January 23, 2005

THE NATURAL (via Daniel Merriman):

Just the Right Amount of God: George Bush delivers the most philosophical inaugural address ever. (Joseph Bottum, 01/31/2005, Weekly Standard)

"WHO IS YOUR FAVORITE political philosopher?" a group of Republican candidates were asked early in the 2000 race for president. And the frontrunner at the time, a Texas governor named George W. Bush, calmly answered, "Christ, because he changed my life."

Well. You could barely hear the other candidates' answers in the crash and clatter of overturned chairs as reporters scrambled to reach the phones and call in the story. Some commentators decided Bush was nakedly pandering to Evangelical voters in a Machiavellian ploy so bold that he should have said his favorite political philosopher was, um, Machiavelli.

Most of the nation's chatterers, however, decided that this wasn't the devious Bush but the stupid Bush. Couldn't he come up with the name of an actual philosopher? Plato had a scribble called the Republic, Aristotle managed to jot down a few notes on politics, and in the long years since the ancient Greeks there have been a few other philosophical types who've set out a thought or two on the political order. A little more study time--a little less fraternizing with his drinking buddies--and Bush might have heard their names while he was an undergraduate, even at Yale.

And then there was the mockery the candidate faced for his confusion of piety with philosophy. The holy name of Jesus doesn't have much purchase on people for whom "Christian" is mostly shorthand for "life-denying bigots who want to burn all the books they're too ignorant to read." Besides, from Genesis to Revelation, the Bible that Bush claims to follow manifests deep suspicion of the philosophical. The Lord will do "a marvelous work among this people, even a marvelous work and a wonder," as the prophet Isaiah put it, "for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid." If Bush understood the Book of Acts, he'd remember the Apostle Paul didn't have much success preaching the Resurrection to philosophers in Athens.

Bad theology, bad philosophy, and bad politics--this was the high-minded consensus at the time. The identification of Jesus as a life-changing political philosopher was either a stroke of electoral genius, or a mark of jaw-dropping feeblemindedness, or--well, that's always been the problem for Bush's opponents, hasn't it? "I can't believe I'm losing to this idiot," John Kerry whined to his aides during the 2004 campaign, and George W. Bush still remains impenetrable to those who persist in seeing him as some impossible combination of Dr. Evil and Forrest Gump. Anyway, the consensus was that he didn't mean--couldn't mean--anything philosophical by his answer to a reporter's question.

Funny thing. On a cold, bright day in January 2005, with the sun off the snow crinkling his eyes, President Bush gave his second inaugural address. And it seems he did actually mean what he had said before. The speech was as clear an assertion of a particular Christian political philosophy as we're likely to hear in these latter days. [...]

As it happens, the natural-law philosophy the speech asserted has a little bit to bother everyone in it. The president's Evangelical supporters may have been reassured by the public religiosity of the occasion--the prayers, the Navy choir singing "God of Our Fathers," the bowed heads. But the god of the philosophers ain't much of a god to be going home with. A deistical clockmaker, an impersonal prime mover, a demiurge instead of a redeemer: This is hardly the faith Christian Americans imagine the president shares with them. There was not a mention of the Divine in Bush's speech that Thomas Jefferson couldn't have uttered.

Still, all that God-talk--all that natural-law reasoning--was heading somewhere in Bush's speech, and the president's cultured despisers, those who tremble or rage at any trace of divinity in public, are right to be afraid. Just not for the reason they think. It would take an act of perverse will to suppose that the 2005 inaugural address signaled the onset of a Christian theocracy in America. Every rhetorical gesture toward God was either universalized up into a sectless abstraction ("Author of Liberty"? Which faith group can't say that?) or spread down in careful pluralistic specificity ("the truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the words of the Koran, and the varied faiths of our people").

No, President Bush's opponents should be afraid of this speech because it signals the emergence of a single coherent philosophy within the conservative movement. Natural-law reasoning about the national moral character gradually disappeared from America in the generations after the Founding Fathers, squeezed out between a triumphant emotive liberalism, on the one side, and a defensive emotive Evangelicalism, on the other. Preserved mostly by the Catholics, natural law made its return to public discourse primarily through the effort to find a nontheological ground for opposition to abortion. And now, three decades after Roe v. Wade, it is simply the way conservatives talk--about everything. With his inaugural address, President Bush has just delivered a foreign-policy discourse that relies entirely on classical concepts of natural law, and, agreeing or not, everybody in America understood what he was talking about.

It becomes increasingly plausible that the President would ask Clarence Thomas to move up to Chief Justice.

MORE (via Daniel Merriman):
Bush Calls for 'Culture Change': In interview, President says new era of responsibility should replace 'feel-good.' (Sheryl Henderson Blunt | posted 05/28/2004, Christianity Today)

I believe there's a clash of ideologies and I think—I just know—that America must be firm in our resolve and confident in our belief that freedom is the mightiest gift to everybody in the world and that free societies will be peaceful societies.

In the short run we will use every asset to prevent an enemy from attacking us again. Which I believe they want to do. I believe they want to do it because I know they want to sow discord, distrust, and fear at home so that we begin to withdraw from parts of the world where they would like to have enormous influence to spread their Taliban-like vision—the corruption of religion—to suit their purposes. And so that's where we use every asset. I mean we just have—I will not yield to them—to their blackmail, to their murder, to their death, to the fear that they try to cause through death.

The long-run solution to terror is freedom. That's what we believe in America. We believe that everybody yearns to be free. We believe everybody can be free. Now I'm getting people to research all the statements of doubt about whether or not Japan could be free after World War II. And I suspect we'll find there was quite a bit of cynicism, and people were just flat dubious that people in the Far East—who had a religion that was foreign to most Americans—could conceivably self-govern in a democratic style. Thank goodness the optimists ruled the day, because I now work with [Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro] Koizumi to deal with problems in world peace 50 years later, such as Korea. And so that's what I'm spending a lot time thinking about.

At home, the job of a president is to help cultures change. The culture needs to be changed. I call it, so people can understand what I'm talking about, changing the culture from one that says, "If it feels good, do it, and if you've got a problem, blame somebody else," to a culture in which each of us understands we're responsible for the decisions we make in life. I call it the responsibility era. … I said that when I was governor of Texas. As a matter of fact, I've been saying that ever since I got into politics. This is one of the reasons I got into politics in the first place. Governments cannot change culture alone. I want you to know I understand that. But I can be a voice of cultural change.

Part of the responsibility era is the responsibility that comes with promoting—taking care of your bodies to the point where we can promote a culture of life. Father Richard [Neuhaus] helped me craft what is still the integral part of my position on abortion, which is: Every child welcomed to life and protected by law. That is the goal of this administration.

Part of government's role is to foster responsibility and hope by standing with those who have heard a call to love a neighbor, which is the second point of the faith-based initiative that I think is one of the most important domestic initiatives that I have pushed, if not the most. It recognizes the rightful relationship between hearts and souls and government. Again, my job is to try to distill things down so that average people can understand it. Here's the way I put it, "Government can hand out money, but it cannot put love in people's hearts or a sense of purpose in people's lives."

Or I like to tell people, "If you're a drunk, sometimes a psychologist can talk you out of it, but generally it requires a higher power. If you change your heart, you change your behavior." And government must recognize that those heart changers are an important part of changing society one soul at a time.

So the faith-based initiative recognizes that there is an army of compassion that needs to be nurtured, rallied, called forth, and funded, without causing the army to have to lose the reason it's an army in the first place.

I mean, one of the real challenges we've had, of course, is to say to the faith community, "Come in, the social service money is available for you and oh, by the way, you can keep the cross on the wall or the Star of David in your temple without fear of government retribution." I think we're getting there. I mean, this is a cultural change in government too, by the way. It's been a mighty struggle to convince people of the wisdom of the policy.

In Texas again, my line was, "Look, don't focus on the process, focus on the results." That's how we were able to get the prison ministry into that Sugarland Prison. "See if these people go back into jail or not, that's all I ask. And if they don't, if it works, let's keep it intact."

Finally, government has got a responsibility to support and nurture institutions … foster institutions that provide hope and stability. That's why I took the position I took on the sanctity of marriage. I believe it's a very important issue for America. I think it—marriage—has worked. It's the commitment between a man and a woman. That shared responsibility is the cornerstone—has been the cornerstone—will be the cornerstone for civilization and I think any erosion of that definition by itself will weaken civilization as we have known it, and as we hope to know it.

And I call for a constitutional amendment for two reasons: One, I understand how the process works and why there is some protection against the decisions by a few court judges in one state protecting the definition of marriage in other states. The legal scholars tell me it is not on a very firm foundation because of the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the Constitution. And therefore there needs to be an alternative available.

Secondly, I want the American people participating in the process. I don't want this decided by judges. It's too big an issue. And the constitutional process is a sure enough way to get people involved through the amendment process, how we amend the Constitution.

The role of government is to help foster cultural change as well as to protect institutions in our society that are an important part of the culture. And I believe this is an issue in the campaign—how you view the role of government and how individuals view their own role in society. And I look forward to the debate.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 23, 2005 9:13 AM

Thinks for the pointer to the First Things review, which I had forgotten. If Thomas is nominated, I can't wait for the hearings. Remember Biden's statement to Bork about his
(Biden's) rights coming from God, not the Constitution? Thomas is the one member of the Court who would not only agree with that statement rhetorically, but would actually decide a real live case accordingly.

Posted by: Dan at January 22, 2005 9:00 PM

As much as I'd love Thomas as CJ, I've been wondering, given the recent WashPost series on Thomas that emphasized his political networking skills, if he might not be a better fit as President. President Thomas, now that has a ring to it.

And oh the nashing of teeth on the Left.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at January 23, 2005 2:41 AM

With blowhards like Biden, confirmation hearings are a waste of everybodies time. Highly partisan committee trying to trick nominees into commiting a faux pas, and nominees attempting to say nothing interesting. (Hatch and Spector are the same unfortunately)

Just have the vote and be done with it.

Posted by: h-man at January 23, 2005 7:12 AM


Rice-Thomas '08. Or Thomas-Rice '08.

Not likely, but glorious to contemplate.

Posted by: Mike Morley at January 23, 2005 8:01 AM