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U.S. News
Religious leaders uneasy with Bush's rhetoric

Wednesday, February 12, 2003

By Ann McFeatters, Post-Gazette National Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Is President Bush using inappropriately religious language as he talks daily about the possibility of war with Iraq?

Some religious leaders say they are becoming uncomfortable with the strongly religious tone of Bush's rhetoric, worried that he is usurping the role of preacher or possibly inciting Islamic fundamentalists with his good-versus-evil references.

In two recent speeches, at the annual convention Monday of the National Religious Broadcasters and at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, Bush said he welcomed faith to solve the nations' deepest problems and was greeted on both occasions with "amens." To some, however, he sounded more like an evangelical Christian minister than an elected political leader.

In discussing a likely war in Iraq with Australian Prime Minister John Howard this week, Bush said freedom for the Iraqi people is not a gift the United States can provide, but instead "liberty is God's gift to every human being in the world." To some, his word's implied that a war against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein would be a divinely endorsed act of liberation.

Going beyond religious references even of such presidents as Abraham Lincoln -- who once said he hoped that the nation during the Civil War was on God's side -- Bush told the religious broadcasters this week: "We're being challenged. We're meeting those challenges because of our faith."

The White House defends the president's language as expressions of his personal beliefs and says he has every right to speak with fervor about his faith.

But the Rev. William Gaddy, a Baptist minister who heads the Interfaith Alliance Foundation in Washington, disagrees. "The president of this nation has as his job to promote the common good. It's not his job to promote sectarian beliefs," he said.

Elaine Pagels, of Princeton University's Department of Religion, argues that Bush is betraying the religious diversity of the nation when he speaks of war in absolutist terms. "This is not political discourse," Pagels said. "This is the language of religious zealots, Christian and Muslim. When he speaks of the 'axis of evil,' he is placing those who disagree with him in the realm of evil."

The effect of injecting religion into a debate about war, Pagels said, is to halt discourse and to provoke one's target (in this case, mainly Iraq but also North Korea and Iran) into a shouting match about who is more evil. She said that while she believes it is appropriate to label some acts (such as the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001) as evil, much of the rest of the world is appalled by the way Bush has been branding countries and certain peoples as evil.

Responding to such criticism, Bush said Monday he will increasingly stress that his quarrel is with Saddam Hussein, not the Iraqi civilian population.

Gaddy accuses the president of going beyond acceptable limits of generalizing about religious beliefs, moving instead to active proselytizing. In analyzing the president's rhetoric in the last few years, Gaddy said: "You see a growing feeling he [believes] he is, in fact, a divinely chosen leader in this moment of history. It's as if he discovered the power of religion late in life and thinks the nation needs to [do the same]."

Such groups as the nondenominational National Council of Churches have been expressing uneasiness over Bush's faith-based initiative -- permitting more flexibility with federal funds to expand the ministries of synagogues, mosques and other religious groups to assist the needy. When these groups lobbied Congress to block Bush's proposed law that would allow such flexibility, the president instead issued an executive order forbidding the federal government from discriminating against religious institutions when dispensing funds. But he is still asking Congress to approve it.

After the Columbia shuttle disaster, Bush invoked "the Creator who names the stars" and quoted the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, saying, "Lift your eyes and look to the heavens ... ," as a way to comfort the nation.

Religious leaders such as Gaddy do not contest the use of religious references in such a context. But they do fault his citation of his Christian faith in justifying a war.

The White House has countered, though, that the president will continue to use such references because it is how he thinks and because a majority of Americans agree with him.

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