Search SBL

SBL Forum Archive
<< Return to SBL Forum Archive President George Bush: America's Pastor in Troubled Times?

The separation of church and state has always been a controversial doctrine in American life. But usually it is the Congress or Supreme Court whose activities draw into question the location of the line dividing church and state; rarely are presidents the cause of the controversy. Many are beginning to suggest that President George W. Bush is too religious for his job, that he is crossing the constitutional line drawn between state and religious interests, and that this tendency is evident in both his domestic and foreign policy agendas. Is this true?

I have enjoyed many recent conversations with friends and colleagues on this highly charged subject. Many of them say that it is fine for Bush to be religious, but then charge that his entire presidency, his full political agenda, is increasingly looking like a personal crusade to remake America in keeping with his personal religious views. It is subtly presented, they say, but unfolding nonetheless. Consider his domestic agenda, they add. It includes conservative, pro-life judicial nominations (he says he will appoint only monotheists, meaning no Buddhists, Hindus or atheists); new laws to permit the posting of the Ten Commandments in public buildings, including public schools; new regulations that allow federal grants for construction of "social service" facilities at religious institutions; a ban on human cloning and "partial birth" abortion; a sweeping program to allow churches, temples, synagogues and mosques to use federal funds to administer social-welfare programs; strengthened limits on stem-cell research; increased funding to teach sexual abstinence in schools, rather than safer sex and pregnancy prevention; government vouchers to help students attend religious schools; and federal money for prison programs that use Christian tough love in an effort to lower recidivism rates among convicts. All of these aims match the platform of the Christian Right, some of my friends tell me.

Yes, this agenda does match that of the Christian Right. Yet Bush, in my view, is too savvy to be "controlled" by the Christian Right. If anything, his political agenda is his own. One may speculate that crafting his own agenda and coming to the same conclusions as the Christian Right is more dangerous than catering to them strictly for political gain, but clearly his agenda is his own. Is it true, as some of my friends suggest, that Bush shows signs of believing he is called to remake a too-secular America along Christian lines, which violates his mandate to guard the religious freedom of all American citizens?

In my informal conversations, I have heard any number of concerns offered as sure proof that Bush is dangerous. He takes himself too seriously, they say, in answering, what Bush himself describes in his book, A Charge to Keep: My Journey to the White House, "God's call" to the presidency. One colleague was concerned that his lead speechwriter is Michael Gerson, a graduate of theological studies at evangelical Wheaton College who was recommended by Prison Fellowship's Chuck Colson and sprinkles Bush's speeches with "God talk." Another was concerned that many of the newly appointed lawyers working in the Justice Department are graduates of Pat Robertson's Regent Law School, many of whom learned their trade working for the American Center for Law and Justice, the litigation arm of Robertson's expansive Christian enterprises. The most frequently expressed concern is that Bush has created within his administration an Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, designed to funnel federal money to charities, principally churches and other faith-based organizations, to administer social programs in a spiritual environment. I think all of these critics know of Bush's conversion to Christianity at age forty, a life-changing event that emerged out of a two-year Bible study that he attended which saved his marriage and enabled him to break his habit for strong drink. They are inclined to take seriously this event that changed his life forever, but they are concerned that the new Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives is Bush's attempt to nationalize his own experience.

President Bush's referral to the war on terrorism as a "conflict between good and evil" strikes many as an obvious transgression of the religious onto the political. But charging him with seeing the war against terrorism as America's God-directed mission to overcome diabolical evil with divine good is a charge I am not personally able to judge at this point.

Nevertheless, from my vantage point, it is the sense of American superiority in the new war that Bush projects that rankles the rest of the world. Even as the world's sole superpower, proclaiming to all nations "you are either for us or against us" seems arrogant. Identifying Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an "axis of evil" seems brash as well, and has ignited new Anti-American resentment from every corner of the globe. Bush's early announcement of a "crusade" against the terrorist evildoers following the 9/11 tragedy likewise did not rest well with the Muslim world, which interpreted the language as calling for a modern Christian assault against Muslims. Bush now ends virtually every public address with the words, "God Bless America." This might play well in the U.S., but not overseas. As one Middle East journalist put it, "All I see on American TV are 'God Bless America' signs. Why don't any of them read 'God Bless the World.'" He makes a good point—assuming we believe that God cares as much for others as he does for us.

Perhaps it is true that President Bush wishes to spread American values around the world, and that he understands American values in a religious context. In various speeches, he has declared that "our nation is chosen by God and commissioned by history to be a model to the world of justice," that the people of Iraq deserve the "God-given blessings of liberty," and that "Liberty is God's gift to every human being in the world." This would seem to suggest that for Bush, transferring democracy to other parts of the world is part of a divine initiative, since God is the author of liberty. As religious historian Martin Marty said in a Newsweek article written just before the advance into Iraq, "Without question, belief in American democracy as one of God's blessings is part of the motive against Iraq."

So, is it true that Bush is crossing the line of church-state separation because his policies, domestic and foreign, are an outgrowth of his religious faith? Sociologist Max Weber frequently pointed to the success of any particular political regime as resting on the people's confidence in the regime. If, as in the United States, the legitimacy of any administration rests to a large degree on the people's ability to believe that it is aligned with the ultimate aims and purposes of God, then should we not expect to see Bush acting religiously? And if he is sincere in furthering an agenda that is religiously motivated, is that necessarily worse than feigning religion for political purposes?

There is nothing wrong with having religious presidents. The American people expect it, if not demand it. Clearly, most of our presidents have had faith commitments. Even having an evangelical as president is nothing new; William McKinley the Methodist, Woodrow Wilson the Presbyterian, and Jimmy Carter the Baptist all were avowed evangelicals. I even think it is occasionally good for a president to assume a role resembling a national pastor, particularly in troubled times such as the days following the ghastly 9/11 event or the Columbia tragedy when Americans need their national leader to share their grief and soothe their hearts and somehow offer some spiritual comfort. President Bush performs admirably in this role. But while a president can be expected to be religious, and occasionally even rely upon his faith in performing his office, he still must respect the fundamental American commitment to church-state separation.

In the end, there is no way to extract religion from politics, especially presidential politics. The separation of church and state can never be absolute. The legislative and judicial branches, charged with the responsibility of protecting the religious freedom of American citizens in the grind of everyday life, are more obligated to carefully scrutinize out their religious views as they formulate policy and rules. Moreover, they act institutionally more than as individuals, whereas the president performs his duties with a real human face, as one who is not only the symbol of the nation but also the one expected to further the hopes and dreams of the American nation—and the vision of America and the great majority of its citizens is one that deeply relies on the sovereignty and direction of the hand of God. As Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas once wrote, "We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being." If the American people decide in democratic course that the nation is threatened by a "too religious" president, their remedy is to vote him out of office. Until then, we should not be surprised when the current president not only believes religiously, but acts religiously, too. It goes with the territory.

If I could tell the president anything it would be that there is danger in attaching his policies too closely to his personal faith, if in fact that is what he is doing. The Founding Fathers formally and wisely erected a constitutionally non-religious state, a republic whose affairs were not to be pursued according to one man's religious vision. Whatever we do in formulating national and international policy, especially in prosecuting the new war against terrorism, we should stop short of embracing a national faith that uncritically aligns our national interests with the plan and purpose of God. This is among the reasons our Constitution wisely mandates a degree of separation between church and state, thus preventing too close an alliance between the interests of religion and government that might harm our great nation. I would hope that President Bush will be wary of the dangers of such an alliance and avoid leading in a way that, intentionally or unintentionally, serves to strengthen that alliance.

Derek H. Davis (B.A., M.A., J.D., Baylor University; Ph.D., University of Texas at Dallas) is director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and editor of the award-winning Journal of Church and State. He is the author of Original Intent: Chief Justice Rehnquist & the Course of American Church-State Relations (1991), Religion and the Continental Congress, 1774-1789: Contributions to Original Intent (2000), and editor or coeditor of twelve additional books, including the Legal Deskbook for Administrators of Independent Colleges and Universities and The Role of Religion in the Making of Public Policy. He serves numerous organizations given to the protection of religious freedom in international contexts, and is a frequent speaker on church-state relations, religious freedom, human rights, and the role of religion in society.

Citation: Derek H. Davis, " President George Bush: America's Pastor in Troubled Times?," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited May 2006]. Online:


© 2021, Society of Biblical Literature. All Rights Reserved.