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Christian Morality in the White House
by Lionel E. Deimel

A recent letter to the editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from a former Allegheny County Commissioner suggested that opposition to the current war in Iraq is largely the product of resentment of President Bush for his Christian morality. It wasn’t long after I read this letter that I began writing a rebuttal to it. Apparently, many others did the same, as the newspaper printed several responses, not including mine. The essay below is an edited version of my letter to the editor of 3/22/2003.

— LED, 4/3/2003


A current idea among American conservatives seems to be that opposition to President George W. Bush—and, particularly, opposition to the war in Iraq—is not so much the result of policy differences with the President as it is a reaction to Mr. Bush’s avowal of Christian principles. Presidential seal In this view, the current President stands in stark contrast to the “immoral” Bill Clinton, and he is despised for it. (It is fascinating how the religious right equates morality with sexual rectitude, and shows little concern for indiscretions such as corporate lying, cheating, and stealing.)

I agree that Mr.  Bush's religion is an important source of discomfort with the President for many citizens, but this discomfort may be as prevalent among Christians as among non-Christians. Like Islam, Christianity is diverse, with liberal and conservative wings that sometimes view one another with distrust or incredulity. People possessed of unquestioned faith and piety subscribe to radically different moral positions on issues such as abortion, homosexuality, obligations to the poor, birth control, divorce, stem cell research, or war. Contrary to the conservative view that opponents to the President’s positions on these issues are morally bankrupt, as a nation, we care deeply about them and have quite legitimate disagreements with the current administration. In fact, no reputable political consultant would suggest that anyone perceived as an atheist could be elected President; we expect our national leader to be God-fearing and moral.

What is distressing about Mr. Bush's particular brand of morality is the seemingly short rhetorical distance between faith-based principle and public policy, which is characteristic of present-day conservative theology. More liberal Christian thinking emphasizes overarching goals and moral principles. In this tradition, the hard work of moral living is translating principles into action, an ambiguous, agonizing activity requiring distinctions between myriad shades of gray. Those who do not share the President's theological outlook worry that he is impervious to the usual civil discourse we expect to be carried out in the public square, where we come to balance competing interests, evaluate possible unintended consequences, and otherwise deal with those many shades of gray that become apparent to many of us whenever principle and pragmatics collide.

Of even greater concern is the President's potential influence on the tense balance between church and state. However religious our people, the United States is a secular state, a fact that arguably has benefited our citizens generally and our religious citizens in particular. Reviewing this administration's decisions and proclivities on such issues as genetic research and first-amendment rights, however, some of us conclude that there is cause for concern that, when confronted with a conflict between personal religious principle and the Constitution, the President will choose his personal beliefs, irrespective of the wording of his oath of office.

I celebrate Mr. Bush's piety, but I am sobered by the example of the Taliban, which suggests that piety may not be what we should most seek in our civil leaders.

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