On Thursday, September 20, only hours before his speech before Congress, President George W. Bush spent over an hour talking and praying with a group of twenty some leaders of America's diverse religious communities. I was surprised and honored to be included in the meeting–this despite the fact that I can by no means be described as a leader of a particular religious community. I would like to give readers of Sightings a sense of how the event unfolded.
My hunch is that someone on the White House staff decided that they needed a representative from one of America's leading divinity schools, and chose me because I have in the past addressed the ethics of war and war-making. I did not know most of those included. I recognized Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, from media sightings. I greeted Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston by name because he was, in fact, the one person I had met in the past.
We gathered, as requested, at 12:15 p.m. at the Northwest appointments gate of the White House. We cleared security, and were then ushered into the Eisenhower Executive Office Building across from the White House. There we gathered together, greeted one another, and shared expressions of peace and concern. I found it rather extraordinary that the single most ecumenical event I have ever attended had been put together by the White House. All Christian orientations were represented, as were members from the Orthodox, Jewish, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim communities.
We discussed a proposed statement–put together by a member of our group, not by the White House–for around forty minutes. A few of us made proposals for additions and corrections. These were accepted and the statement was signed by all of us. We offered up our prayers for the bereaved. We lifted up those who "selflessly gave their lives in an attempt to rescue others." We expressed our gratitude that "the President has spoken out early and clearly to denounce acts of bigotry and racism directed against Arabs, Muslims, and others in our midst. To yield to hate is to give victory to the terrorists." We called the attacks of September 11 acts against all of humanity–over sixty other countries lost citizens in the attacks– and we argued that there was a "grave obligation to do all we can to protect innocent human life" because "the common good has been threatened by these attacks…." We called for a response that was just and peaceful—understanding, as many of us do, that the claims of justice and of peace must guide any reaction.
After our deliberations concluded, we were ushered to the Roosevelt Room of the White House. Chairs were arranged in a circle. There was no table. When the President entered the room, he greeted people he knew by name and asked us to be seated. When he noticed that the chairs on either side of him were empty–people giving the President some room–he gestured and said, "Come on in here. I feel lonely down here." People scooted in. The President then offered twenty to twenty-five minutes of reflection on the situation, indicating the need to steer a careful course between calling for Americans to be attentive but doing so in a way that doesn't instill fear in hearts already bestirred and stunned by what had happened. He indicated that he would oppose anyone who singled out those of the Muslim faith or Arab background for acts of vigilantism and bigotry as Islam, he stated, is a "religion that preaches peace" and those who had hijacked Islam to murder nearly seven thousand people did not represent Islam.
The President discussed the terrible day, going over some of the events as he experienced them, doing what so many Americans are doing in trying to come to grips with what happened. He told us that it is clear the White House was a target; that it was an "old building made of plaster and brick" and that had it been struck it would have been demolished and many people killed, "including my wife." (He paused and choked up at that thought.) The overall sense the President conveyed was that of a man who is horrified, saddened, clear about his Constitutional responsibility to protect the country and her citizens, determined to build an international coalition and not to go it alone, equally determined to respond in a way that is measured and not unlimited.
Following this gripping presentation, the President asked us to share concerns and thoughts. Some among the group lifted up particular Scriptural passages they found apt for our tragic circumstance. Others–the representatives of the Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim communities—brought their support and thanked the President for his words against bigotry.
Deciding this might be my only opportunity to offer advice to a President of the United States face-to-face, I indicated that I taught "political ethics," to which the President responded jocularly (as do most people when I tell them this), "Is there such a thing?" I replied that "I like to think so and I believe you are attempting to exemplify such in operation through this crisis." I then said that a President's role as "civic educator" has never been more important. That he must explain things to the American people; teach patience to an impatient people; the need to sacrifice to a people unused to sacrifice. The President indicated he was aware of this important responsibility and it was clear that he had already given the civic education role some thought.
The entire meeting was unhurried, casual, thoughtful. As the President's aides began to gather in the room, it was clear the meeting–now well into its second hour–was about to end. One of our group asked, "Mr. President, what can we do for you?" He indicated that we could "pray for me, for our country, for my family." He believes in the efficacy of prayer and needs wisdom and guidance and grace, he said. A Greek orthodox Archbishop was invited to lead us in prayer. We all joined hands in a prayer circle, including the president. It was a powerful and moving moment. As the prayer ended and we began to rise, one among us began, haltingly, to sing "God Bless America," a distinctly unchauvinistic song that Americans have turned to over the past few weeks. We all began to join in, including the President. He then mingled, shook hands, and thanked us as we left.
All of us were aware we had participated in an extraordinary event. People shared addresses and business cards. We departed the White House to face a bank of cameras–always set up on the lawn. It began to rain softly. I stood next to my Sikh colleague and found myself gently patting him on the shoulder. I said, "I hope you don't mind my doing that." He said, "No, of course not. Please. I find it reassuring, very reassuring."
As I got into a taxi for the long ride to Baltimore-Washington International Airport, I realized that I had no desire to "spin" the event; to analyze it to bits; to engage in some sort of tight exegesis. Sometimes events just stand. They are what they are. If the President had simply wanted a public relations event, he would have done a quick photo-op (preferably the prayer circle scene, no doubt); cameras would have been whirring; we would have had a few well-timed and choreographed minutes. None of that happened. It was clear that the President wanted counsel; that he sought prayer; that he also hoped to reassure us that he understood the issues involved.
It was an afternoon I will not soon forget. I am grateful that I was able to join a group of my fellow citizens and members of our diverse religious communities, for an extraordinary discussion with the President of the United States.Jean Bethke Elsthain is the Laura Spellman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Sightings