President Bush's statement to Bob Woodward that he asked God for advice before starting war with Iraq deserves attention. It gives Bush's war a special context.
Unlike most presidents, Bush wears his religion on his sleeve. He has said that God wanted him to be president, that only Christians go to heaven, that creationism as well as evolution should be taught to children, that Jesus is his favorite philosopher.
As president, Bush set up an office for a "faith-based initiative" that did not work out. Woodward says Bush told him he did not appeal to his father for advice on Iraq because "there's a higher father that I appeal to."
Another reason he might have preferred a higher father is that George H.W. Bush probably would have advised against war. Supported by aides Brent Scowcroft, James Baker and Colin Powell, father Bush opposed the occupation of Iraq in 1991.
Religion is already a subject in this presidential election and not because John Kerry is a Catholic. Kerry, like John Kennedy in 1960, is attempting to keep religion out of the race, telling Time magazine that, "my religious beliefs are my personal business." Some Catholic bishops, taking aim on politicians who don't follow church counsel on issues such as abortion, may make it hard for Kerry to keep religion out, but he is trying.
Bush has no such reluctance. He long has emphasized his born-again, evangelical Christianity and how it lifted him from a midlife alcoholic crisis and sent him into politics.
Jimmy Carter was our first born-again, evangelical president, and while that may have helped him defeat Gerald Ford in 1976, it gave him little help against Ronald Reagan in 1980. Whatever Carter's relationship to God, his foreign policy was a mess. Even evangelicals, the nation's largest religious category, turned against Carter in 1980, according to the Harris poll.
Religion normally is not an issue in presidential elections (1928 and 1960 are exceptions) because it is rarely seen as a political asset. In a nation of many creeds and denominations, a candidate emphasizing his beliefs risks losing more than he gains.
The idea of going to war because God is on your side is something alien to American history. The Founding Fathers, in making war against Britain, did not appeal to religion. In a new book about them, University of William and Mary historian David Holmes stresses the lack of religiousity of Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, calling them all deists or Unitarians.
Abraham Lincoln, not a religious man, leaves no record of having consulted with a "higher father" when the South opened fire on Fort Sumter.
America's wars of the past century were fought over national interests, not religious ones. Woodrow Wilson was the son of a Presbyterian minister, but German submarines, not God, got us into World War I.
Bush's war is different from past American wars because it was a war of choice, not necessity. German submarines weren't sinking our ships, Japan hadn't attacked, world communism was not threatening, Iraq was not a fount of terrorism. It was America's first pre-emptive war.
The strongest support for Bush's war came from Tony Blair, Britain's most religious leader since Gladstone. Like Bush, Blair prays. He keeps a Bible by his bed and says he will only answer to "my maker" for British deaths in Iraq. When David Frost asked if he and Bush prayed together on Iraq, Blair declined to answer.
If Blair prays on Iraq he is not being answered. "Iraq has become a series of crumbled beliefs and dashed hopes for the prime minister," wrote The Economist last week.
Bush is likely less circumspect about religion than Blair because Americans are more religious than the British, according to polls. In a recent survey, the Pew Research Center reported that 51 percent of Americans say they believe in prayer, up from 41 percent in 1987, and that most of the increase comes from evangelicals.
"While there has always been a correlation between conservatism and religiosity," Pew states, "the relationship has grown notably stronger." Evangelicals, at 30 percent, today make up the largest U.S. religious category. Eleven of the 12 most religious states are in the South, and the 10 least religious states are in the North and West.
These data suggest evangelical politicians may not need be so cautious about religion. The idea that you risk more than you gain by mixing religion and politics may change when you can count on a solid evangelical Southern block, and you're not going to win the North and Far West anyway.
The idea of a God-fearing Christian president taking the nation to war against an evil Iraqi regime helps explain the nation's initial support for Bush's war. That support was strengthened after he sought to connect Iraq to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks – a connection we now know was false.
Events of the past year, however, should cause all Americans, including evangelicals, to ask questions. America, not Saddam Hussein, has become the hated enemy in Iraq. Pre-emptive war, religiously motivated or not, is never just war. War is a matter of national, not religious, interests.
© Copyright 2004 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.