Religion and the Presidents

Few question that religious issues have played a prominent role in the presidency of George W. Bush. Some even accuse Bush of being a Christian zealot who wants to remake America according to his religious views. Although Bush’s faith has helped shape his electoral strategy, political agenda, and relationships at home and abroad, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, has urged Bush to reevaluate his Middle East policies in light of his religious convictions. The U.S. president may want to ask his Iranian counterpart to reassess his own policies in light of the letter he recently sent Bush.

Ironically, many Iranians worry that their president is a religious fanatic who wants to take their nation’s Islamic theocracy to a more radical level. Ahmadinejad anticipates the return of the Shiite messiah, the 12th imam, who will lead the exploited to revolt against their oppressors. And he has alarmed many Westerners by his inflammatory claim that “Israel should be wiped off the map.”

In his letter 18-page epistle on religion, philosophy and history, Ahmadinejad asked Bush how his actions in the Middle East could be reconciled with his claim to “be a follower of Jesus Christ,” “the great Messenger of God,” the herald “of peace and forgiveness.” Could a disciple of Jesus attack other countries and destroy entire villages “on the slight chance” of capturing a few criminals? If the billions of dollars the U.S. spent on security and military campaigns were instead used to improve health services and education, create jobs, alleviate poverty, mediate between disputing states, and extinguish “the flames of racial, ethnic and other conflicts,” the Iranian president asked, would the world not be a much better place? If such prophets as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Ishmael, or Jesus Christ “were with us today,” how would they judge America’s priorities?

Ahmadinejad rejoiced that hundreds of millions of Christians and Muslims and millions of Jews throughout the world share a “belief in a single God.” He insisted that the holy scriptures command everyone to “worship one God” who “is above all powers in the world” and to “follow the teachings of divine prophets.”  “Do you not think,” Ahmadinejad asked Bush, that if all people accept and abide by the principles of “monotheism, worship of God, justice, respect for the dignity of man, [and] belief in the Last Day, we can overcome the present problems of the world—that are the result of disobedience to the Almighty and the teachings of prophets? Do you not think that belief in these principles promotes and guarantees peace, friendship and justice?”

Although Bush will probably not respond to Ahmadinejad’s missive, he does share many of his convictions about God and the importance of faith and justice.

Bush has argued that Jews, Christians, and Muslims all seek to create “a kind, just, tolerant society” and emphasize the “universal call to love your neighbor.” He has frequently insisted that Islam’s “teachings are good and peaceful.” Bush hosted the first-ever White House dinner to recognize the beginning of Ramadan, has met frequently with American Muslim leaders, and praised Islam for inspiring “countless individuals to lead lives of honesty, integrity, and morality.” Like Ahmadinejad, Bush has often emphasized God’s control of the universe. In his 2003 State of the Union Address, the president declared, for example, “Behind all of life and all of history, there’s a … purpose, set by the hand of a just and faithful God.”

Both presidents are inspired by their faith and seek to determine God’s will for their administrations and countries. Both want the Middle East to become a just, stable, and prosperous region.

Unlike Ahmandinejad, however, Bush has never claimed that he definitely knows God’s will for particular situations.

American leaders quickly dismissed Ahmadinejad’s “rambling” correspondence as irrelevant because it contained no proposals to resolve the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program. At a deeper level, however, his letter calls attention to the crucial issues of America’s global priorities and whether religious communities, especially Islam, can help promote justice, the rule of law, and toleration.

Given the many ideological, ethnic, and political divisions in our world and the Middle East’s repressive governments, let us hope that Islam can play a role in establishing republican governments with broad political participation, equal justice, and civil liberties in this region. Perhaps Bush should challenge Ahmadinejad and other Middle Eastern leaders to foster the principles the Iranian president delineates.