

JEFFREY BROWN: Elshtain is professor of religion and social ethics. Her most recent book is titled “Just War Against Terror.” Martin Marty, now retired from teaching, has been one of the nation’s leading historians of religion for decades.

JEFFREY BROWN: The two joined us earlier this week in the university’s beautiful Bond Chapel. Jean Bethke Elshtain, Martin Marty. Welcome.

Professor Elshtain, when President Bush uses religious language or references when he’s speaking to the American public about war, what do you hear?

JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN: What I hear is yet another example of a strain in American presidential rhetoric that has been surprisingly pervasive in our history. If you go back to reread some of the speeches that presidents have made, especially in times of tribulation, you’ll find that providence is called upon, that the hope that the United States is doing God’s will may be referenced or mentioned. We think of Lincoln’s “last best hope on earth,” but also his warning that God’s purposes are not our own. I think of Franklin Roosevelt’s D-Day prayer, it was actually a prayer that he issued on D-day, and some of his discussions about the providential mission or role of the United States. Woodrow Wilson did the same thing at the time of World War I and especially in pushing the League of Nations, where he talked about “the salvation of the world depended on this.”

So I see President Bush in that long historic strand. I don’t see anything that departs from it that dramatically.

JEFFREY BROWN: Professor Marty, what do you hear?

MARTIN MARTY: I hear all of the above, with a sharper edge in that I hear more of Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt than I do of Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon and others, in that, as far as Wilson was concerned, he was sure he was doing right and even talked about our troops sometimes as Christ’s soldiers, and that carried over then into an idealistic policy which he couldn’t then sell. And Roosevelt had a kind of zest for war. I wouldn’t say that Bush has zest for war, but he was really ready and raring to go.

JEFFREY BROWN: You wrote in an essay, I think it was last year, “The problem isn’t with Bush’s sincerity, but with his evident conviction that he’s doing God’s will.”

So where is the line that you see in how a president should talk to the people?

MARTIN MARTY: The line can never be neat. We the public like to have our presidents be religious. Most polls, about 80 percent of the people like to know that the president is personally religious. About 80 percent have always been nervous about too explicit reference along the way.

I think the fact that he’s attractive to some people because he’s resolute and unchanging is the very thing that makes a lot of us nervous, as we hear him. I’d like to see sometime or other the Lincolnian note. Lincoln would often say, “I hope I’m right, but the almighty has his own purposes, and maybe we will learn in the unfolding that we weren’t right.”

I think when President Bush so polarizes “they’re evil,” and uses the language “we will rid the world of evil,” that’s I think beyond what other presidents aspired to.

JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN: How we assess the way a president is speaking will depend very much on whether we think some line has been crossed that leads to or perhaps bids to move into a kind of triumphalist note, where one’s own purposes are not questioned and are not open to a kind of critical scrutiny.

Now I don’t hear as much of that in what President Bush has said as Marty does. I hear concern about whether, in fact, he being called, as he believes he is, to public office, whether he in fact is fulfilling that office in a way that is… that meshes, if you will, with his religious faith.

JEFFREY BROWN: I wonder if one way of thinking about where that line is, is the extent to which the language suggests or might suggest that God is on our side, if it hits people’s ears that way: our God versus their God.

MARTIN MARTY: I don’t think there’s any doubt that it hits people’s ears that way. I don’t disagree about his call to public service. Both Jean and I are in theological traditions that make a great deal of vocation. You’re called to a place in life and a calling.

It’s a little too specific when he… and he did tell his aides that he did feel called to be the president and called to this hour. I couldn’t disagree with the notion that we’re fighting really, really evil. There’s no doubt about that. But the note that is so missing I think that we should learn from Abraham Lincoln, we learned from our best theologians, is that you hold up the mirror yourself.

When Lincoln is marshalling troops to fight the South, he comes more and more to being explicit how evil slavery is but it’s always, too, what did we do to bring this on?

JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN: I think there are some moves on the president’s part that temper the temptation, if you will, of a kind of triumphalism in the religious sense.

One of the worries post-9/11 that some of us had was that this would turn into a religious war, a war against Muslims, and I think it was really, in many ways, the president’s finest hour when he stepped in and made sure that that didn’t happen by going to the Islamic center in Washington and by saying, “yes, Muslims pray to the same God.”

JEFFREY BROWN: I’m wondering if in the larger society, do you see a growing split? I’m thinking that for millions of Americans when they hear the president’s language incorporating religious values in foreign policy it’s quite normal, it’s quite acceptable. While for millions of others, it’s disturbing.

JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN: Yes.

MARTIN MARTY: I think President Bush came on the scene with the self-definition that he was going to moderate and reconcile, and I think almost all of his moves have been polarizing, and it’s very frustrating, those of us who, like Jean and I, like to be in town meetings where people who disagree are talking to each other, and they don’t talk to each other. You’re either invited to a group where they’re all one or all the other or somebody says right off, total defense or total attack on the president. In our case the president of religion and foreign policy and the climate changes so fast, you can’t do anything else.

JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN: We’re not in absolute disagreement on this, but I would trace the polarization to all sorts of trends that were well underway before Bush came into office. For all that we are a Christian nation in many ways, and remain such through at least if you go by people’s self-identification, that secularism, as an ideology — I’m not attacking the secular — but a kind of secularist ideology that wants religion out of the public arena altogether — that actually has been growing in influence, especially in our elite media, in our popular culture.

And it’s casting I think a more and more relentlessly critical eye on the use of religion in the public arena, especially if they disagree with the politics of a particular president.

JEFFREY BROWN: To return, finally to the language that the president uses in addressing the public, what language would you like to hear from the president?

JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN: Well, if I were one of the president’s speechwriters and advisers, at this point I would say I think it’s a good idea now, the time has come for you to do a major national address in which you talk about the fact that our ability to bring about a successful culmination to our own policies is not foreordained.

That there are going to be many difficulties along the road, that certain mistakes have been made, that we can’t go everywhere and do everything, and we have no intention of doing that. Nevertheless, we are not going to back off our commitment to the notion that of all of the possible forms of civil society, democracy best speaks to our God-given dignity and liberty.

JEFFREY BROWN: Professor Marty?

MARTIN MARTY: If I were a speechwriter, I’d have a first line that the whole nation would lean forward on and say, “for the first time in my career, I’m going to admit that I made a mistake, and then therefore every time I use the word ‘humble’, I’m going to spell it out that nobody’s perfect, and our policies aren’t perfect, and we make big mistakes, and you have to learn that about me as I’ve learned that about myself, which means that would liberate us both to look in a fresh way toward the future.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Jean Bethke Elshtain and Martin Marty, thank you both for joining us.

JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN: Thank you.