Commentary Magazine

Bush’s Calling

Among all the things that liberals loathe about George W. Bush, his religious fervor would seem to be at or near the top of the list. Some consider him a mere pretender, or a hypocrite, lashing out at his post-9/11 persona as a world-transforming warrior with bumper-sticker barbs like “Who would Jesus bomb?” For the most part, though, liberal animus toward Bush's faith comes from the opposite direction. It is his religious sincerity that infuriates and frightens, especially when contrasted with the easy and empty Bible-toting of, say, a Bill Clinton.

One does not have to dig very deep to explain this hostility. There are the familiar issues of the culture war—the “values” divide between red states and blue. There is also Bush's personal manner, seemingly perfectly calculated to grate on the sensibilities of worldly, secularist elites. But something more profound may be at work as well. What liberals find objectionable about Bush as a born-again Christian is the kind of politician he has become by means of and on account of his faith. But what may be most discomfiting of all is the degree to which, in this regard, he has successfully laid claim to so many elements of the liberals' own discarded past, and thereby begun to reverse the polarities of American politics.


Everyone is familiar with the outlines of Bush's, personal story, which retraces the biblical tale of the prodigal son. The fortunate scion of a wealthy and prominent family, he was born with all the advantages of social position but, as a young man, was also intensely burdened by them. He was the class clown, his jaunty, towel-snapping manner concealing a sense of inner purposelessness. He also had a drinking problem, the exact dimensions of which remain unclear, although it was debilitating enough for Bush himself to consider it a near-permanent obstacle in his life.

At forty, according to his cousin John Ellis, George W. Bush was “on the road to nowhere.” He had gone to Andover, Yale, and Harvard Business School, and run for Congress, and yet he had come up short every time, in his own eyes and in the eyes of others. As Ellis summed up, “To go through every stage of life and be found wanting and know that people find you wanting, that's a real grind.”

What changed between being lost in a dark wood at forty and a presidential candidacy at fifty-two? As is well known, Bush underwent a religious conversion. It was the key to his transformation into a focused, determined, and remarkably self-disciplined man. This conversion followed the classic evangelical pattern and occurred under classic evangelical influences, not the least significant of which was a private conversation in the summer of 1985 with the Reverend Billy Graham.

The subsequent growth in Bush's faith was fostered less by formal membership in or attendance at church than by participation in nondenominational Bible-study groups in his hometown of Midland, Texas. Such “parachurch” organizations, a growing staple of the evangelical subculture, have tended to absorb many of the characteristic functions of the institutional church. Typical in his indifference to denominational structures, and happy to worship in churches of every variety, Bush focused instead on the Christocentric aspects of evangelical faith, and the transformation of heart and conscience that comes with them. These, for him, have always been the core of the matter.

In December 1999, during a debate in Des Moines among the Republican presidential candidates, Bush was asked to identify his favorite philosopher. He shocked almost everyone present by responding, unhesitatingly, “Christ. Because he changed my heart.” Following up, Bush explained that “when you accept Christ as the savior, it changes your heart. It changes your life. And that's what happened to me.”

At the time, this was widely regarded as a bone-headed blunder. But there can be little doubt that it was also an honest answer—and smart politics, too. Bush's emphasis on the need for personal change and redemption resonated widely and deeply, expressing needs that millions of Americans, including many having no affiliation with the religious Right, could recognize in their own lives.

This redemptive subtext was especially evident when candidate Bush employed generational rhetoric meant to puncture the inflated self-regard of the baby-boom generation. His acceptance speech at the 2000 Republican convention, which opened with a salute to the achievements of his father's generation, was built around a remarkably critical consideration of his own generation—flush with prosperity and promise, but sadly lacking in a sense of larger purpose. “What,” he wondered, “is asked of us?” Would “we have grown up before we grow old,” and would we be prepared to respond to “our own appointment with greatness”? Such rhetoric had unmistakably personal roots. But it also created a bond between him and his audience that no poll could measure, and no New York Times editorialist was likely to comprehend.


The historian Mark Noll has argued that the essence of evangelical piety is to be found not in works of theology or liturgy but in the great evangelical hymns. If that is so, then one can learn a great deal about Bush's faith by studying his two favorite examples of the genre, both written in the 18th century: John Newton's “Amazing Grace” and Charles Wesley's “A Charge to Keep I Have.”

The first is an account of personal redemption, written by a former slave-trader and expressing awed gratitude for the divine grace that “saved a wretch like me”—a grace that found him when he was morally lost, rescued him from life's storms, and replaced his blindness with sight. The second, a great favorite of reform-minded Methodists, makes a wonderful complement to the first. It is a succinct statement of the obligations a believer takes on once he has accepted the gift of “amazing grace.” For, according to “A Charge to Keep I Have,” it is not enough to revel in one's salvation. There is work to be done in the here and now:

To serve the present age,
my calling to fulfill;
O may it all my powers engage
to do my Master's will!

Arm me with jealous care,
as in Thy sight to live,
and oh, Thy servant, Lord,
prepare a strict account to give!

A Charge to Keep was the title of Bush's pre-presidential memoir. It is also the title of a painting, inspired by the hymn, that hangs by his desk in the Oval Office. The painting depicts a rider spurring his horse to climb a steep, difficult trail—a perfect metaphor for the application of discipline and determination to a challenging task.

Taken together, these two hymns capture the core of Bush's religious experience. Without God's gracious and saving work in us, our lives are ungovernable. With God, we are freed to govern ourselves, and empowered to live exemplary and responsible lives.

The behavioral implications of this are far-reaching. As a social philosophy, evangelicalism has always existed in tension with settled ways, established hierarchies, and customary usages. Placing powerful emphasis upon the individual and his ability to have an unmediated relationship with the Deity and with Holy Scripture, it tends to treat all institutions, even the church itself, as if their existence and authority were provisional and subordinate.

As a historical matter, the adherents of evangelicalism, especially in its high-octane forms, have often done battle with the institutional status quo. Churches were the first to feel the force of evangelical fervor, which saw them as mere vehicles for the proclamation of the Gospel and the achievement of a richer and more vibrant individual faith. In the great revivalist movements of early American history, evangelicalism swept up and down the eastern seaboard, dividing church after church between “new” and “old” believers. By the 19th century, it had become a powerful force for what the historian Nathan Hatch has dubbed “the democratization of American Christianity.” And this, in turn, helped to bring about the democratization of American culture as a whole.

But it was democratization of a highly particular kind. The animating ideal of evangelicalism is the freely choosing individual. Such freedom, however, is never self-sufficient; its necessary companion and counterpart is constraint. The essence of evangelicalism, in the words of the historian Daniel Walker Howe, is a commitment “undertaken voluntarily, consciously, and responsibly” by an individual willing to embrace a discipline at once “liberating and restrictive.”

From the time of the founding up to the end of the 19th century, the ultimate goal of most religiously-inspired social reform was to create the necessary conditions for what Howe refers to as the “construction of the self.” Evangelical reformers assumed that there was an objective moral order to which individuals were subordinate. But it was not enough for the constraints of this order to be applied externally, like so many fences and leashes. Control, which led to a kind of moral self-sufficiency, needed to be internalized, with the help of institutions like the family, the church, the neighborhood—and the polity. Indeed, in the literature of the era, the relationship between the self-governing soul and the self-governing polity appears as a recurring motif. This was an era that unabashedly extolled the “self-made” man, and that regarded not self-liberation but self-improvement as the great moral imperative.

Horace Mann, for example, the pioneer of public education, saw the schools as a means to inculcate the beneficent habits of self-regulation; in these institutions, naturally anarchic individuals would become fit to direct not just their own lives but the affairs of the wider community. The clergyman William Ellery Channing, in his famous 1838 lecture “Self-Culture,” argued that God had endowed the human race with the extraordinary power of “acting on, determining, and forming ourselves,” and the selves Channing had in mind were as much social and political as individual. Although neither of these men was, in the strictest sense, an evangelical, in this respect there was little difference between them and such arch-evangelical contemporaries as Charles Grandison Finney.

The ideal of the self-governing individual stands behind many of the great reform movements of pre-Civil War America: temperance, women's rights, health faddism, and of course abolitionism. Slavery was a systemic affront to the evangelical ideal. It not only prevented slaves from being self-governing and fully realized individuals; it just as surely prevented their masters from achieving the same status. It corrupted the entire slave-holding society, as the very economic backwardness of the South seemed to demonstrate. A century later, this same prophetic brand of evangelical Christianity would energize the civil-rights movement of the 1950's and 1960's, giving Southern blacks the courage and fortitude to challenge the segregationist social order.1


None of this is to deny that George W. Bush is a political conservative. But he is one whose priorities have been continuously informed and shaped by a distinctive religious tradition. Looking at both the domestic and foreign sides of the ledger, one could even contend that—within the limits imposed by prudence and exigency—the Bush administration's policies have formed a fairly seamless web. This has been especially the case in the aftermath of 9/11, with its catalyzing influence on the President's sense of mission (or his “charge to keep”). The principle that unifies them is the characteristic evangelical emphasis on the ultimate value of the responsible, self-governing individual.

The Bush agenda relies on a certain anthropology. It assumes that human flourishing, whether at home or abroad, is possible only when two conditions are met: first, the political and social freedom to choose one's own pursuits; and second, laws and social institutions to encourage individuals to choose well, that is, to live responsibly within self-imposed moral limits. Thus, full self-government is not possible under the yoke of a political or religious tyranny. But neither is it possible in a society in which the formation of character is left completely to chance, or when government policies sever the link between a person's actions and their consequences.

The President's zeal for the international promotion of freedom, and particularly for the causes of human rights and religious liberty, clearly owes a great deal to this view, and to the general Christian emphasis upon the infinite worth of every individual. Here is how Bush put it in his second inaugural address, whose sermon-like (and Lincolnian) qualities are unmistakable:

From the day of our founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of heaven and earth. Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave.

The domestic counterpart of this international vision is the “ownership society,” an elaboration of the “compassionate conservatism” that Bush advanced as governor of Texas and in his 2000 campaign. “For the past thirty years,” he declared in his gubernatorial inaugural, “our culture has steadily replaced personal responsibility with collective guilt. This must end. The new freedom Texas seeks must be matched with renewed personal responsibility.” These words were no jeremiad; rather, they were a call to reorient social policy toward creating the conditions—in welfare, education, public safety, family life—in which personal transformation could occur.

Bush's evangelicalism also helps to explain his willingness to depart from what might be conventionally regarded as conservative orthodoxy. There is, for example, the audacity of his foreign policy, which some conservatives have not hesitated to condemn as reckless and as a very un-conservative form of utopianism. And there are his relatively favorable views of federal social and educational programs, his sensitivity to issues of racial injustice and reconciliation, his softness on immigration, his faith-based initiative, his African AIDS initiative.

All of these are best explained by his religious convictions, which, trumping more traditionally conservative impulses, have made him something other, and more, than the oil-and-gas man of his early adulthood. They have made him, indeed, something of a progressive.


This brings us back to the reactions of liberals to Bush's religiosity. In the end, I suspect, what they find so upsetting is less his appeal to traditional morality than his claim to speak for human progress. This is territory long claimed by liberals as their exclusive property. Thanks to Bush, however, it is the Republican party that has now come to be associated with grand commitments to comprehensive reform, intended not merely for the sake of the American nation but for the general good of humanity.

The effort to capture the spirit of progressive change for the benefit of the conservative party did not, to be sure, originate with Bush. It started in earnest during the Reagan presidency—and it did not have an easy time of it. By the early 1990's, one of its most forthright and coherent expressions was Newt Gingrich's “conservative opportunity society,” a notion that made some headway before foundering on the rocks of its creator's problematic persona.

Bush's “compassionate conservatism” has had its own problems, and has certainly been subjected to withering fire from both ends of the ideological spectrum. Yet after the dust settles, future historians may well conclude that the events of the past quarter-century have slowly woven a new guiding narrative for American conservatives, and that Bush's presidency marks a point of both coalescence and departure—the point where it has become entirely plausible for Republicans to assert that they are the party of progress and of human liberation.

Democrats may still snicker at such an assertion, but they do so at their own risk. For if it is plausible to suggest that the conservative party is the party of progress, it is even more plausible to argue that the liberal party has become the party of opposition to change—the party of entrenched interests, of an obsolete and shrinking labor movement, of hidebound public bureaucracies and of the even more hidebound politics of race, class, and sex, of disdain for the free and democratic expression of traditional moral values, and of a reflexive distrust of American power and American influence as a force for good in the world. The grand liberal ideas of national purpose and the public interest, given classic formulation nearly a century ago in Herbert Croly's The Promise of American Life (1909), are all but gone now—either appropriated by conservatives or frittered away on multilateralist chimeras abroad, endless litigation at home, and the futile comedy of identity politics. There are times when it seems liberals are determined to repay the Right's theft of progressive themes with a theft of their own, adopting National Review's famous slogan about standing athwart history and yelling “Stop.”

How did this reversal happen? As irony would have it, part of the answer lies in liberalism's own vexed history with evangelicalism. The Social Gospel movement of the early 20th century, one of modern liberalism's great antecedents, drew freely on the moral legacy of Protestantism. But rather than focusing on the reform of individuals, it located “sin” in the structural pathologies of industrial society.

Albion Small of the University of Chicago, the first occupant of an American academic chair in sociology, saw social science as “the holiest sacrament open to man,” and regarded its task as helping to bring about “an approximation of the ideal of social life contained in the Gospels.” But Small's aim was anything but evangelical; rather, it was to destroy what he called “the individualistic superstition,” the view that men and women controlled their own fates. In fairly short order, the pious rhetoric disappeared. Social science became a largely secular affair, and religion came to be seen as an impediment rather than an accessory to the progress of liberal reform.

By the 1970's, it was becoming clear to observers writing in magazines like COMMENTARY and the Public Interest that such “scientific” approaches to social problems had fallen far short of unambiguous success, and perhaps had even worsened the very conditions they sought to ameliorate. With the sweeping welfare-reform measures of a decade ago, passed under a Democratic President, policy-makers in effect conceded that manipulating social aggregates—the liberal tool par excellence—was not enough; programs had to take into account the dynamics of character-formation and the ways that incentives shape the lives of individuals. In a word, blaming “society” was out, and the goal of self-governance was back.

This is clearly where George W. Bush's heart lies. In that sense, his approach picks up where the evangelical reformers of the 19th century left off—and where the liberal reformers of the 20th century, starting from the same place, set off in an altogether different direction. No wonder today's liberals loathe him.


Where does this leave us? On the whole, an ambitious evangelical conservatism is assuredly a positive development in American life. But we cannot help acknowledging points of concern. To begin with, there is always sound reason to be wary of the injection of religion into politics of any stripe, even when its countenance is genial and tolerant and its immediate effects seem to be beneficial. Paradoxically, too, some of the most inviting features of evangelicalism—its warm embrace of individualism, its optimism about human possibility—are also among the most troubling.

In an insightful analysis of the woes of today's Democratic party, Martin Peretz, the editor-in-chief of the New Republic, lamented recently that liberals have lost touch with their intellectual roots. “The most penetrating thinker of the old liberalism, the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, is virtually unknown in the circles within which he once spoke and listened,” Peretz writes, conjecturing that this is “perhaps because he held a gloomy view of human nature.” But it is equally true that there is not much of Niebuhr, or original sin, or any other form of Calvinist severity in the current outlook of the Bush administration. In its case, this reflects the energizing good cheer of evangelical conservatism, as well as, no doubt, the preferences of an American electorate with an aversion to bad news.

Optimism is, in most respects, a political strength, and an appropriate way for democratic leaders to present themselves to the public. But just as individualism needs the constraints of religion and morality, so optimism needs the ballast of memory and a sense of the tragic to give it resiliency and depth. There is a reason why the Christian tradition distinguishes between hope, which is considered a theological virtue, and optimism, which is not. Conservatism will be like the salt that has lost its savor if it abandons its mission to remind us of what Thomas Sowell has called “the constrained vision” of human existence—the vision that sees life as a struggle full of unintended consequences and tragic dilemmas, involving people whose noblest efforts often fail, sometimes miserably so.

As Abraham Lincoln reminded us in his own second inaugural address, the hand of Providence may be present in our reversals as well as in our triumphs. Hope can survive such reversals, even when optimism cannot. It strikes me that this remains a useful and important lesson, especially for a nation with, at the moment, so many charges to keep.



1 David Chappell argues this point forcefully in his recent book, A Stone of Hope. See my article, “The Church of Civil Rights,” in the June 2004 COMMENTARY.


About the Author

Wilfred M. McClay, who holds the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in the Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, contributed “Is Conservatism Finished?” to the January COMMENTARY. His latest book is Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past.

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