Bush and the 'Third Awakening'

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, September 13, 2006; 1:22 PM

Peter Baker of The Washington Post spots a fascinating story amid the published excerpts from a closed-door session President Bush held with conservative journalists yesterday. The excerpts were published on the National Review's blog .

Baker writes: "President Bush said yesterday that he senses a 'Third Awakening' of religious devotion in the United States that has coincided with the nation's struggle with international terrorists, a war that he depicted as 'a confrontation between good and evil.'

"Bush told a group of conservative journalists that he notices more open expressions of faith among people he meets during his travels, and he suggested that might signal a broader revival similar to other religious movements in history. Bush noted that some of Abraham Lincoln's strongest supporters were religious people 'who saw life in terms of good and evil' and who believed that slavery was evil. Many of his own supporters, he said, see the current conflict in similar terms. . . .

"Bush has been careful discussing the battle with terrorists in religious terms since he had to apologize for using the word 'crusade' in 2001. He often stresses that the war is not against Islam but against those who corrupt it. In his comments yesterday, aides said Bush was not casting the war as a religious struggle but was describing American cultural changes in a time of war."

Bush also injected a religious perspective into his address to the nation on Monday, the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when he said: "The attacks were meant to bring us to our knees, and they did, but not in the way the terrorists intended. Americans united in prayer."

Bush often calls attention to all the people who he meets who say they are praying for him, and that's how the subject apparently came up yesterday. As Rich Lowry and Kate O'Beirne blogged for the National Review: "He jokingly noted, 'Now maybe the only people who pray in America come to my events.'"

But Bush's disquisition about a "Third Awakening" is highly suggestive, and potentially of no small political significance.

National Review senior editor Jeffrey Hart touched on the issue of revivalism in an op-ed for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last year. He wrote that Bush "has brought religion into politics in a way unknown to recent memory. And he has owed both of his electoral victories to his Evangelical Christian base. This indispensable base has profoundly affected his policies, foreign and domestic.

"The Bush presidency often is called conservative. That is a mistake. It is populist and radical, and its principal energies have roots in American history, and these roots are not conservative."

Hart wrote that the "Third Awakening of Evangelicalism believes all sorts of bizarre things, such as the imminent end of the world, the second coming of Christ, the sudden elevation of the just to heaven and the final struggle of Good versus Evil in Jerusalem: Armageddon. We thus have the immense popularity of the Left Behind series of novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins."

Concentrating mostly on the public health-related effects of Bush's Evangelicalism, Hart wrote that it "has real and often dangerous effects on the world in which the rest of us . . . live."

More recently, journalists struggling to understand Bush's nearly absolute deference to Israel in the Lebanese conflict wondered if Bush's religious beliefs were a factor. See my August 4 column, What's the Motivation? , which includes the strange tale of the visit to a White House Bible study meeting by a writer of Christian apocalpytic fiction.

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