Empty pew: Why doesn't W go to church?

topic posted Sat, October 2, 2004 - 11:21 AM by  Unsubscribed
By Amy Sullivan, The New Republic

Most Americans are aware that George W. Bush is a religious man. He is, after all, the man who presided over a religious revival of sorts at the Republican National Convention. He is the man who has pioneered what could be called cardio-diplomacy, judging world leaders--and, at times, entire nations--by their "hearts." He is the subject of at least four spiritual hagiographies currently in bookstores, and one religious documentary ("George W. Bush: Faith in the White House"). Most famously, Americans know him as the man who, when asked to cite the philosopher who had the greatest influence on him, named Jesus Christ.

What most--including many of the president's fiercest supporters--don't know, however, is that Bush doesn't go to church. Sure, when he weekends at Camp David, Bush spends Sunday morning with the compound's chaplain. And, every so often, he drops in on the little Episcopal church across Lafayette Park from the White House. But the president who has staked much of his domestic agenda on the argument that religious communities hold the key to solving social problems doesn't belong to a congregation.

It should be a politically intriguing story. Bush is one of the most explicitly religious politicians in American history. Both of his presidential campaigns have used religion to appeal emotionally to voters. The entire philosophy behind his signature slogan, "compassionate conservatism," rests on the belief that religious communities have a unique ability to tend to the nation's social ills. And yet, after the flood of coverage around Bush's first--and only--visit to a neighborhood church during inauguration weekend in Washington, D.C., no one has bothered to report on the president's whereabouts on Sunday mornings.

Around Washington, D.C., it's considered bad form to point out that Bush doesn't regularly attend church. "You don't have to go to church to be a good religious person," argue his defenders. And they're right. They have made much political hay, however, over polls that indicate Democratic voters attend church less frequently than Republicans, so even the most brazen feel compelled to offer explanations for Bush's absence from church membership rolls.

The first excuse conservatives provide is that Bush can't possibly be expected to have time to go to church, what with being leader of the free world and all. Yet, during Jimmy Carter's four years in the White House, he found time not only to attend a Baptist church in the Washington, D.C., area, but to teach Sunday school there as well. For a presidential delegator like Bush--who has freed up enough time to spend approximately one-third of his presidency on vacation--finding a few hours for church should be a snap.

But, even if Bush had the time for church services, supporters protest, the security precautions necessary for a presidential visit would drive congregants away. This is the exact same argument the Reagan White House trotted out to explain why the patron saint of the religious right hardly ever attended church from 1981 to 1989. Bomb-sniffing dogs, metal detectors, and security personnel, so the theory goes, would pose an onerous burden for the average church. "The president wants to avoid the sort of major weekly disruption that would be caused if he went to church," says David Aikman, author of A Man of Faith: The Spiritual Journey of George W. Bush.

As it happens, I attended Foundry United Methodist Church for several years during the late '90s when the Clintons were members there. The only imposition was the extra ten seconds it took to walk through a metal detector. Parishioners did not leave the church in droves; on the contrary, many were pleasantly surprised to find that the Clintons played an active role in church life, particularly while Chelsea was involved in the choir and youth group.

If time and security aren't the reasons, what excuse does that leave? The very fact that the president doesn't attend church, some leading conservatives insist, is proof of what a good Christian he is. Unlike certain past presidents they could name but won't--ahem, cough, Bill Clinton--Bush doesn't feel the need to prove his religiosity. "This president has not made an issue of where he goes to church," says Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. "I find it refreshing that we don't have a president coming out of church with a large Bible under his arm." Conservatives relish this opportunity for a little gratuitous Clinton-bashing. In private, however, they admit the explanation doesn't hold up. "I really don't get it," one prominent Bush partisan told me. "There's no reason why the president couldn't find a church around here if he wanted to."

In truth, Bush probably doesn't spend Sunday morning watching "Meet the Press" or wrestling with The New York Times crossword puzzle. He no doubt observes the Sabbath in his own way, as do millions of Americans who identify themselves as religious but don't attend church. Bush has been shaped by a "small-group" mentality, emphasizing a one-on-one relationship with God over the experience of Christian fellowship in a community.

Or it could be that Bush's faith, while sincere, is not terribly deep. Aikman, who had significant access to Bush confidantes while writing his book, has said that he "could not get from anybody a sort of credo of what [Bush] believes." Nevertheless, Aikman pressed on by "intuit[ing]" Bush's faith and presenting as evidence of the president's deep spiritual commitment his fondness for carrots and jogging (apparently a response to the scriptural admonition to treat the body as a temple for God) and the politeness of White House staffers ("though manners are not specifically connected to George W.'s personal religious faith, it was as though the discipline he brought to his own life of prayer and Bible study filtered down into the work habits of everyone who worked with him").

It shouldn't really matter. A president's religious habits often reveal far less about his faith than the decisions he makes. But, more than any other president, Bush has staked his political reputation on being a devout man of faith. The implied and often explicit responsibility for one another that undergirds congregational life is at the heart of Bush's faith-based policy agenda. The fact that he isn't himself a member of a congregation should be relevant.

It's not as if political reporters have ignored the church-going habits of Bush's opponent. During the "John Kerry Wafer Watch," they have done everything short of inspect the senator's molars for evidence of any unswallowed Host. Hyperbole? A recent Kerry campaign pool report included this observation: "Both Mr. and Mrs. received communion, taking the host from the priests in their hands (others took direct to mouth). They spent ample time on the kneeler."

When Bush moved to Washington in early 2001, many religious observers bandied about the question of which church the incoming president would attend. Four years later, the answer is hidden in plain sight: The emperor has no church.

Amy Sullivan is an editor of The Washington Monthly.

Copyright 2004, The New Republic

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