Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Bush, Faith, and the Culture

Last week President Bush was interviewed by Cynthia McFadden for ABC’s Nightline. The interview was intended to specifically focus on the President’s beliefs in regard to his Christian faith. His answers to some of those questions proved to be quite controversial; particularly among conservatives and evangelicals. [CLICK HERE OR ON PHOTO TO VIEW NIGHTLINE INTERVIEW]

Here are some comments from bloggers and online media sources that are reflective of some of the responses being generated by the Nightline interview:

“All it [the interview] proves to me is that Bush is an intellectual lightweight who doesn't have the capacity to defend his own faith.”

“I kinda think that Bush has lost his first love from being around political Washington too long; that is, if he was ever truly born again as claimed.”

“I honestly do not think President Bush intended to do this or meant what he said. At least, I hope he didn't. I do believe that this entire interview put tremendous pressure on Mr. Bush causing him to either compromise or reveal what he truly believes.”

“Can you believe that George Bush is a religious moderate? That’s the image he projected a few nights ago in an interview with Nightline’s Cynthia McFadden.”

Even this morning, a week after the show aired, I heard some comments on talk-radio still expressing disbelief at the President’s remarks. In case you missed the story, here is an excerpt of the parts of the interview that have upset so many.

Concerning the Bible, McFadden asked if it is literally true. Bush responded: "You know, probably not. No, I'm not a literalist. But I think you can learn a lot from it.”

Another exchange causing controversy came from a question regarding prayer. Here is that exchange:

McFadden: “Do you believe that when you pray to God that that’s the same God that a Muslim prays to?”

Bush: “I do.”

McFadden: “That’s gotten you in some trouble with your base.”

Bush: “I don’t know, maybe it does. I do believe there is an Almighty that is broad – big – enough, loving enough, that can encompass a lot of people. I don’t think God is a narrow…umm…a narrow concept, I think it’s a broad concept. I just happen to believe the way to God is through Christ, and others have different avenues toward God and I believe we pray to the same Almighty, I do.”

At minimum, the comments made by President Bush reflect a belief that other religions are valid paths to God, and that Christianity is, therefore, just one of many divergent ways to come to God. In a sense, when it comes to knowing God, this approach almost leads one to believe everybody makes it somehow or another – that is, unless you are a “religious” terrorists. The President, very candidly tells McFadden that those who practice hate aren’t really praying to God, so he excludes them in his assessment that we all pray to the same God.

My purpose in writing is not to be critical of President Bush. I actually tend to lean more toward the view that he may have compromised his beliefs for political correctness, or that he truly hasn’t thought through the ramifications of his statements. Maybe he’ll get a do-over, like so many before him who, when caught in the glare of the media, hedged on taking a clear stand on the gospel being that salvation comes only through Jesus Christ.

Maybe he would have been better taken the approach of the President-elect, who when faced with tough “faith” questions, brushed them aside with the comment he was not running to be the chief theologian.

Actually, the President’s comments don’t really surprise me. What I do find rather astonishing is that others are surprised by them. I don’t mean by this that Bush has given us reason to expect such comments from him. Rather, based on the cultural trends regarding faith, I am not surprised that the President wouldn’t be included in those statistical beliefs.

For example, when he said he didn’t believe the Bible was literal, Bush was expressing a view held by a large segment of the Protestant Church. In their 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, the Pew Forum found that while 77% of Protestants (89% of Evangelicals) and 62% of Catholics believe the Bible is the Word of God, 27% of Protestants and 36% of Catholics do not believe the Bible is literal (among Evangelicals, 25% said it was not literal).

Regarding there being more than one way to God, this same Pew Report found that 70% of Americans with a religious affiliation believe that many religions can lead to eternal life. Even among evangelicals, the number was an astounding 57% that answered many religions can lead to eternal life. Among Catholics the number was a staggering 79%.

I am not saying that truth is determined by polling and that since our President is in line with the majority, it is not a problem for him to hold to, or express, such views. What I am saying is, in light of such predominate cultural views, perhaps we should hold back somewhat on the shock and incredulity that is being expressed regarding this interview.

Maybe is it more reflective of the poor job we –the church – are doing in discipling those whom the Lord entrusts to us. Perhaps it is indicative of how much easier it is to sit back and complain about what the culture looks like than to be invasive in addressing it.

If one takes time to listen carefully to the entire interview with President Bush, you will find an interesting blend of right on statements about the gospel, mingled in with the comments that have created such a furor. At one point he even admits he is getting way out of his lane in answering some of these questions, stating, "I'm just a simple President". His admission indicates these are questions that may have been best left unanswered.

However, when asked about life after the Presidency and how his faith will enter into it, I think he makes an excellent observation, stating: “I’m going be trying to stay on the walk until the last day on the face of the earth. I’ve come to this conclusion, maybe I’m wrong, I don’t know. The full understanding of Christianity is going to take a full life time of study.” On this I think we can agree with him; only, it will take this life and beyond.

Hopefully, here is something else we can agree on, as people of faith. The Nightline interview clearly shows that even the President is not excluded from the cultural trends we face. Rather than beating up on the President and his faith beliefs, let’s use this as an entry point to talk about what the Bible really says and what the gospel really offers, and to whom it is available.

Now that’s something to talk about.