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Issue Date:  October 29, 2004

By Peter Singer
Dutton, 280 pages, $24.95
By Paul Kengor
Regan Books, 382 pages, $26.95
The faith and ethics of George W. Bush

Authors Peter Singer and Paul Kengor assemble a wealth of material refuting both supporters' and critics' views of President Bush's Christian faith and ethics.


Partisans of a cause do well to consider evidence that might cause them to reconsider their beliefs. George W. Bush’s zealous supporters will find evidence in Peter Singer’s book The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush that he is neither as steadfast nor consistent in his thinking as they may have believed. And Bush’s vociferous critics will learn in Paul Kengor’s book God and George W. Bush: A Spiritual Life that he has often made humble statements about himself and repeatedly applauded the value of religious pluralism in the United States.

Singer is a Princeton bioethicist best known for his advocacy of the rights of animals. In his latest book, he examines Bush’s record as president on a host of issues, including stem-cell research, physician-assisted suicide, capital punishment, the environment, war and America’s role in the world. In every case, he finds contradictory statements that fail to reflect a consistent ethical basis for decision-making.

On physician-assisted suicide, for example, Singer notes that Bush endorsed the decision of Attorney General John Ashcroft that the “accepted limits” for prescribing drugs must be determined at the federal level. Contrasting this with Bush’s positions on other issues, Singer says, “A president can hardly claim to be a supporter of the rights of states to run their own affairs if he only allows them to pass laws that he personally supports.” He says the president’s approval of the detention without trial of American citizen Jose Padilla on suspicion of links with al-Qaeda “is inconsistent with an ethic that is committed to respecting human rights.” And comparing State Department human rights reports with the practice of denying prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, access to lawyers, he writes, “It appears that the Bush administration is now doing exactly what its own State Department denounces others for doing.”

In a chapter examining Bush’s religious beliefs, Singer defends his right to discuss Bush’s Christian beliefs and to describe how they influence his actions. However, the ethicist says, in the area of public policy, “faith cannot tell us who is right and who is wrong, because each will simply assert that his or her faith is the true one.” What is needed, he says, is the use of “public reason” as modeled by Anselm and Aquinas, in which nonreligious reasons are given to justify positions that have been influenced by one’s religious beliefs.

This point has implications that go beyond the presidency of George W. Bush and offers a guideline for both the faithful and the faithless in making public policy.

In his final chapter, Singer demonstrates that Bush’s policies have sometimes been based on individual rights, sometimes on utilitarianism, and sometimes on Christian principles. The philosopher concludes that “Bush’s views do not fit within a coherent ethical framework, because he reacts instinctively to specific situations.” If a president needs a consistent message, as Bush himself has said, then the incumbent president “is a conspicuous failure,” Singer says.

Kengor, a professor of political science at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, is the author of a previous volume about Ronald Reagan’s religious beliefs. His latest book examines George W. Bush’s religious views throughout his life and includes commentaries from both supporters and critics.

Kengor assembles a wealth of material demonstrating that contrary to the beliefs of some, Bush is not trying to impose a Christian theocracy on the nation. As governor of Texas, Bush refused to halt the execution of Karla Faye Tucker despite her conversion to Christianity and testimonies of her changed behavior on death row. And the one death-row pardon he granted went to the irreligious Henry Lee Lucas because of what Bush called “real doubt” about his guilt.

Some of Bush’s diehard evangelical Christian supporters might be surprised to learn from Kengor’s book that “on doctrinal questions such as who gets into heaven, he is much more liberal Methodist than an inflexible fundamentalist.” And in his glowing references to Islam, Bush has gone beyond any other president, even to the point of commending Muslim countries in June 2002 for what he called their “commitments to morality, and learning and tolerance.”

Kengor also contrasts Bush’s public statements about Jesus with those of prominent Democrats and finds that Republicans have no counter on the Christian market. It was President Bill Clinton who said, in advocating his crime bill in 1994, that “our ministry is to do the work of God here on Earth.” And in 2000, Kengor writes, Bill and Hillary Clinton and Vice President Al Gore “made more church appearances in one campaign week than George W. Bush did in his entire presidency.”

Although Singer asserts that the 2003 war on Iraq violated Christian criteria for a just war, Kengor cites comments from scholars showing that Christians disagree on whether just-war theory precludes preemption. At the same time, he quotes Bush as having told Bob Woodward, “I’m surely not going to justify war based on God” and as having told Tom Brokaw, “I was able to step back from religion, because I have a job to do.”

As both of these books show, a president’s religious beliefs don’t necessarily mean that he will make wise policy decisions. Perhaps the best way for any public official to apply ethics to decision making was stated by Bush himself in his April 10, 2002, remarks urging the Senate to endorse a ban on human cloning: “As we seek what is possible, we must always ask what is right, and we must not forget that even the most noble ends do not justify any means.”

Darrell Turner writes the section on religion for the Encyclopedia Britannica Book of the Year. He has been an associate editor for Religion News Service.

National Catholic Reporter, October 29, 2004

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