Walking on Water

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(HOST) When commentator Allen Gilbert looks at the religious dimension of the Bush presidency, he sees a marriage of faith and politics.

(GILBERT) It’s taken me a long time to appreciate the religious underpinnings of the George Bush presidency. I originally dismissed Bush’s religiosity as a ploy to attract voters in the Bible Belt. I didn’t think that a Yale graduate of sturdy New England stock could believe in a form of Protestantism rejected by his alma mater and Northeastern society two centuries ago.

Several documentaries that aired around the time of the 2004 elections convinced me otherwise. George Bush is a true believer. The Rev. Billy Graham helped him through a religious conversion spawned by Bush’s substance abuse problems. George Bush now truly believes that he has a special relationship with Jesus Christ.

Bush’s personal conversion projects an important message to his supporters of the “religious right”. The message should not be underestimated, for it has a powerful political dimension.

This power was brought home to me one Sunday when I was listening to a sermon in my church. The pastor was speaking about the budget that we would consider at our annual meeting. Church budgets are problematic. Deficits are common. Pledges don’t come in as planned. Red ink flows.

What to do? A tax can’t be levied to make up the difference. But there is faith. And in this instance, our minister used the miracle of Jesus walking on water to exhort the congregation to have faith that we’ll walk over the sea of red ink. “Reach out and take Jesus’ hand and trust,” he said. “The money will come. Have faith.”

The budget passed.

A substantial part of the American electorate seems to respond similarly to George Bush’s exhortations. When Bush decides to take the country to war or to remake Social Security, he reaches out to voters and says, “Trust me. This will work.”

I think that Bush is able to do this because he knows that many Americans react religiously to him. They believe in the man, even if his policies seem illogical. They believe, as Bush himself believes, that he has been chosen to carry out God’s will in the world. The result is a relationship of trust, a marrying of religious faith and political decision-making. This allows Bush to carry out policies that could even be against his supporters’ best interests. The supporters may have doubts, but they put them aside because they believe in the man.

Perhaps the president’s plan for Social Security privatization will be the issue that frays this relationship. So far, it’s been the one thing that Bush has not been able to “sell” to the electorate. For once, people seem reluctant to step out of the boat and walk on the water.

Oh, our church budget – how will the deficit be made up if pledges fall short? The endowment. We’ll draw down the church’s endowment to pay operating expenses. It’s like an invisible breakwater just under the surface to protect the harbor and provide secure footing.

The parallel for the federal government would be borrowing from another generation to pay today’s bills. That, I’m afraid, is not a sustainable strategy.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont. He has a longtime interest in public policy issues.

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