Rules Are for Schmucks: George W. Bush Gets Something Right

It’s hard to believe I actually wrote that headline. But it’s true—the guy who gave us the faith-based initiative, the ban on funding embryonic stem-cell research, and Justice Alito actually had something sensible to say about the relationship between religion and government.

Last weekend, the former president ventured out to deliver his first college commencement address since leaving office in 2009. Here is what he told the graduates of Southern Methodist University:

You can be hopeful because there is a loving God. Whether you agree with that statement or not is your choice. It is not your government’s choice. It is essential to this nation’s future that we remember that the freedom to worship who we want and how we want, or not worship at all, is a core belief of our founding.

Most of you readers of would disagree with the first sentence. Few, though, would object to Mr. Bush believing it, if he so chooses. And most of us would stand up and cheer when a politician (other than one we are predisposed to dislike) says, “Whether you agree with that statement or not is your choice. It is not your government’s choice.”

If it’s not your government’s choice whether or not you should believe in God, then why should the government require a reference to that God in the Pledge of Allegiance?

If it’s not your government’s choice whether or not you should believe in God, then why does the government plaster “In God We Trust” all over our money?

If it’s not your government’s choice whether or not you should believe in God, then what business does government have using tax expenditures and direct subsidies to promote that belief?

If it’s not your government’s choice whether or not you should believe in God, then why are so many official government meetings commenced with the expression of that belief?

Maybe Bush just slipped and didn’t intend to raise any of these kinds of questions. I can’t read his mind. I do think, though, that his reference to “freedom to worship” bears the hallmark of a deliberate—and quite welcome—choice of words.

rockwellThat’s because “freedom of worship” has become a well-known dirty word in the God industry. It wasn’t always thus—when Franklin Roosevelt was preparing Americans to take up the burden of war in 1941, he listed freedom of worship as number two among the “Four Freedoms” worth fighting for. Norman Rockwell’s famous poster series of the Four Freedoms helped inspire a nation to defeat the Nazis. But in the current decade, being merely for freedom of worship is not enough—if you don’t also back special legal privileges for the God industry, then you’re a weak-kneed tool of the secularists.

The first reference I’m aware of to this distinction is from 2010. Ashley Samelson’s “Why Freedom of Worship Is Not Enough” chastised President Obama for talking about “freedom of worship” rather than the broader “freedom of religion.” She correctly noted, “Those who would limit religious practice to the cathedral and the home are the very same people who would strip the public square of any religious presence,” doing terrible things like taking down crucifixes from public land and removing “under God” from the Pledge. A writer for Catholic Online picked up the baton, worrying that “A purposeful change in language could mean a much narrower view of the right to religious freedom,” quoting from a Second Vatican Council document that “Religious freedom, in turn, which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society.” That’s the real agenda—“immunity” from obeying the same laws everyone else must, also known as “coercion.” Soon the pope was piling on as well, complaining about “the narrowing of the freedom of faith to mere freedom of worship.”

At a congressional hearing in March, former Baptist minister Sen. James Lankford specifically asked a panel to differentiate between mere “freedom of worship” and “freedom of religion.” This gave Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council an opening to riff on “the growing intolerance of religious freedom, not freedom of worship, but the growing intolerance toward religious freedom, like in the marketplace,” apparently referring to businesses who are denied the religious freedom to discriminate against gays. Perkins went on to suggest that asking all Americans to obey the same laws somehow results in the murder of Christians abroad: “But as Christians here in this country, if we refrain from speaking out and exercising our freedoms, we put the lives of Christians elsewhere at risk if we allow our religious freedoms here at home to be lost.”

Republican presidential candidates are vying with each other to see who can most vehemently make the same point. Bobby Jindal last week whined that “When Secretary Clinton, when President Obama says, ‘You’ve got the freedom of religious expression’—tothem, that just means you get to go to church and say what you want inside church … That’s not religious liberty. Religious liberty is the ability to live our lives according to our faith twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.” And, presumably, it allows those lives to be immune from punishment when doing so violates laws that apply to the rest of us.

Just a week before the ex-president spoke, his little brother Jeb, “the smart one,” traveled to Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University to complain that “Fashionable opinion—which these days can be a religion all by itself—has got a problem with Christians and their right of conscience.” He cited “an agency dictating to a Catholic charity, the Little Sisters of the Poor, what has to go in their health plan—and never mind objections of conscience.” In fact, the agency in question has exempted the Little Sisters of the Poor and other religious organizations from putting the same features in their health plans that everyone else must, but Jeb Bush is not one to let messy facts get in the way of a good pander.

So is the reference to out-of-favor “freedom of worship” just poor dumb George W. being tone-deaf, or rusty from inaction? Again, I can’t read his mind, but I’ve always belonged to the “He’s dumb like a fox” school, simply trying to get people to “misunderestimate” him. Maybe, like Barry Goldwater before him, he’s finally had his fill of the religious right. Here’s what Goldwater had to say in 1981:

There is no more powerful ally one can claim in a debate than Jesus Christ, or God, or Allah, or whatever one calls this supreme being. But like any powerful weapon, the use of God’s name on one’s behalf should be used sparingly. The religious factions that are growing throughout our land are not using their religious clout with wisdom. They are trying to force government leaders into following their position 100 percent. If you disagree with these religious groups on a particular moral issue, they complain, they threaten you with a loss of money or votes or both. I’m frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in A, B, C, and D. Just who do they think they are? And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral beliefs to me?