Why is President George W. Bush still so upbeat about the war in Iraq? In his own words, it's his theology.

In a July 13 meeting with nine conservative journalists, the President described his belief in the "universality of freedom: I strongly believe that Muslims desire to be free just like Methodists desire to be free." The White House did not release a transcript of the meeting, but National Review's Rich Lowry quoted the President at length on "whether or not it is a hopeless venture to encourage the spread of liberty":

People have said, you know, this is Wilsonian, it's hopelessly idealistic. One, it is idealistic, to this extent: It's idealistic to believe people long to be free. And nothing will change my belief. I come at it many different ways. Really not primarily from a political-science perspective; frankly, it's more of a theological perspective. I do believe there is an Almighty, and I believe a gift of that Almighty to all is freedom. And I will tell you that is a principle that no one can convince me … doesn't exist.

As an example, Bush noted that Japan, once America's enemy, is now

an ally in peace who actually committed defensive troops into Iraq. It's a remarkable development in a part of the world that was a very troubled and dangerous part of the world for U.S. interests. And I ascribe a lot of that to … U.S. presence, allowing for the inevitable to happen. And the inevitable is forms of government that are based upon liberty. Now, they don't always look like the United States, nor do they advance at the pace that some of [us] would want. … And of course, this situation in the Middle East will look differently, it will evolve differently, but we've got all the same odds of achieving the same result. It may take longer, and it's certainly very difficult. But America must never lose faith in the capacity of forms of government to transform regions.

If Bush expected the conservative journalists present, along with other conservatives, to shout "Amen," he was mistaken. Lowry called Bush's statements "flat-out wrong, an otherworldly leveling of all the culture and history that separates various societies."

Ross Douthat, an associate editor at The Atlantic who contributes to Books & Culture and First Things, called Bush a heretic: "The attempt to transform God's promise of freedom through Jesus Christ into a this-world promise of universal democracy is the worst kind of 'immanentizing the eschaton' utopian [baloney]."

Calm down, said Peter Wehner, who recently left his job as director of the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives to take a position at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. "The President's belief is that there's a moral imperative to treat human beings with dignity and decency, and that liberty is the design of nature," he told CT. "That high-minded belief doesn't easily translate into policy … [but it does] supply public officials with a fundamental view of the human person, what rights individuals deserve, and what goals are worthy of our energy and our efforts."

But freedom isn't God's only good gift. He also gives peace. And life. And order. And justice. And mercy. And many other good gifts with both spiritual and political implications. Should any of these gifts become the basis of U.S. policy in Iraq?

This hits on what I think is the biggest political question for Western Christians right now: Should Christians in democracies work to make governmental actions reflect "high-minded" biblical priorities? Does God's love for human freedom require us to get the government to act for freedom worldwide? Does God's love for the poor require us to get the government to act for economic justice domestically and abroad?

President Bush once said, "Government can pass law and it can hand out money, but it cannot love." But without love, can it still do good, or can it merely avoid doing evil?

Note: This column ran in the September 2007 issue of Christianity Today. An earlier version of this column ran online in July.

Related Elsewhere:

Previous Tidings columns include:

The Freemasonry Threat | Faint echoes remind evangelicals of a nearly forgotten foe. (July 31,2007)
The Quest for the Historical Jerry | You can tell a lot about someone by what he says about Falwell. (June 13, 2007)
Partial Reversal | The Supreme Court's abortion decision shows that the arguments have changed. (May 14, 2007)
Jingo Jangle | Christian tribalism is a renunciation of God's kingdom. (April 18, 2007)
Church Divorce Done Right | Denominational splits just aren't what they used to be. (Mar. 7, 2007)

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Ted Olsen
Ted Olsen is Christianity Today's executive editor. He wrote the magazine's Weblog—a collection of news and opinion articles from mainstream news sources around the world—from 1999 to 2006. In 2004, the magazine launched Weblog in Print, which looks for unexpected connections and trends in articles appearing in the mainstream press. The column was later renamed "Tidings" and ran until 2007.
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