Which Christ is Bush's model? - James Carroll column 21 Dec 1999

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Sun, 26 Dec 1999 21:26:37 -0800 (PST)

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FWD  Boston Globe - December 21, 1999


     By James Carroll [Boston Globe columnist & former Catholic priest]

Even in the week before Christmas, a columnist for a secular newspaper
thinks twice before writing expressly about Jesus Christ. But then the man
whom polls say is a likely next president of the United States speaks
feelingly of Jesus in an explicitly political forum, in reply to a question
having nothing to do with religion. Asked  what ''political philosopher''
he  most admires, George W. Bush answered, ''Christ ... When you turn your
heart and life over to Christ ... it changes your heart.''

Some wondered whether this was a breach in the wall between church and
state or how ''Christ'' would view Bush's positions on questions ranging
from the death penalty to the abrogation of the ABM treaty. Such reactions
point up the difficulty involved not only in a public use of what devout
Christians call the Most Holy Name, but in any discussion of the sacred
person whose birth is commemorated this week.

''Which Jesus Christ do you identify with, governor?'' is a question that
could properly have been put to Bush. As a self-styled  ''compassionate
conservative,'' perhaps the governor centers his piety around the Jesus of
neighborly love, but as a born-again Christian perhaps he honors Jesus as a
personal savior who comes to his followers less through the neighbor than
through the individual's own soul. Other Jesuses compete with these: the
peasant revolutionary whose rough visage stares out, Che-like, from the
posters of Liberation Theology; the Aryan Christ, fair-haired and
blue-eyed, who came to repudiate Judaism.

But then there is also Jesus the Jewish Zealot, who set himself against
every religious establishment. Jesus is, variously, a pacifist and one who
came to unsheathe a sword, a troublemaker and an apostle of meekness, a
defender of the poor and a guest of tax collectors, an icon of purity and a
friend of prostitutes.

In other words, Jesus Christ, as usually spoken of, is a prism through
which the prejudices and politics of his devotees are reflected. One of the
most consistently woven threads in the tapestry of history is the way in
which the absolute name of Jesus Christ has been invoked, across the
liberal-conservative spectrum, to justify the all too contingent passions
of human beings. And, in fact, that history suggests that, mainly, those
passions have had little or nothing to do with either the message or the
person of the Jesus Christ of Scripture.

To take only one example, jumping off from the question put to Bush,
consider the story of a genuine ''political philosopher,'' Benedict Spinoza
(1632-77). His ''Ethics,'' ''Theologico-Political Treatise,'' and other
works helped lay the philosophical groundwork for ideas of democratic
pluralism, religious tolerance, and constitutional government. Spinoza
influenced not only the likes of John Locke and David Hume, but also those
English dissenters we remember as the Pilgrims, the second generation of
whom encountered his ideas in Holland on their way to the New World. And
where did Spinoza's ideas come from? Spinoza's family were Jewish refugees
from Iberia. He was born a Jew in Amsterdam, the son of a man who had
witnessed the autos-da-fe of the Inquisition. Spinoza himself was spied
upon by Spanish Catholics and banned by Dutch Calvinists.

These experiences of radical intolerance were the incubator of his
political philosophy. It is not too much to say that the American idea -
universal freedom of conscience protected by government - was born at least
partly out of the way the one name of Jesus Christ was used to advance
opposite political agendas.

Such history lives in the institutional memory of the United States, which
is why even devout citizens of this country have been made uneasy by the
political invocation of religion (and why a columnist, writing on a
political subject, might think twice before invoking religion himself).
Politics by definition is the realm of relative claims and compromise,
while religion, for better and for worse, takes the absolute for granted
and can regard compromise as moral failure. The determination to observe
the distinction between these realms amounts to one of the great
breakthroughs not only for a humane politics, but, equally, for religious
faith freed from the corruptions of power.

These are some of the questions that bubble below the surface of George W.
Bush's statement, and citizens are right to ask them. Alas, it is clear
that Bush himself would be the last person to be able to sort through such
complexities. His glib use of the name ''Christ'' in the context of
''political philosophy'' is a breathtaking display of ignorance for a man
of the American political mainstream.

More disturbing, since it seemed so patently an attempt to deflect a
question he was unable to answer - Bush is shrewd enough to know that
reporters won't push him on his self-announced piety - his glib invoking of
the name of Jesus Christ revealed a cynical readiness to exploit the faith
as a hiding place. Which is hardly the way to honor the one whom George W.
Bush says changed his heart.

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

This story ran on page A31 of the Boston Globe on 12/21/1999.


**In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is
distributed without charge or profit to those who have expressed a prior
interest in receiving this type of information for non-profit research and
educational purposes only.**

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