The first time I got together with Ron Crews, the president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, we started talking about Attorney General John Ashcroft, whom we both admire.
"I see the hand of the Lord" in Ashcroft's being Attorney General, Ron said. He cited the plane crash that killed Ashcroft's Senatorial opponent Mel Carnahan, the sympathy vote that swung toward Carnahan's widow, and Ashcroft's own forbearance in campaigning after the crash and then in declining to challenge the election's result. "God put him where he is today for a reason," Ron said.
This, of course, is the kind of talk that drives secular liberals batty. They interpret it to mean: Ashcroft thinks he has God on his side. Ashcroft is trying to impose a theocracy on the United States.
And it gets worse, of course, when that kind of talk applies to the President, George W. Bush, another born-again Christian. I have heard absolute spitting contempt of President Bush expressed on National Public Radio and on the BBC by Europeans who regard religion as the cultural companion of NASCAR and the Big Mac. Gore Vidal, speaking with gossip columnist Liz Smith a few days back, said, "Mr. Bush is a 'come to Jesus' kind of fellow who believes he is doing God's work. And it explains why Tony Blair has gone along with him. He, too, is a crypto Roman Catholic and a secret Jesus lover. Together they are very dangerous."
Sorry, Mr. Vidal. There's nothing "crypto" about it, and it's no secret. The website Pray for George W. Bush has been organized since September 17, 2000. The Presidential Prayer Team (my wife has joined this one) provides a weekly Internet newsletter, radio broadcast segments, flags, mailers, "prayer reminders," an "adopt a troop" section, and links to news articles.
Neither organization claims any official endorsement, sponsorship, or link with the administration or any part of the government. Yet the connection between George Bush and his Christian supporters is very real. He signals it from time to time, with a twinkle in his eye. In the last State of the Union message, as the President began to describe funding for his faith-based initiative, he said, of faith, "There is power…" And then he paused. "Wonder-working power," he added. This is part of the chorus of an old gospel hymn. Those of us who knew, knew.
Prayer, and the connection to Godly power, is widely misunderstood. And it seems that it doesn't matter how often we believers explain it, it will be misunderstood. But I'll try again.
The essential prayer is, "Thy will, not mine, be done." I'm not sure if this formulation goes back to the pre-Christian Jewish tradition, but for Christians, it's clear where it comes from: Jesus's prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, before his crucifixion. Matthew 26:39: "…He threw himself on the ground and prayed, 'Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want."
We pray -- and George W. Bush prays -- not for God to help us to victory, but for knowledge of God's will for us and for the power to carry out that will.
Bush himself described the relationship of the United States to God and to prayer this way: "Since America's founding, prayer has reassured us that the hand of God is guiding the affairs of this nation. We have never asserted a special claim on His favor, yet we've always believed in God's presence in our lives…Prayer reminds us that a great people must be humble before God, searching for wisdom -- constantly searching for wisdom -- from the Almighty."
Those of us who live by prayer know the experience of God sending his power to us, the feeling of having our lives on a rocket boost of joy, and having things done for us that we could not do for ourselves. We also know the feeling of going wrong, of feeling alienated from God, or even of having God rather pointedly showing us where we've gone astray.
And we wouldn't ever again trade this experience for its opposite number, the life of the ego, of panic, of social striving, of anxiety, of dread, of fragile achievements temporary as castles in sand.
We do occasionally give in to the sin of teasing unbelievers. Like when Rush Limbaugh says, "Talent on loan from God!" in his biggest, most stentorian carnie barker's voice, we know how liberals take it. Yet Rush just states a simple truth. All talent -- even Gore Vidal's -- has only been loaned, never owned.