daily collage of religion in the news from the war. 

“None of these acts is the work of a religion. All are the work of a fanatical political ideology.” – President Bush, on the train bombing in Madrid; the nightclub bombing in Bali; the bus bombings in Israel; the murder of Daniel Pearl; and the roadside bombs in Iraq.

That was the sole explicit reference to “religion” in last night’s press conference, but it set the tone for the evening’s political theology — a phrase we use with no endorsement or condemnation. The fact is, Bush talks religion. And he does so with some sophistication. Take the example above, in which he claims the power to discern motive and meaning beyond the stated intentions of the perpetrators, most of whom said they acted in the name of God.

What’s interesting is that Bush did not say that that idea is wrong, but rather that it is political — and thus beneath the transcendent goals of religion. Throughout the evening, he used the word “religion” once; but “freedom” was repeated 21 times. And freedom, as he defined it, is a religious concept: “I also have this belief, strong belief that freedom is not this country’s gift to the world. Freedom is the Almighty’s gift to every man and woman in this world.”

Bush emphasized his commitment to the fullest extension of this theology by insisting that “Muslims” (meaning, in his usage, non-Americans) lay claim to it based ultimately not on political grounds, but on spiritual authority: “Some of the debate really centers around the fact that people don’t believe Iraq can be free, that if you’re Muslim or perhaps brown skinned, you can’t be self-governing and free. I strongly disagree with that. I reject that because I believe freedom is the deepest need of every human soul.”

And yet Bush reserved a special place for America within this universal theology: “And as the greatest power on the face of the earth, we have an obligation to help the spread of freedom.” Yet, he added near the end of the evening, it is more than an “obligation”: “That is what we have been called to do, as far as I’m concerned.”

Despite the fact that Bush is, theologically speaking, the second least apocalyptic president in the last 20 years (the first being his essentially Godless father), he can’t resist deploying the metaphor of a final battle: “Now is the time and Iraq is the place in which the enemies of the civilized world are testing the will of the civilized world.” And yet Bush’s personal religion is one of small, intimate relationships, fostered in Bible studies rather than in grand churches, applied first and foremost to personal struggles, and based on an individual relationship with a Jesus who is defined more as a friend than as a God.

Revelation plays little role in this theology, an absence reflected in this statement: “Over the last several decades, we’ve seen that any concession or retreat on our part will only embolden this enemy and invite more bloodshed.” This is interesting phrasing: on the one hand, Bush’s use of “several decades” combined with “enemy” suggests a unified, worldwide opposition to “freedom” — which is in keeping with his concept of evil as the work ofSatan working through many agents. On the other hand, and despite his aggressive approach to fighting “this enemy,” the statement implies a longterm view of the battle — the kind of thinking that fits more comfortably with the old mainline theology of the Methodist church to which Bush nominally belongs than with that of the final countdown Christian Zionists with whom he is more frequently associated (and whom, it should be noted, pervade his administration).

Bush’s religion is above all personal. That galls secularists, who find his insistence on infusing political speech with references to hymns and scripture uncomfortably akin to crusading — a term Bush was happy to use until he was informed that it had historical meaning, at which point he dropped it. It may also mislead evangelical supporters, who are better able to hear Bush’s equation of “freedom” with “soul.” From there it’s easy to make a leap of faith into the belief that Bush is not a politician so much as a missionary. This ignores the obvious: Bush is a politician. He happens to have strong religious beliefs, but unlike those of a missonary, they are neither precise nor exclusive. How do we know? He says so.

Let’s take him at his word. Seriously. Not in the sense of believing or not believing his statements of fact — another matter entirely — but in the sense of listening to what he says. To Bush, religion transcends politics, and in his theory of belief, God transcends “religion.” “America is on the side of Muslims who wish to live in peace,” he said last night — not because Islam represents an equal approach to the truth as does Jesus, but because Muslims have souls, and where there is a soul, there’s the potential for “freedom” — the greatest good.

This is not the theology of a missionary seeking converts, but of an accidental crusader, one who fights with no particular faith in mind, and little awareness that history and theology graft a specific faith, rooted in Christianity, to his cause. Bush signaled this — what to call it? sincerity? ignorance? — most clearly in what we suspect was the evening’s moment of greatest candor:“[The Iraqis are] not happy they’re occupied. I wouldn’t be happy if I were occupied either.”

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The New York Times reports that “the sons of three of Iraq’s most venerated grand ayatollahs, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is regarded as the country’s most powerful religious figure” have approached Moktada Al-Sadr, and that Sadr “hinted at a face-saving compromise, saying he was ready to ‘implement any order’ issued by the religious establishment.” Sadr, says The Times‘ John F. Burns, “is regarded by many in the Shiite religious hierarchy as an upstart who relies more on his ragtag militia than on any credible religious authority.”

What’s intriguing here — besides the good news of a possible peace — is that The Times and most of the press have subtly shifted the narrative with which they explain religion in Iraq. Not so long ago, Sistani was presented as verging on “radicalism” — the press term for opposition to U.S. forces — himself. The Shiite establishment has morphed from threat to democracy into a stable council of old heads. And Sistani — who seemed on the verge of joining forces with Sadr last week — has returned to his designated role in the press narrative as a restrainer.

So the story remains intact — but far from complete. Religious authority is not quite so fixed as this press narrative suggests, and certainly not within the Iraqi Shiite community. Presented here as similar to the Catholic Church, it is in fact not nearly so hierarchical. Sadr may have begun the month an upstart, but he is now an “authority” himself. Rather than quoting envious rivals, the press might do better to wonder how that transformation happened, and whether it will last.