PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER
DOES GOD SPEAK TO BUSH ?
The world’s news media are abuzz with the report of a
Palestinian official who heard George W. Bush say: “God would tell me: ‘George,
go and fight those terrorists in
“Did God tell George W. Bush to strike at Al-Qaeda and
That’s how I began my report on the story, published on Commondreams, TWO YEARS AGO. But then it was a different Palestinian official who reported hearing Bush say God gives him orders. So now we have the same testimony from two different people who heard it at the same meeting. It begins to look like it really happened.
Here are the facts:
In June, 2003, a journalist with Ha’aretz (
Back in ’03, the White House denied that Bush ever said it and the news media largely ignored it. The story just disappeared.
This week, the BBC announced that it will air a documentary
about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the documentary, another
well-respected Palestinian political leader, Nabil Shaath, says that he was at
the same meeting in Aqaba: "President Bush said to all of us, 'I'm driven
with a mission from God. God would tell me: George, go and fight those
Now, since the story was reported in a mainstream
source, media around the world have reported it extensively. White House press
briefer Scott McClellan dismissed it: “That's absurd. He's never made such comments.” But before McClellan issued his flat denial,
the BBC called the White House to let them know the story would break.
According to news reports, BBC did not get a denial. They got told that the
White House wouldn’t comment on a private conversation. Unfortunately
Journalists in other countries followed up by asking Shaath if it’s really true. Yes, he confirmed. But he added that he, Abbas, and the others who heard it didn’t take it literally: “We felt he was saying that he had a mission, a commitment, his faith in God would inspire him ... rather than a metaphysical whisper in his ear." (In ’03 the Washington Post had an Arabic speaker translate the transcript, and he read it as Bush saying “God inspired me.”)
Abbas, who first reported the comment two years ago? Now he denies he ever
heard it. In the BBC documentary he only recalls Bush saying, “I have a
moral and religious obligation. So I will get you a Palestinian state."
When the story about the documentary broke, Abbas’ office issued a press
statement saying that Abbas never heard
Bush talk about something like that; he never heard any statements that link
what happened in
This is curious. According to a written document, Abbas heard it, but now he says he didn’t. Of course, as the head of the Palestinian government that depends mightily on the favor of the Bush administration, Abbas has good reason to change his story. And Shaath, also an important leader in the Palestinian government, has good reason to downplay its importance. Certainly, it’s very unlikely that Abbas and Shaath conspired to create a purely fictional story, since they are trying to downplay or even (in Abbas’ case) deny it. The Ha’aretz version and Shaath’s version in the BBC film are close enough that it seems Bush must have said something of the sort.
But so what? There are lots of people who have recounted things they heard Bush say about how his religion affects his political decisions. There’s lots of documentary evidence along these lines. This is the only case where Bush says anything close to claiming a direct pipeline from the deity. (And maybe he said it just because he thought his Muslim audience would want to hear it.)
To others, Bush has explicitly denied that he or any
person could know for sure what God wants in any given situation. He’s said
things like: “We do not know—we do not claim to know—all the ways of
Bob Woodward asked the president whether he consulted his father, the former president, before deciding to go to war. Many readers of his book, Plan of Attack, were shocked by Bush’s answer: “There is a higher father that I appeal to.” Read in full context, though, these words do not imply that the president thinks he takes orders from God. When the Iraq war began, Bush recalled, “I was praying for strength to do the Lord’s will.…I’m surely not going to justify war based upon God.…I pray that I be as good a messenger of His will as possible. And then, of course, I pray for personal strength and for forgiveness.” When Woodward posed the question about his father, he replied that a human father “is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength. There is a higher father that I appeal to.”
This all amounts to a conventional, traditional Protestant view of political life. Secular rulers are “called” by God to serve the state. They rely on their faith to make them morally virtuous people. They pray to God to give them the strength to know and do the right thing. Yet they never claim to have a direct line to God to find out what the right thing is. They make their decisions based solely on human considerations. Then they hope and pray that it turns out to be in conformity with God’s inscrutable will.
Whatever Bush believes in private, this is the view he espouses quite consistently in public. It’s a view that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would probably have shared.
So even if Bush once said that God told him to go to war, let’s not get too excited. There are so many more horrendous things Bush has said and done that deserve our harsh criticism. There are so many more ways he has used religious beliefs and religious language to justify immoral policies. Let’s put our critical energy there, and not on one isolated statement that he’ll go on denying he ever said.
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