Church leaders object to casting God on U.S. side

Abuse photos undermine Bush’s religious rhetoric

The abuse of Iraqi prisoners by some U.S. soldiers points to the danger of President Bush describing the occupation of Iraq and the war on terror as battles between forces of good and the “evildoers” of the world, religious leaders say.

Even before compromising photos of nude and hooded prisoners surfaced in the news media, some mainline Protestant and American Muslim leaders had criticized the president for a series of speeches that appeared to say that God was on the side of America.

“We question that kind of theology — putting ‘good’ on us and ‘evil’ on the other,” said Antonios Kireopoulous, the associate general secretary for international affairs at the National Council of Churches, the major ecumenical agency in the United States.

“Seeing these photos of prisoner abuse puts the lie to that,” he said in an interview Thursday. “It shows the crack in that kind of thinking.”

Bush and God

If President Bush truly is a Christian – as he claims to be – the publishers of Apologetics Index, which includes Religion News Blog, call on him to also act like a Christian. In the context of this news blog, we call on him to
• stop ignoring America’s dismal human rights record
• stop his support for human rights violations (e.g. America’s use and promotion of the death penalty and America’s use of torture
• stop violating – and fighting against – international law,
• to stop supporting cults and extremist groups such as the Unification Church and the Scientology organization, and to
• stop claiming the alleged support of God as an excuse for furthering his own agenda

In his remarks Thursday marking the annual National Day of Prayer, President Bush showed new caution in his use of religious language. “God is not on the side of any nation,” he said during the White House gathering.

“He finds his children within every culture and every tribe,” the president added.

Former President Ronald Reagan established the first Thursday in May as a National Day of Prayer. While the day is described as an interfaith event, it is primarily promoted by conservative evangelicals. Before the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush often spoke of his Christian faith in personal, self- help terms, revealing how a conversation with evangelist Billy Graham and a “born-again” conversion helped him overcome a drinking problem and lack of direction in his life.

But in the aftermath of the terror attacks, Bush’s religious rhetoric began to reflect what one noted theologian calls “American messianic nationalism.”

Rosemary Ruether, a professor of theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, said the president and many of his supporters on the Christian right speak of his administration as “messianic agents chosen by God to combat evil and to establish good.”

But that is not the impression given by the photos coming out of Iraq in the past week.

“They fly in the face of that kind of language,” Ruether said. “There is something horrendous and contradictory in having all this torture come out of the very same prison used by Saddam Hussein’s torturers.”

At a White House news conference Thursday, Bush continued his defense of U.S. troops in Iraq, calling them “honorable, decent, loving people.”

Later in the day, the president seemed to go out of his way to answer theological critiques of his religious rhetoric during his National Day of Prayer remarks.

“Americans do not presume to equate God’s purposes with any purpose of our own,” the president said. “God’s will is greater than any man, or any nation built by men. “

Those comments come one week after “Frontline” aired a PBS documentary on Bush titled “The Jesus Factor.”

In the program, a top leader in the Southern Baptist Convention says Bush told him that “God wants me to be president.”

Before that, journalist Bob Woodward quoted Bush as saying that he didn’t ask his father, the former president, whether he should invade Iraq, but that he turned instead to “a higher Father” for advice.

Earlier this week, the president’s God-talk was criticized at a national convention of Bush’s own United Methodist Church.

And at a news conference Tuesday in Pittsburgh, Bishop McKinley Young of the African Methodist Episcopal Church said Bush “is not the only one who hears from God.”

“We did not elect him as priest of the nation,” Young said. “We elected him as president.”

The most controversial comments about God’s role in the Iraq war have come from Army Lt. Gen. William Boykin, the president’s deputy undersecretary for intelligence.

Referring to an encounter he had with a Muslim general in Somalia, Boykin said, “I knew that my God was a real God, and his was an idol.”

As for the war on terror, the general told a church group, “We are an army of God raised up for such a time as this.”

The comments offended many Muslims, including Helal Omeira, the Northern California director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Omeira also has been shocked by the abusive photos coming out of Iraq in the past week, but has urged his fellow Muslims not to overreact.

“Blaming Americans for the actions of a few soldiers,” he said, “is the same as blaming all Muslims for 9/11.”

- More articles by Don Lattin

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