WASHINGTON - Is President Bush using inappropriately religious language as he talks daily about the possibility of war with Iraq?
Some religious leaders say they are uncomfortable with Mr. Bush's increasingly strong religious rhetoric, worried that he is usurping the role of preacher or possibly inciting Islamic fundamentalists with his good-versus-evil talk. Others say such language can be appropriate and that the nation has a long tradition of leaders who used it in their writings and speeches.
In two recent speeches, to the National Religious Broadcasters and at the National Prayer Breakfast, Mr. Bush said he welcomes faith to solve the nation's deepest problems and was greeted with “amens.”
The White House, noting the President's public approval rating has increased in recent weeks, defends the Mr. Bush's language as expressions of his personal beliefs and says he has every right to speak with fervor about his faith.
The Rev. William Gaddy, a Baptist minister who heads the Interfaith Alliance Foundation in Washington, disagrees. “The President of this nation has as his job to promote the common good. It's not his job to promote sectarian beliefs.''
However, Alan Wisdom, vice president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a group that believes religion is an important part of public life, said he doesn't think the President has used religious language in a narrow, sectarian sense that promotes Christianity or any particular version of Christianity to the exclusion of other religions.
“He's tried very much to appeal to common values that Christians, Muslims, Jews, and many others would have.”
“This is not political discourse. This is the language of religious zealots, Christian and Muslim. When he speaks of the `axis of evil,' he is placing those who disagree with him in the realm of evil.''
She said that the effect of injecting religion into a debate about war is to halt discourse and shock the other side (Iraqis and North Koreans, for example) into a shouting match about who is more evil. She said that while she believes it is appropriate to label some acts, such as the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as evil, much of the world is appalled by the way Mr. Bush seems to be branding countries and blocks of people as evil.
Mr. Wisdom said that by drawing on the religious concepts of the nature of evil, the President has helped the nation understand it is dealing with more than misunderstandings between people and competing self-interests. “There are indeed people and groups that take delight in destruction and are motivated by hatred.”
Responding to criticism, Mr. Bush on Monday said he will increasingly stress that his quarrel is with Saddam Hussein, not with the Iraqi people. The Iraqi people, he said, have been as much a victim of a cruel dictator as anyone else.
Mr. Bush came to religious faith as he was turning 40, changing his lifestyle, ending his use of alcohol, and regularly reading scripture. Mr. Gaddy accuses the President of going beyond acceptable limits of generalizing about religious beliefs to specific proselytizing. Analyzing the President's rhetoric in the last few years, Mr. Gaddy said, “You see a growing feeling he [believes] he is in fact a divinely chosen leader in this moment of history. It's as if he discovered the power of religion late in life and thinks the nation needs to [do the same].''
After the Columbia shuttle disaster, Mr. Bush invoked prayer and heaven as a way to comfort the nation. Religious leaders such as Mr. Gaddy do not argue with religious references in that context. They do fault him in the use of his Christian faith in discussing war.
For example, after discussing a likely war in Iraq with Australian Prime Minister John Howard, Mr. Bush said freedom for the Iraqi people is not the gift of the United States to make but insisted that “liberty is God's gift to every human being in the world,'' thus implying, some say, that attacking Iraq would be a divinely endorsed war of liberation.
Going beyond religious references even of such presidents as Lincoln, who said that he hoped the nation in civil war was on God's side, Mr. Bush told the religious broadcasters, “We're being challenged. We're meeting those challenges because of our faith.''
Mr. Wisdom said to the extent President Bush draws on the long tradition of using language and imagery from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, his words are perfectly legitimate.
The White House said the President will continue to use such references because it is how he thinks and because a majority of Americans agree with him. At the recent prayer breakfast, Mr. Bush indicated again that he sees himself as an instrument of a higher authority. “Events aren't moved by blind change and chance,'' he said. “Behind all of life and all of history, there's a dedication and purpose, set by the hand of a just and faithful God.''