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Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the American historian, was a top aide to U.S. president John F. Kennedy. His most recent book is a memoir, "A Life in the 20th Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917-1950."

By Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

NEW YORK — George W. Bush's presidency is the first faith-based administration in American history. The early presidency certainly did not start out that way. The Founding Fathers did not mention God in the Constitution. A month before he died, Benjamin Franklin expressed doubts about the divinity of Jesus. He added, in a Poor Richard vein: "Though it is a question I do not ever dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble."

The faithful regarded our early presidents as insufficiently pious. George Washington was a nominal Anglican who rarely stayed for communion. John Adams was a Unitarian, which Trinitarians abhorred as heresy. Thomas Jefferson, denounced as an atheist, was actually a deist who detested organized religion and who produced an expurgated version of the New Testament with the miracles eliminated. James Madison, a nominal Episcopalian, was the architect of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. James Monroe was another Virginia Episcopalian. John Quincy Adams was another Massachusetts Unitarian. Andrew Jackson, pressed by clergy to proclaim a national day of fasting to combat a cholera epidemic, replied that he could not do as they wished "without feeling that I might in some degree disturb the security which religion now enjoys in this country in its complete separation from the political concerns of the General Government."

In the 19th century, all presidents routinely invoked God and solicited His blessing. But religion did not occupy a major presence in their lives; Lincoln was the great exception. Nor did our early presidents use religion as an agency for mobilizing voters. "I would rather be defeated," said James A. Garfield, "than make capital out of my religion."

Nor was there any great popular demand that politicians should be men of faith (so long as they were not communicants of the party of Rum, Romanism and Rebellion). In 1876 James G. Blaine, an aspirant for the Republican presidential nomination, selected Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll, a famed orator but a notorious scoffer at religion, to deliver the nominating speech.The pious knew and feared Ingersoll as "The Great Agnostic;"a 21st century equivalent of Colonel Ingersoll would have been booed off the platform at the Republican convention of 2004.

There were presidents of ardent faith in the 20th century. Woodrow Wilson had no doubt that the Almighty had designated the United States — and himself — for the redemption and salvation of humankind. Jimmy Carter, like the younger Bush, was born again. Ronald Reagan, though not a regular churchgoer, had a rapt evangelical following. But neither Wilson nor Carter nor Reagan applied religious tests to secular issues, nor did they exploit their religion for their political benefit. These are the standards that President Bush has systematically violated.

The Southernizationof the Republican party and the rise of evangelicals as a political force have restructured American politics. When I was a young fellow, fundamentalists were a disdained minority, raw material for H.L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis (Elmer Gantry) to make jokes about the Bible Belt. You could rely on fundamentalists to be anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic.They had led the campaign against Al Smith in 1928 and the one againstJohn F. Kennedy in 1960. They had lynched Leo Frank in 1915.

But in recent years the religious right has made an alliance with rightwing Catholics over abortion and with rightwing Jews over the Holy Land. Such alliances have given the evangelicals a measure of political respectability. Religious statistics are notoriously unreliable, but it may be, as the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press asserts, that evangelicals now outnumber mainline Protestants. The religious right constitutes President Bush's political base, and the result is the first faith-based presidency in American history.

Bush's first executive order was to establish in the White House the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. In 2003, as our president told a White House conference, the federal government gave more than a billion dollars to faith-based organizations. And Bush is unique among presidents in his extensive application of religious tests to secular issues. This explains why 48 American Nobel laureates recently issued a statement calling for a regime change in Washington. The opposition to stem-cell research that so disturbs Nancy Reagan is typical. Stem-cell research promises to expedite cures for Alzheimer's, diabetes, AIDS, Parkinson's and other diseases. But evangelicals are against it, and so is George W. Bush.

Equally alarming is the use of churches for political purposes. A Bush campaign document, according to The New York Times, lays out "a brisk schedule for legions of Christian supporters to help enlist ‘conservative churches' and their members, including sending church directories to the campaign." It is indeed a far cry from President Garfield and vindicates the rebuke by Ron Reagan at his father's funeral when he said that President Reagan had never made "the fatal mistake of so many politicians — wearing his faith on his sleeve to gain political advantage."

There is no doubt about the authenticity of President Bush's conversion. He would not be president today unless the born-again experience had charged his life with new meaning, purpose and discipline. Redemption through commitment of his heart to Jesus is what made him a man and a leader. But, as Bob Woodward said in his book, "Bush at War," "The President was casting his mission and that of the country in the grand vision of God's master plan." There is a messianic certitude about our president's pronouncements.

Of all American presidents, Lincoln had the most acute religious insight. He was intensely aware of the unfathomable distance between the Almighty and erring mortals, and he would have agreed with Hawthorne that to claim knowledge of the divine will and purpose is the Unpardonable Sin.

How Lincoln would have rejoiced in Mr. Dooley's definition of a fanatic! A fanatic, Mr. Dooley said,"does what he thinks the Lord would do if He knew the facts in the case."The most dangerous people in the world today are those who persuade themselves that they are executing the will of the Almighty.

Lincoln summed it all up in his second inaugural. Both warring halves of the Union, he said, had read the same Bible and prayed to the same God. Each invoked God's aid against the other. And so Lincoln said, "Let us judge not that we be not judged . . . (for) "the Almighty has His own purposes."

Thurlow Weed, the boss of New York, sent Lincoln a letter of congratulation. "Men are not flattered," Lincoln replied, "by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them. To deny it, however, in this case, is to deny that there is a God governing the world. It is a truth which I thought needed to be told; and as whatever of humiliation there is in it falls most directly on myself,I thought others might afford for me to tell it."

Reinhold Niebuhr was the great American theologian of the 20th century. Writing about Lincoln's second inaugural, Niebuhr said, "This combination of moral resoluteness about the immediate issues with a religious awareness of another dimension of meaning and judgment must be regarded as almost a perfect model of the difficult but not impossible task of remaining loyal and responsible toward the moral treasures of a free civilization on the one hand while yet having some religious vantage point over the struggle. . . . We, on the other, as all ‘God-fearing' men of all ages, are never safe against the temptation of claiming God too simply as the sanctifier of whatever we most fervently desire."

Perhaps George W. Bush should read Lincoln and Niebuhr in order to understand the limits on human knowledge of the divine purpose.

(c) 2004, Global Viewpoint
Distributed by Tribune Media Service, INC. (Distributed 10/25/04)