Bush tries to clarify his stand on Jews, heaven

Machlokes / Controversy

Jewish World Review / Dec. 23, 1998 / 4 Teves, 5759

Eric Fingerhut

Bush clarifies his
stand on Jews, heaven

(JWR) ---- (http://www.jewishworldreview.com) TEXAS GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH has clarified remarks he made in 1993 which seemed to indicate that he believed only Christians had a place in heaven.

Bush, a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, first caused controversy when he told a story about his religious faith in an interview published in The Houston Post during his 1994 campaign for governor, and he recounted that story in a New York Times Magazine profile this September.

Bush said he was visiting his parents in the White House and, having at that time recently recommitted to religion, began to discuss “who goes to heaven” with his mother, Barbara. Bush pointed to a passage in the Christian Bible which said that “only Christians had a place in heaven.”

Barbara disagreed, saying, “Surely, God will accept others,” but Bush said, “Mom, here’s what the New Testament says.” So Barbara called Billy Graham, and, said Bush, “Billy said, ‘From a personal perspective, I agree with what George is saying, the New Testament has been my guide. But I want to caution you both. Don’t play God. Who are you two to be God?’ ”

While to some the story may indicate someone grappling with how to reconcile one’s religious faith with the world around him (and Bush himself said, in the Houston Post article, that the lesson he learned was “listen to the New Testament, but don’t be harshly judgmental”), others found the statement troubling. A fund-raising letter for Garry Mauro, Bush’s Democratic opponent in the 1998 gubernatorial election, was circulated this fall which mentioned “George W. Bush’s views about the chances of Jewish people in the hereafter” — signed by National Jewish Democratic Council chairman Monte Friedkin, fomer Texas governor Ann Richards and Texas businessman Bernard Rapoport.

The issue once again appeared on the radar screen when Bush announced at the November Republican Governors Association meeting that he would be making a National Jewish Coalition-sponsored trip to Israel. When asked by the same Texas reporter who intially relayed his view on heaven what he was going to say to Israeli Jews, Bush, obviously joking, said the first thing he would tell them is that they were all “going to hell.”

Anti-Defamation League national president Abraham Foxman asked Bush, in a letter, to clarify his remarks, and Bush responded last week.

“I am troubled that some people were hurt by my remarks,” he wrote. “I never intended to make judgments about the faith of others.”

Bush continued: “Judgments about heaven do not belong in the realm of politics or this world; they belong to a Higher Authority. In discussing my own personal faith as a Christian, I in no way meant to imply any disrespect or to denigrate any other religion. During my four years as governor, I have set a positive tone that indicates my respect for individuals from all faiths, all backgrounds and all walks of life.”

Foxman, in a statement, declared that the matter is “now behind us.” He said the ADL welcomes “the governor’s sensitivity and demonstration of respect for religions other than his own and his commitment to tolerance, diversity and the principles of religious freedom.”

But are a politician’s religious views an issue for discussion? And were Bush’s views unusual? Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, said that the theology of Evangelical Christians has an “exclusivist” nature to it — believing in the “centrality of Jesus” in order to obtain salvation — which runs counter to many other religions, and even other denominations of Christianity. For example, Eckstein notes that in Judaism, one can be considered a good person without being Jewish by observing the Noahide laws outlined in Genesis.

But, Eckstein said, there is a difference between “theological intolerance” — the fundamental belief of Evangelicals that they have the ultimate truth — and “practical intolerance” — for instance, denying Jews the right to pray.

“It shouldn’t come to the point that everyone who believes they have the ultimate truth is a bogeyman. I don’t believe Billy Graham is an intolerant person,” Eckstein said, even though Graham, while telling Bush not to play God, did not disagree with the passage Bush read about heaven. Eckstein emphasized that the important issue is whether that theology is carried into society, and whether a politician draws up public policy based on that belief. In the case of Bush, Eckstein said that “it is legitimate to ask” for a clarification of his views, and “it sounds like he explained satisfactorily.”

Rev. Dr. Clark Lobenstine, executive director of the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, said that he and those he works with wrestle with such issues all the time. “Part of the challenge of interreligious dialogue is that because we come as people of faith, it’s hard to imagine how everyone doesn’t want to reflect our faith. But we also know people of other faiths whose experience of God is very evident,” he said.

Lobenstine said he supports Bush’s letter clarifying his earlier comments and “encourages his respect for our diversity.”

The issue is unlikely to have any effect on future political plans for Bush, although Stephen Silberfarb, deputy executive director and general counsel for the National Jewish Democratic Council, did raise some questions. Silberfarb said the most important test is whether a politician’s religious beliefs have an effect on his policies, which so far, Silberfarb said, hasn’t been an issue. But to win the Republican nomination for president, Silberfarb stated that Bush would have to court the Christian Coalition, whose “power is considerable.”

“It remains to be seen whether he will be able to stand by that letter in the future,” Silberfarb said.

Matt Brooks, executive director of the National Jewish Coalition, said the book on this matter should be closed. “Bush has taken some time to learn and reflect. Foxman’s letter and Bush’s letter speak for themselves.”

Eric Fingerhut is a staff reporter for Washington Jewish Week.


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