Spring 2000, Vol. 3, No. 1

Contents Page,
Vol. 3, No. 1


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
From the Editor: Wars of Religion

Charitable Choice and the New Religious Center

Religious Ironies in East Timor

Faithless in Seattle? The WTO Protests

What's in a Name? The EgyptAir 990 Crash

Waiting for the Shoe to Drop

The NCC's Near-Death Experience

On the Beat: Condoms and Constitutions in Kenya

Letters to the Editor


Jesus, Political Philosopher

by Thomas Hambrick-Stowe

When George W. Bush named Jesus as his favorite political philosopher at the December 13 Republican debate in Des Moines—and several other GOP candidates followed suit—the first journalistic reaction was to note that once again religion had reared its head in presidential politics. But before long, liberal commentators across the land were asking, "What would Jesus think?" about the Bush policy record.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Molly Ivins, the scourge of Texas politicians, asked if Bush were indeed influenced by Jesus, why did he "fight to keep 200,000 Texas children from getting medical insurance?" Why, she went on, did the governor oppose hate crimes legislation introduced after James Byrd, Jr. was dragged to his death by three white racists? And why "does the state of Texas discourage people from applying for Medicaid?"

Bush caught the most heat for his record of support for Texas’ death penalty, which, during his first five years as governor, resulted in the execution of 112 inmates. Arizona Republic cartoonist Steve Benson pictured Bush naming "Christ" as his favorite political philosopher with Jesus standing at the adjacent lectern. "You’d never know it," says Jesus, "from all the people you’ve executed."

Responding to the cartoon in a letter to the editor, Edward Ryle of the Arizona Catholic Conference claimed Jesus would not have supported the Bush position because he "was an innocent victim of the death penalty" himself. Rocky Mountain News columnist Gene Amelia used the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery to make the same point. "Jesus," Amelia wrote, "saved her life by shaming the crowd" with the words, "Let him who is without sin be the first to cast a stone at her."

In a January 7 New York Times article on Bush’s death-penalty record, Jim Yardley used Bush’s Iowa comment to introduce the story of Karla Faye Tucker, the convicted Texas murderer who became a born-again Christian and a model inmate, and even married the prison chaplain. But, noted Sandy Grady of the Philadelphia Daily News, "Bush’s self-proclaimed Christianity didn’t stop him from executing Karla Faye Tucker, whose heart also was changed by Jesus."

If Bush had really wanted to imitate Jesus’ teachings, wrote David Corn, Washington editor for The Nation in a January 15 Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed, he would have pardoned Tucker according to the injunction in the Sermon on the Mount, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy." Instead, "he mocked her eleventh-hour plea, imitating her by whimpering ‘Please, don’t kill me’ with pursed lips," sneered the Boston Globe’s John Aloysius Farrell. "As a matter of political philosophy, Bush says, he does not believe he has the right to ‘replace the verdict of a jury with my own’ in order to show mercy."

For his part, Bush declined to speculate on what Jesus would have thought of the death penalty. "I’m a lowly sinner," he told a questioner at a January 10 presidential debate in Michigan. "I’m not going to put words in Jesus’ mouth."

The most detailed effort to design a quiz for Bush on Jesus’ public philosophy came in a January 21 Hartford Courant op-ed by Trinity College religion professor Frank Kirkpatrick:

  • Jesus counseled nonviolence … and refused to counter-attack with violence when nailed to the cross. In light of the words and example of Jesus, what role do you see for the military in … the United States?
  • Jesus … said that a person should abandon his mother and his father, son and daughter in order to follow him: How would you apply this teaching to family values?
  • Jesus said "Give all that you own to the poor" …. How does this inform your understanding of tax policy and the redistribution of wealth?
  • Jesus included foreigners, strangers, and aliens in his compassion. How would this practice inform your understanding of America’s immigration policy and its responsibilities to people in other nations?
  • Jesus said to his disciples that the best way for them to serve him was by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and housing the homeless. How would this teaching inform your understanding of domestic policy and the revenues necessary to put it into effect?

In a December 22 op-ed piece in the Dubuque Telegraph Herald, Loras College politics professor David Cochran extended this critique to the Republican Party as a whole, attacking the party of the Christian right for pursuing policies that hurt the poor and the mentally ill, opposing aid to developing countries, and supporting larger military budgets. "I do not want to imply that there are not sound arguments for some of these policy positions," Cochran wrote. "What I do want to point out, however, is the obvious and inconvenient fact that they are all very much at odds with the teachings of Jesus Christ."

Although conservative commentators did not hesitate to discuss Bush’s religious commitment and his sponsorship of "faith-based" social service programs in Texas, not one could be found who defended the "political philosopher" remark by claiming that the Bush record reflected the views of

Jesus. Asked at the Des Moines debate to explain his choice of political philosophers, Bush said, "Well, if they don’t know, it’s going to be hard to explain." His apologists evidently found this to be the case as well.