Friday, July 23, 2004

My latest column from the Lancaster Sunday News.

Cross-posted in a bunch of places.

It may not be true that Pres. Bush said to a group of Amish farmers "I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn’t do my job", as was reported by the Lancaster New Era. It's an unconfirmed report, and the White House denies that the President said it.

But assume for a moment that it is true.

Should we doubt the president’s sanity? I don't believe so. He probably didn't mean that he was given the spiritual gift of prophecy, whereby God takes over a believer's voice to communicate a message.

More likely, he meant that he receives guidance from the Lord, that his actions reflect what he interprets as God's will. This is a mainstream belief; my own denomination claims to listen for the "still speaking" God.

So, he's on fairly firm theological ground. Reasonable people can—and do—dispute his interpretation of what God calls us to do. But what faithful person would admit that we do not seek God’s guidance in some way?

Should we doubt the sincerity of Bush's faith when he says such a thing? Probably not. It's true that he doesn’t attend church much—apparently only when he's at Camp David—but there are plenty people of faith who seldom, if ever, darken the door of a house of worship. No reason to criticize him there.

And while it's true that a picture of a president with a group of Amish farmers is worth its weight in gold, especially for one so concerned to portray himself as the representative of American values, if the White House had wanted to play up this angle, we would have seen it by now. In fact, largely because of the quote attributed to Pres. Bush, they’re doing everything they can to downplay the meeting.

Should we be concerned that the president speaks in such overtly religious tones? Well perhaps, and here's why. Max Weber, the German organizational theorist, talked about three kinds of authority: traditional, rational-legal, and charismatic. Traditional authority was invested in the president during his inauguration. For the "sanctity of the order," we respect the office of the president, if not the person occupying that office.

Rational-legal authority comes about as a result of laws. Because Pres. Bush was declared the winner of the 2000 election, he now serves as Chief Executive and Commander-in-Chief of our nation.

Charismatic authority is given to leaders who are able to inspire their followers. Pres. Bush’s frequent use of religious language is meant to—does—inspire voters to back his policies and vote for him. It is also why values-talk is so important in this election: the president and John Kerry are duking it out to lay claim to the mantle of "most inspiring leader."

But it's charismatic authority that gives me pause about Pres. Bush's quote, if indeed it is true.

As a pastor, I want my religious leaders to be charismatic; they should be able to inspire their followers with their firm commitment to the gospel. But as a voter, I want my political leaders to derive their authority from the rule of law. We are after all a nation of laws, not men, no matter how fervent those men's beliefs may be.

What has made me queasy all along about Pres. Bush's administration is the sense that he uses his great reservoir of charismatic authority to undermine the authority of the rational-legal systems of checks and balances that protect our government—indeed, our way of life—from disaster.

And I get the idea that he does this in the name of a faith that has more to do with conservative ideology than with a God who could proclaim through his prophet: let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:24)

This supposed quote from the president just adds fuel to the fires of my suspicion. I hope to God I'm wrong about it.

Update: In May, I wrote about a friend and soon-to-be colleague who was going before an ecclesiastical council. I am pleased to say that the council approved David Stiffler, and he will be ordained this afternoon. Best of luck and God's grace be with him.


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