Faithful following on Capitol Hill

Has there ever been an American president as pious as George W. Bush? If press reports and commentaries are anything to go by, you would not think so. Mr Bush's faith is frequently discussed in the media, especially outside the US. That faith is routinely presented as uniquely Republican, extreme and unmodern.

This week, for example, we have been hearing about the Bush administration's righteous efforts to keep the phrase "under God" in the daily "pledge of allegiance" taken in US schools. Then there was the story in the Herald of Glasgow that described Mr Bush as demonstrating an "obsession with religion". This obsession, the article charged, was something Mr Bush shared with Ahmed Yassin, the recently assassinated head of the militant Hamas group.

Mr Bush is indeed pious. But the idea that his piety is somehow exceptional or extreme is wrong. In fact, many American presidents - from both parties - have been actively religious, including some relatively recent ones.

Start with the Democrat and Baptist, Jimmy Carter. Mr Carter was not merely religious; he was ostentatious about his religion. As president, Mr Carter attended Bible classes in Washington. When he secured the peace deal between Israel and Egypt, he used the occasion to warn the media against misinterpretation with a fiery quote from Isaiah: "Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil." Then of course there was the famous 1976 confession in Playboy magazine, in which Mr Carter confessed that he lusted in his heart after women who were not Rosalynn, his wife. But perhaps the best religious factoid about Mr Carter is that he took the opportunity of a private car ride to the airport in 1979 to try to convert Park Chung Hee, then president of South Korea and a Buddhist, to Christianity. What is more, Mr Carter was so proud of his effort that he told his Bible class all about it.

Imagine what would befall Mr Bush if he tried a similar caper with Hosni Mubarak, president of Egypt.

Another pious modern president was Franklin Roosevelt. Like Mr Bush, whose life changed around the age of 40 when he stopped drinking and embraced the Bible, FDR came to a turning-point when he contracted polio in his late 30s. His subsequent paralysis drove him both into seclusion and towards the pursuit of the presidency. Roosevelt, like Mr Bush, came to see faith as a core component of his identity. "I am Christian and a Democrat, that's all," he replied when asked to define himself.

His 1937 tax return shows he made contributions to his church at home in Hyde Park, New York state, several churches in Washington, DC, and a one-off donation of $2,000 - a lot of money in those days - to the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York city.

Frances Perkins, his labour secretary, reported in her memoirs that while FDR regularly attended church when in Hyde Park, in Washington, his attendance at St Thomas's, where he had once been a vestryman, was less regular. This, she notes, was not a lapse but rather a result of FDR's sense of privacy. "I can do almost everything in the 'goldfish bowl' of the president's life," he told her, "but I'll be hanged if I can say my prayers in it."

Roosevelt's sense of religion, Perkins continues, "was so complete that he was able to associate himself without any conflict with all expressions of religious worship". An Episcopalian, he liked the more humble culture of the Methodists and once took Churchill along to a Methodist service. When someone queried his decision he retorted: "What's the matter? It is good for Winston to sing hymns with the Methodys [sic]."

In September of 1933, Roosevelt placed his own New Deal in a religious context. Discussing the impact of the Depression, he said: "We shall not succeed in solving [the problem] unless the people of this country hold the spiritual values of the country just as high as they do the economic values." He went on to exhort believers to use church networks to help the poor - in other words, to deliver faith-based charity. This spiritual side of the Depression tends to get obscured.

When it came to foreign policy, religion also had its role for Roosevelt. Britain had recognised the Soviet Union and pressure was on FDR to follow suit. But first, as Perkins reported, FDR made freedom of worship a condition of recognition, telling Maxim Litvinov, the Soviet negotiator: "When you come to die you are going to remember your old father and mother - good pious Jewish people who believed in God and taught you to pray to God; you know it's important." Roosevelt was naive: the hard-boiled Litvinov would have agreed to just about anything to win recognition. Nonetheless the point is that Roosevelt believed faith mattered. So did Eisenhower, the president who introduced the "under God" phrase into the pledge.

Here a reader might argue that the difference between Mr Bush and previous presidents is that Mr Bush hauls religion into spheres where it did not play a role before - abortion and gay marriage, for example. This argument ignores the fact that for most of US history abortion was unlawful and gay marriage unheard of. It also ignores the reality that changing the status of either would have been unthinkable to most presidents, precisely because they were Christians. Mr Bush is mounting a rearguard action, not an offensive one.

In short, you can take issue with the various Bush stances all you like. You can even dislike him for his occasionally sanctimonious air. In this, he resembles Mr Carter. But when it comes to religion, this president is not unusual, and it would be heresy to argue otherwise.

© Copyright 2004 Financial Times

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