Are war presidents George W. Bush and Lincoln alike?
Billy Graham attended the evangelical powerhouse Wheaton College outside Chicago. Years later, Michael Gerson, a former journalist and one of President George W. Bush’s most trusted speech writers, studied theology at Wheaton. He has honed Bush’s major speeches so they abound with biblical allusions. They verge on sounding like sermons, hitting home the major theme that God wants our nation to intentionally spread liberty abroad.Peggy Noonan, Ronald Reagan’s ace wordsmith, cautions that political speeches laced with biblical rhetoric may force God to say what politicians want Him to endorse. Controversial policies are always an easier sell when they carry a Divine stamp of approval. George W. Bush likes to have God on his team.After President Bush’s Second Inaugural Address, when he repeatedly linked Iraq to the freedom God bestows on our nation, Noonan advised a halt to excessive God-talk in presidential speeches. Bush spoke eloquently about spreading freedom throughout the world. “Deep moral seriousness and no moral modesty,” judged Noonan marked the speech’s tone and content.President Bush’s biblical language interspersed in his script portrayed him as proving “what is the will of God, what is good, acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). The president claims that he fights to the finish against hoodlums in office who brutalize their citizens. Bush asserts that American freedom is not of his invention. It originates in God’s mind as He spreads divine good pleasure on earth. Neither God nor Bush tolerates the likes of Saddam Hussein because he opposes freedom.Peggy Noonan cautions in her essay, “Way Too Much God” (Wall Street Journal, January 21, 2005, p. A8) that our president has overdosed on God when defending his war policy. “The president’s speech seemed rather heavenish,” she lamented. “It was a God-drenched speech. This president, who has been accused of giving too much attention to religious imagery and religious thought, has not let the criticism enter him. God was invoked relentlessly. ‘The Author of Liberty.’ ‘God moves and chooses as He wills. We have confidence because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind…the longing of the soul.'”President Bush is not the first Chief Executive to breathe the Bible into stirring prose igniting patriotic fervor. Abraham Lincoln mastered this craft, too. Learn with me how Lincoln and Bush handle biblical materials in decidedly different ways. Lincoln came to scripture to learn how to find God’s will amid the perplexity and ambiguity of a Civil War that tore up him up. He fell into deep despair. Bush simply commandeers God’s will, using the Bible to put God’s stamp of approval on the war.In September 1862 Confederate forces roundly defeated the Union army at Manassas Junction, Virginia, what the North called the Second Battle of Bull Run. Lincoln retreated to his study. The war wearied him. Confederate insurgents attacked without warning. Attorney General Edward Bates recorded in his diary that Lincoln felt downcast, unlike Bush who tells the nation in a peppy spirit that “progress” leaps ahead in Iraq. Lincoln “seemed wrung by the bitterest anguish-said he felt almost ready to hang himself.” In these times of despair, Lincoln wrote, “The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war, it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party-and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are the best adaptation to affect his purpose.”Surprisingly, Lincoln did not swiftly equate God’s will with the Union’s cause. He struggled to find God’s way. He did not assume it. He wrote, suggesting that God’s will for freedom from slavery, is never possessed by one camp. God’s will rises above the fray, rather than held captive by one side.Does Lincoln sound like George W. Bush?President Bush coined the adage he wrote himself. “Freedom is not America’s gift to the world, it’s the almighty God’s gift to all humanity.”Gerson is adamant that President Bush does not recklessly spread through the world, whether others nations ask for it or not, what he terms “American exceptionalism.” Gerson does not believe that our nation is exceptional in God’s eyes. We are not God’s pet nation. Gerson claims that Bush doesn’t declare that God has chosen our nation as His special instrument. The president echoes, according to Gerson, Lincoln’s insistence that freedom thrives when our nation does not assume that God is on our side. Lincoln never assumed wisdom regarding how God’s will played out in the Civil War. Our 16th president did not assert; he explored. He did not rush to militant conclusions but search for the Divine’s intent. God’s will was only clear to God. And George Bush.Ronald C. White, Jr. taught at Princeton Theological Seminary when I attended. He wrote a celebrated study of Lincoln’s speeches, The Eloquent President. Religion easily turns into bombast. Patriotism turns into jingoism with our nation coming out right all the time. White reflects on Lincoln’s caution when he penned “Meditation on the Divine Will.””War, in any era,” observes White, ” calls forth proponents who espouse the rightness of their cause with absolute certainty. The greatest demagoguery churned out by politicians has usually occurred in the midst of war. All of this makes Lincoln’s wrestling with God’s purposes the more remarkable.” And Bush’s certainty for war more regrettable. The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the non-profit, tax-exempt CREATIVE GROWTH Ministries, enhancing Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes” is available at local bookstores for $7.95.Vail, Colorado