The Religiosity of George W. Bush
Is the personal presidential?
by Edmund D. Cohen
The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume
recently, I had not seriously thought that supernaturalism or superstition could
be an issue of concern as regards the second Bush presidency. George W. Bush is,
to be sure, a practicing fundamentalist Christian who begins each day meditating
on the fustian prose of Oswald Chambers’s My Utmost for His Highest. But he is
also an Ivy League graduate, the scion of an old Republican establishment
family, and the chosen front man for the conservative Republican Party
establishment. Surely that establishment must have vetted its candidate well
enough to rule out nominating an unstable religious eccentric. When he speaks in
churchly terms, surely he is only employing regional idiom and one cannot take
him literally. Or can one?
When then-Governor of Texas Bush was seeking the presidency in 2000, a story
circulated that he had phoned the televangelist James Robison and said to him,
“I’ve heard the call. I believe God wants me to run for president.”1
Even that struck me as nothing more than standard Bible Belt hyperbole. What
changed my mind is Stephen Mansfield’s unauthorized 2004 campaign hagiography,
The Faith of George W. Bush.2 In it, Mansfield sets out an account of
events following upon that phone call, based on an apparently recent interview
On the day that the evangelist entered Bush’s office, he was surprised to
find political strategist Karl Rove there as well, and even more surprised at
what Bush was about to say. “My life is changed,” the governor said. “I
had a drinking problem. I won’t say I was an alcoholic, but it affected my
relationships, even with my kids. It could have destroyed me. But I’ve given
my life to Christ.”
Robison, who had heard rumors of Bush’s conversion, was struck by the
sincerity he sensed. He was not prepared, though, for what came next. “I feel
like God wants me to run for president,” Bush said. “I can’t explain it,
but I sense my country is going to need me. Something is going to happen, and,
at that time, my country is going to need me. I know it won’t be easy, on me
or my family, but God wants me to do it.”
“In fact,” Bush continued, “I really don’t want to run. My father was
president. My whole family has been affected by it. I know the price. I know
what it will mean. I would be perfectly happy to have people point at me someday
when I’m buying my fishing lures at Wal-Mart and say, ‘That was our
governor.’ That’s all I want. And if I run for president, that kind of life
will be over. My life will never be the same. But I feel God wants me to do
this, and I must do it.”
The president’s prophetic profession, if it really was expressed this way,
definitely goes over the line into the realm of magical thinking and delusion.
Neither he nor Karl Rove has come forward to correct or to clarify Mansfield’s
The president and Robison enjoy a very close relationship. Both the White
House and Robison downplay it, and the mainstream media have not caught onto it
yet. Robison visited with the president in the Oval Office in spring 2001, fall
2002, and perhaps at other times. Robison has been a guest repeatedly and
perhaps frequently at the president’s ranch in Crawford, Texas. Of “Bush’s
unique friendship with James Robison . . . ,” Mansfield writes, “[t]he two
have prayed together while hiking Bush’s ranch or talked about faith, gun in
hand, while waiting for game to approach.”4
Robison was the featured speaker at the prayer breakfast preceding Bush’s
inauguration as Texas governor. In February 1999, then-Governor Bush appeared on
Robison’s televangelism show, Life Today—his only appearance on that kind of
television program. Of the frequent phone conversations between the president and
Robison, Darren Barbee, writing in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, reported:
In the new century, his cell phone rings with George W. Bush on the line
asking Robison to tell him how he came across in a speech. More recently, the
president and the . . . televangelist have talked about the war in Iraq, about
the greed that consumed Enron and about the battle for America’s heart.
“I want you to tell me, spiritually, what do you sense?” Bush has asked
the Euless [Texas] televangelist.5
To try to understand President Bush, we cannot help but scrutinize Robison.
Now sixty years old, Robison is the product of the rape of a forty-year-old
woman who tried but was unable to secure an abortion. After a hard-scrabble
childhood, Robison rose in Southern Baptist circles. As a young man, he became a
big draw on the revival circuit.
Since his 1968 entry into television, his popularity as atelevangelist has
waxed and waned. The scale of his current televangelism operation is modest. He
has long been a high-profile figure on the Religious Right, and has usually been
present when high-ranking Republicans met with top Religious Right leaders.
Through the years, he has strayed from Southern Baptist doctrine and become a de
facto Pentecostal or Charismatic. He has been through a phase of holding himself
out as having special power to heal the sick by his praying.
By Robison’s own account, he was often a “dark-visaged, angry
preacher,” railing against other preachers whom he considered too liberal, too
greedy, or too lustful. In 1979, he was put off the air for strident anti-gay
rhetoric. He came to attribute his much-criticized, angry demeanor, as well as
turmoil in his personal life, to the activity of demons. After undergoing what
he regarded as a successful exorcism performed by lay exorcist Milton Green, a
kindler, gentler James Robison emerged. “Deliverance” or demon exorcism
became part of his stock-in-trade.
In 1982, Robison befriended Texas millionaire T. Cullen Davis. Davis had been
acquitted of the murder of his wife’s lover and his stepdaughter in 1977. In
1979, Davis was acquitted again, this time of attempting to procure the murder
for hire of fifteen people, including the judge who had presided in his divorce
case. Davis owned over one million dollars worth of Asian religious art
treasures made of jade, ivory, and gold. He wanted to contribute them to
Robison’s ministry. Robison opined that the objects were idols and had to be
destroyed in obedience to Deuteronomy 7:25.6 Davis and Robison broke the art
objects to pieces with hammers and dumped the shards into a lake.
According to Robison, there are but two worldviews: Biblical Christianity and
Relativism. Biblical Christianity represents the “Absolutes.”7 By
“Relativism,” he means complete lack of criteria for distinguishing right
from wrong or truth from falsity. All those who are not Bible-believers are ipso
facto Relativists. For Robison, liberal Democrats, Islamist terrorists, and all
others who are not Christian Bible-believers count as Relativists and are
therefore all interchangeable with one another.
What the myriad deceptively different forms of Relativism all have in common
is unseen direction by demons or evil spirits:
Evil powers in the realm of darkness can affect and even control the actions
of people. . . . The Bible refers to these powers as evil spirits, tormenting
spirits, unclean spirits, seducing spirits, deceiving spirits, spirits of
bondage and murder and destruction. It is important to realize that not all
destructive spirits are as obvious and despicable as those responsible for the
tragedy of September 11 and other atrocities. Seducing spirits are often subtle,
sophisticated, and in some ways attractive. They can control professors,
politicians, artists, and even religious leaders including Jesus’ own
disciples . . . . The entertainer, teacher or leader who undermines the
relevance of absolute principles is no less demonically manipulated than the
terrorist. [Italics added.]8
Robison also believes that God communicates specific messages to believers by
intervening in their thought processes:
I was driving down the road with my wife one day when I heard God speaking in
my mind and my heart. It was not an audible voice, but it was nonetheless real.
I heard Him say, “I really like the way you come to me. You don’t just come
to me with a list of requests and concerns. Instead, you crawl up into my arms,
lay your head on my shoulder, and rest. I like that.” [Italics in
Without friends in the corridors of power, Robison would be a mere buffoon.
But with the president of the United States presumably absorbing his
preposterous teaching, there is a problem, to say the least. How vulnerable
might President Bush actually be to such mind-rotting bunk? I contend that we
are seeing its effects each day, in the largest and most overarching policies of
the Bush administration.
Conspicuous by its absence from recent public discourse has been any
plausible theory as to how it came to pass that President Bush entered office
with his mind already made up to invade Iraq. The reasons the administration has
contrived for that invasion post hoc are less than credible.
Iraq in the last days of Saddam Hussein was far from the most troublesome of
WMD-capable rogue nations. Vitiated by years of embargo, Iraq had neither
molested any of its neighbors nor shown any proclivity to resume doing so. Iraq
had little truck with Islamist terrorists. At a time when running Islamist
terrorists to ground was supposedly America’s paramount foreign policy
objective, the president diverted massive resources in order to invade a country
with—for that region—a most un-Islamic regime. Iraq under Saddam repressed
Islamists within its sphere of control more harshly than a regime with decent
regard for human rights could have done, and permitted no young males to be
indoctrinated in madrasas.
The possible ulterior motives that have been advanced—to revenge Saddam’s
attempt on the life of the elder President Bush, or to drum up business for
Texas oil interests—could scarcely have prompted a decision so momentous.
Irrational reasons must have played a large part in the genesis of this
otherwise incomprehensible policy. It can be no mere coincidence that the war
waged for no sufficient reason—perhaps even by mistake—happens also to be
the one waged against a nation and a tyrant that, for the Christian
fundamentalist decision maker, resonate with biblical prophecy.
Loathing for “Babylon” is a continual preoccupation throughout the Bible.
The Bible’s Babylon references typically pertain to the captivity of the
Israelites during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar and their liberation when Cyrus,
King of Persia, conquered Babylon and let the Israelites return to Jerusalem.
Many such references appear to point to the re-emergence of horrid Babylon near
the end of time and to its dramatic annihilation before Christ’s return.
Saddam liked to style himself as Nebuchadnezzar’s successor. At the
location of ancient Babylon, south of Baghdad, Saddam built a nationalistic
ancient Babylon theme park. There he planned to replicate the fabled hanging
gardens. Saddam identified far more closely with the glories of the distant,
pre-Islamic past than with Islam.
A fundamentalist Christian decision maker is inevitably handicapped at seeing
Saddam dispassionately for the glorified street thug that he is. The demons,
devil, and Antichrist crowding the imaginary landscape get in the way. Of course
one will overestimate Saddam’s capabilities wildly, if one imagines him to be
some sort of preternatural being, to whose aid legions of ectoplasmic allies
will come. After all, ectoplasmic allies do not respect United Nations
Imagine the conversation that Robison and President Bush might have had about
the Iraq war and Bible prophecy. The vituperations against Babylon in Revelation
17 and 18 would surely have been discussed:
And there came one of the seven angels which had the seven vials, and talked
with me, saying unto me, Come hither: I will shew unto thee the judgment of the
great whore that sitteth upon many waters. . . . And upon her forehead was a
name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS
OF THE EARTH. . . . I saw another angel. . . . And he cried mightily with a
strong voice, saying, Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and is become the
habitation of devils, and the hold of every foul spirit, and a cage of every
unclean and hateful bird . . . and she shall be utterly burned with fire. . . .
And a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone, and cast it into the
sea, saying, Thus with violence shall the great city Babylon be thrown down, and
shall be found no more at all.10
No doubt Robison would have been capable of counseling his presidential pupil
to run out and invade “Babylon” with the same flippancy he displayed when
counseling Cullen Davis to smash the art treasures and throw them into the lake.
The big question is whether or not President Bush was capable of coming by his
idée fixe about invading Iraq in such a manner.
Under the Influence
There have been many accounts of the president’s dangerously inflated
confidence in his own hunches and gut feelings. He trusts his gut in preference
to mastering the tedious information needed to craft reasoned policy decisions.
It would be only a short leap further for him to persuade himself that those
hunches and gut feelings come from God. Did not God give him a sign and perform
a wonder in making the Florida count come out the way it did?
A similar explanation might apply to the president’s disastrous combination
of unrestrained spending and strangling revenues through lopsided tax cuts for
the affluent. Maybe Bush thinks he will get a dispensation from the laws of
arithmetic—like the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Or maybe he runs up
deficits as if there were no tomorrow because he really expects Christ to come
back more quickly than our country can go bankrupt.
Both of these policies will predictably fail, not far into the second term
President Bush seeks. While it is devoutly to be hoped that Iraq will succeed in
forming a decent and stable government, the chances are not good. The realistic
expectation is for Iraq’s politics to be dominated by Farsi-speaking Shiite
ayatollahs not long after sovereignty is transferred. After that, Iraq will
likely break up much as Yugoslavia did. As for the president’s fiscal
policies, “if the Lord tarries” they will quickly and with absolute
arithmetic certainty prove unsustainable. What can the president be thinking?
What could possess him to act so as to undercut his own contemplated second term
For now, President Bush is on his best behavior, looking toward the 2004
election. Once re-elected, how might he change? The President Bush we know today
is a far cry from the moderate, bipartisan Governor Bush who ran for president,
styling himself a “uniter, not a divider” and professing a platform of
humility in foreign policy with no nation building. In a second term, would we
see a higher-profile Robison given the run of the White House, perhaps to emerge
as an American Rasputin? Would Bush devote the powers of his office to
fulfilling prophecies that he thinks are supposed to precede the return of
Christ? Does the president fantasize about being in office when Christ
returns—of receiving Him in the Oval Office, and being told, “Well done, my
good and faithful servant” in the Rose Garden just before being taken up into
I hope we never find out.
1. Tony Carnes, “A Presidential Hopeful’s Progress,” Christianity
Today, October 2, 2000.
2. Stephen Mansfield, The Faith of George W. Bush (Lake Mary, Florida:
Charisma House, 2003.)
3. Ibid., p. 109. Robison gives a somewhat similar but far less damaging
account of the conversation in his current book, The Absolutes: Freedom’s
Only Hope (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House, 2002), pp. 232–33. Robison
says the meeting took place in August 1998 and Mrs. Robison was also present.
4. Mansfield, p. 156. See also Robison’s own account of such a visit, The
Absolutes, pp. 130–31.
5. Darren Barbee, “The Evolving James Robison,” Ft. Worth
Star-Telegram, June 11, 2003. See also Jodi Enda, “Bush Takes His Personal
Faith a Step Beyond Predecessors,” Knight Ridder Tribune Washington Bureau,
April 13, 2001.
6. “The graven images of their gods shall ye burn with fire: thou shalt not
desire the silver or gold that is on them, nor take it unto thee, lest thou be
snared therein: for it is an abomination to the Lord thy God.”
7. Robison’s “Absolutes” are nothing but mainstream American civic
values: “People Matter Most,” ”Greed Destroys,” “Character Counts,”
etc. The chapter on “People Matter Most” (The Absolutes, pp. 83–99)
could pass for a discussion of secular humanism! Robison finesses the question
of how these “Absolutes” arise from the Bible. (They are, for the most part,
at odds with what I understand the Bible to be teaching.)
8. Ibid., p. 15.
9. Ibid., p. 44.
10. Revelation 17:1, 5; 18:1,2, 8, 21.