Listening to mere mortals

There can be no doubt that people are trying to send President George W. Bush a message. A Harris Interactive poll released last week put his approval rating at 29 percent, just six points above the all-time low achieved by President Richard M. Nixon at the height of Watergate. The war in Iraq is largely driving those numbers. A dozen members of Congress recently trekked to the White House for a serious discussion of Iraq policy with the president, warning him that they would stand firm for one more round of voting on a reauthorization bill, but that defections were on the horizon.
Certainly that will happen if there is no visible progress in the war by September. But the president doesn’t seem to be hearing what these messengers are saying. He shows no sign of changing his Iraq policy.

The fact that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz are still in their jobs is further evidence the West Wing is not listening (although this week there are signs the drumbeat of recent reports may be pushing those two out the door despite the president’s pronouncements of support).

So if the president is not listening to the American people, Republican members of Congress, retired generals now emboldened to go public, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee or the board of the World Bank — who is he listening to? Some have suggested that with no more elections to win, the president is taking his own counsel. But a different, somewhat disturbing idea was floated this weekend by Cynthia Tucker, the editorial page editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Appearing on a Sunday talk show, Ms. Tucker suggested the president believes he answers only to God.

I first wrote about that possibility a year ago in these pages. With the death this week of Jerry Falwell, my thoughts turned once more to the confluence of evangelical Christianity and modern politics. Falwell is widely credited with re-shaping the Republican Party — and, in the process, American politics — with his creation of the Moral Majority. Susan Friend Harding, a professor of anthropology at the University of California Santa Cruz studied Falwell and his movement. She says he “led fundamentalism out of political and cultural exile in the 1980s” and that “fundamentalists transformed themselves … into a visible and vocal force and reintroduced religious speech into American public life.”  

The born-again President Bush speaks that language well. He openly said he believed God wanted him to be president when he was still governor of Texas. He cited Christ as his most influential political philosopher in a 1999 campaign debate. When asked about reaching out to his father, the former President George H.W. Bush, for advice, he famously responded there was another “father” he relied on. He told the Republican convention in 2004 that “We have a calling from beyond the stars to stand for freedom.” He has frequently spoken of praying for guidance, especially as he launched and prosecuted the war in Iraq.

As the influence of religious conservatives has grown since Falwell founded the Moral Majority three decades ago, their language has softened. While their policies have not changed, the current crop of evangelicals speak in more cautiously modulated tones than the old firebrand who launched the movement. Many mainstream politicians now also talk openly of their faith, occasionally making reference to prayer. But no one speaks the language better than our current commander in chief. Evangelicals rejoiced when he was elected and his chief political strategist, Karl Rove, openly courted evangelical leaders.

But some are not so sanguine about a president on a mission from God. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has written that she “worked for two presidents who were men of faith, and they did not make their religious views part of American policy … President Bush’s certitude about what he believes in, and the division between good and evil, is, I think, different.” She concluded, “The absolute truth is what makes Bush so worrying to some of us.”

Could it be that President Bush is not hearing what the American people, foreign policy experts, military leaders and over half the Congress is saying because he is tuned to a different wavelength? A president who believes God is on his side may not need or want the advice of mere mortals. But this nation was founded on principles that demand our leaders separate their religious beliefs from their sacred obligation to the Constitution. America is calling, Mr. President. Will you listen?

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy. E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com.