In his current Slate ” History Lesson” column, David Greenberg compares George W. Bush and John Quincy Adams. John Q.–as he was not known–is the only president’s son so far to become president himself. Historian Greenberg finds many parallels but some differences. For example, Q. suffered a “lifelong case of clinical depression,” whereas W. has come to “believe that all Jews are bound for hell.” While the parallel is unclear, these are certainly two different things. As someone who has long suspected he might be Jewish (based on circumstantial evidence such as his bar mitzvah), I found this latter datum especially interesting. And, of course, it is remarkable to learn that George W. has actual opinions on any subject, let alone strong and controversial ones.
Unless you’re a political junkie, or live in Texas, you may have missed this story. The press have reported it, but not with the neurotic intensity you might expect. Why not? Conservative press critics often complain that the media ignore the importance of religion. This may be a case in point, though not one those critics are likely to complain about. Second, there is the inoculation phenomenon: Once a story has “been done,” editors and producers don’t want to do it again. So, getting it done small is protection against finding it done big. Finally, there may be a feeling among journalists that the whole thing’s a bum rap. Which it is and it isn’t.
There’s no evidence that George W. is an anti-Semite. After college he was even engaged briefly to a half-Jewish woman. Some have suggested that Bush may have dumped her because her father was Jewish, but there’s no reason to think he didn’t know that all along, if he cared, so the episode weighs in against the anti-Semitism charge, not for it. Bush has had many Jewish business partners and friends. If he believes they’re all going to hell, he hasn’t held it against them in this life.
So what does he believe? Like the Gospel tales themselves, the story of Bush’s views on Jews has several variants. In 1993, discussing his decision around age 40 to accept Christ as his personal savior, Bush told a Houston Post reporter that–as the reporter paraphrased it–“heaven is open only to those who accept Jesus Christ.” So at worst, Bush never condemned Jews specifically to hell specifically, but rather condemned most of humanity (anyone who doesn’t accept Christ) to what may be, depending on your point of view, a wider geographical area (anywhere outside heaven). I’m not sure if that’s better or worse.
Here’s where the gospels differ. According to Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard, Bush says his mother then called Billy Graham to straighten him out. Graham advised him to “never play God” by ruling on who gets into heaven. But according to Sam Howe Verhovek of the New York Times, Bush says Graham’s intervention occurred earlier, during an informal theological discussion at the Bush Sr. White House. And according to Ken Herman of the Austin American-Statesman, Bush actually made his 1993 comment in the course of recounting the Graham episode. In this version, the evangelist’s advice was slightly different: “Graham generally agreed with the theory but cautioned against spending much time worrying about it, Bush said.”
So, where does this leave us? If Billy Graham actually convinced Bush long beforehand that we don’t know who gets into heaven, then the Houston Post report of 1993 was flat-out wrong and Bush didn’t believe Jews were shut out of heaven even at the time. But Bush has never denied the accuracy of the reporter’s paraphrase. Nor, needless to say, has he adopted Version 2 of Graham’s advice by declaring that Jews won’t get into heaven, but he’s too busy to care. Bush now answers all questions on the subject of heaven and its admission requirements with this catechistic formulation: “It is not the governor’s role to decide who goes to heaven. I believe that God decides who goes to heaven, not George W. Bush.”
This won’t do, I’m afraid. It was good enough to get him a kosher certification from the Anti-Defamation League, but it makes no sense. No one is asking Bush to “decide” or “rule on” who gets into heaven. We can stipulate that God decides. (Some people–most Jews, for example–believe in God, but not in heaven. Few, if any, people believe in heaven, but not in God.) The issue is whether God has an admissions policy that excludes Jews and whether George W. has an opinion about what that policy might be.
Surely he does. “My faith tells me that acceptance of Jesus Christ as my savior is my salvation, and I believe that,” Bush says. Does he think that this principle only applies to him? Does he think that it’s possible for others to achieve salvation without accepting Christ? Even nonrecruiting religions such as Judaism claim to be more than just a personal taste or preference. Born-again Christianity claims to be the right answer to the most fundamental questions. So how can Jews possibly get into heaven without converting? Only two ways that I can see. One is if God allows exemptions. But to avoid offending any religious or nonreligious group, the exception would have to be that anyone who does not accept Christ need not accept Christ, which would destroy the rule. The other way out would be if the entire belief system permits doubt about itself–for example, if it’s only 50-50 that accepting Christ is mandatory for salvation for anybody, including George W. himself. Neither of these conditions applies to George W.’s faith, as he describes it.
And so what? Why should anyone care whether he or she will achieve salvation by the terms of someone else’s religion? What difference does it make if you can’t get into a heaven you don’t believe in? As a nonbeliever, I find the conventions of ecumenism baffling. I don’t want to tell you people how to run your religions. And obviously we want to avoid an outbreak of religious war, or even lesser forms of intolerance, if possible. But why does tolerance require people to pretend they don’t believe what they do? Wouldn’t tolerance be easier if it only required agreement to disagree peacefully rather than demanding actual sharing of religious doctrines at some level of abstraction? After all, if Bush really believes that accepting Jesus is the only path to salvation, he is pulling a pretty dirty trick on Jews by telling them otherwise. Putting votes before souls: Talk about political expediency!
George W. is lying either when he professes his faith or when he denies its implications. Or he hasn’t really thought it through, which itself would cast doubt on the depth of his faith. But I doubt this particular dishonesty will keep him out of heaven, since it is imposed on every politician–and even every clergyman with ambitions.
To be sure, there is a certain joy in watching a pol caught in pandering gridlock. Bush plays up his born-again faith to the religious right. He uses it even more than bona fide Christian-right pols do, as Fred Barnes points out, in order to allay suspicions that he may be moderate or indifferent on social issues. Then he has to fudge his faith so that people who don’t share it won’t take it seriously.
And if he gets this balancing act wrong, he must pander even more furiously to make it up. Going for a twofer a couple of years ago, Bush “confided” to Washington political columnist Andrew Glass that “he enjoys hanging out with country music singer [can you guess? well, obviously …] Kinky Friedman, who wrote [uh-oh] ‘They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore.’ ” Does W. agree with this sentiment? Does he have some problem with the quality of Jews being produced in America today?