Is George W. Bush launching the next Crusade? They think so in parts of the Muslim world. In his Against the Grain commentary, CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer says some opponents at home think so too.
"Bush is wigging me out," announced my free-thinking colleague, an anti-beltway, anti-leftie chic, anti-Jerry Falwell, nice Catholic girl married to an ex-cop. "He's turning into a Jihad kind of a guy."
Technically, he's more of a Jeeeee-Hawd kind of a guy, a Texas Blue Blood Holy Roller Warrior.
Or is he?
For some reason, there's been a ton of press in the past week about George Bush's faith -- how it comforts him and, allegedly, steers his administration's Iraq policy. The president, it has been reported, is on a mission from God.
"Bush has come to view his leadership of post-9/11 America as a matter of fate, or of God's will," Dana Milbank of The Washington Post wrote in a fairly typical recent story. "He has said the country is 'called to defend our nation and to lead the world to peace,' and he often says the mission is to extend liberty, 'God's gift to every human being in the world.'"
If true, that's quite a scoop. Picture the headline: Bush On War: It's God's Will.
Maybe that is what the president believes; I would certainly have no way of knowing. I can't get an interview with the president, or with God.
But the "Bush is waging a holy war" theory is running rampant. It's become a genuine conspiracy theory, haunting chat rooms and in-boxes. The idea that Bush is convinced he is acting in God's will is reported in some news stories as straight fact.
I am more than suspicious. I think it's almost silly. I don't believe the president is a religious nut.
After reading a load of Bush's speeches and interviews when he has talked about God and Iraq in the same breath, I see a guy who prays for strength and counsel and who has a religious faith that good will triumph, somehow. I don't see a guy who thinks he's God's personal agent.
And all presidents talk about God, especially in times of war or big trouble, not just George Bush. All the great old Founding Father types did. Lincoln did. Kennedy and Clinton did. Nixon did. Carter did, incessantly.
There is undeniably a slice of a normally tolerant "elite" that has a strong visceral dislike and mistrust of Bush's kind of Christianity, or at least it's public expression. Liberals, for instance, who would be perfectly comfortable with a Buddhist or a Hindu President and a Muslim or Taoist Secretary of Defense, are scared of born-again Christians in high office.
Having said that, I am suspicious of the White House too.
When so many profiles and essays come out at the same time with similar themes, it's usually not a coincidence. The subject, or his spinmeisters, is usually peddling the themes. "Bush and God" is a storyline the White House is happy to push.
And the president, of course, does use a lot of God talk. At his prime-time news conference last week, for example, he said, "My faith sustains me, because I pray daily. I pray for guidance and wisdom and strength."
My personal response to that is that a public people should keep their religion to themselves. And I think it is despicable for a politician to say that God has sanctioned this or that particular policy. I don't find Bush guilty on that count. I am not scared or offended in a profound sense by the president's God-vision-thing.
But I am suspicious – suspicious that a spin-savvy White House is using religion to manipulate and peddle. I smell a Rove. It's slimy.
More importantly, when so many in the Muslim world believe that the Christian West is launching a new Crusade, it seems reckless of the White House to stoke the idea that God is commanding the Oval Office.
It's not surprising that this White House would invoke religion to sell a war to a wary public, or that the president's opponents would portray him as a religious nut.
It's not helpful either.
Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is Editorial Director of CBSNews.com based in Washington.
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Against the Grain
By Dick Meyer
Copyright 2003 CBS. All rights reserved.