If you didn't wince a bit while President Bush attempted last week-on national television, no less-to give an account of his Christian faith, well then maybe you too ought to go back and take a refresher course in Christianity 101.
I take seriously the testimony of friends who have worked closely with the president, who speak of the sincerity of his profession of faith in Christ and of his personal commitment to walk in biblical obedience.
But let's face it. Bush, based on what he told the folks on ABC's Nightline, wouldn't have passed a basic membership interview in most churches I know. "What do you think faith gave you that you needed?" the reporter asked. "It gave me strength and-strength and understanding. There's love, universal love. My faith at this point in my life has enabled me to accept people's prayers and this made a huge difference in my life. There's a lot of dramatic moments and pressure. There are calm moments. How do you know? It's about prayer. For many people, it's a crutch, but for me it is-it's the realization of a power of a universal God, and recognition that this God became manifested in human. And then died for sins."
This is painful to hear-even when the soon-to-be former president, in his wonderfully affable manner, discounts it all with a smile and says that no, of course he doesn't plan to become a preacher when he leaves office. "Are you kidding me? I'm going to be-I'm going to be trying to stay on the walk to the last day on the face of the earth. It is-the interesting thing that I have come to this conclusion, maybe I'm wrong, I don't know, but the full understanding of Christianity is going to take a full lifetime of study."
Bush is right, of course, that the Christian faith encompasses all sorts of mysteries. But there's a difference between mystery and mush. When you read Bush's actual words in the rest of the interview, including his doubts concerning the literal truth of the Bible and his skepticism that Jesus is the only way to God, you are forced to ask in all candor: Has this man ever subjected himself to any serious, consistent preaching of Christian truth? Has he ever participated not just in devotional reading, but some disciplined or organized study of the Bible?
These are crucial issues. Those of us who believe that the faithful, Spirit-energized preaching of God's Word is critical in the lives of God's people shouldn't assume that an individual person-even a president of the United States-can somehow know the truth apart from regular and frequent exposure to that preached Word. Those of us who believe that comprehensive, careful, and thoughtful education in what we call a "Christian worldview" shouldn't suppose that someone-even a president-can somehow automatically be equipped with all the tools and filled with all the nuances of such thinking without some regular exposure to that worldview.
It won't surprise readers of this column to hear me say that, from the time he first appeared on the national scene, I've been more of a George Bush fan than a George Bush skeptic. I've usually had confidence-and still tend to keep it-that his inclinations are sound. To this day, for example, his main inclinations with reference to Iraq have been right on. I am grateful for his gut instincts about the nature of terrorism; those instincts have served his nation well. (Much less reassuring has been Mr. Bush's free-thinking inclination in recent days to enable the virtual nationalization of the Big Three automobile industry.)
But the fact is that inclinations, instincts, and intuitions, by themselves, are never enough. They have to be tested, disciplined, honed, and polished. Over the years, that process should lead systematically to a person's understanding of and ability to express what he believes to be true about life-what he believes to be true about issues both big and small.
So it is disquieting to see a man express himself so casually, so haltingly, and so dismissively about some of life's biggest and most eternal issues. It's hard not to remember that high on the list of Bush's critics has been the accusation that he relies overly much on instinct and intuition and too little on rigorous reflection.
Now he prepares to leave his bully pulpit. We pray that both he, his successor in office, and the nation that has taken such fierce blows during his tenure will all be blessed with better directed and less sloppy habits-both in personal faith and in the pursuit of righteous national policy.
If you have a question or comment for Joel Belz, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.