There must be such a thing as divine mercy because the God who sends plagues of locusts and zaps people into pillars of salt would have surely struck down George W. Bush at the pulpit Friday morning. The administration's multipronged strategy to repair the damage wrought to cherished areas of the president's reputation was on full display at the National Prayer Service, which Bush called to remember victims of the hurricane. Bused-in evacuees from New Orleans? Check. Promotion of faith-based organizations? Check. Shifting blame to others? Check. This time, however, after weeks of laying blame at the doorsteps of Louisiana state officials and the mayor of New Orleans and even some of the victims themselves, Bush chose a bigger target: He blamed God.
As in much of what we've heard from Bush over the past few weeks, there was a whiff of the surreal. He bemoaned the "arbitrary harm" caused by the hurricane, the unanswerable question of why God allows bad things to happen, and noted that "the greatest hardship fell upon citizens already facing lives of struggle" -- as if that were merely a coincidence. The service was filled with references to the fury of natural disaster and the shock of unexpected devastation.
But Americans weren't shocked by the death and despair caused by Hurricane Katrina -- we've seen enough scenes of winds whipping tattered coastlines to know what can result, and we've even witnessed massive flooding, although never concentrated in one major city like this. What did shock Americans was the death and despair caused by human inaction. When T.D. Jakes, Bush's handpicked preacher for the event, reflected on the story of the Good Samaritan, the story could have been illustrated in many minds with images of New Orleans residents left to suffer by the side of the road as rescue passed them by.
We can ask why God allows disasters like hurricanes to happen (although God might fairly answer in return: "It says very clearly in the Bible that you should 'build your house upon a rock, not upon the sand'"). It is, after all, one of the oldest theological questions, one that has tested faith and tormented believers for centuries. The more pertinent question in this case, however, is not why God allowed bad things to happen but why the government did.
The chance to avoid, for a few hours, such inquiries may have been the real purpose of the prayer service. It's not the first time a president has called the country together for religious purposes. The Washington National Cathedral -- which was established by a charter of Congress in 1893, although it receives no public money -- is officially the nation's church and serves as host for these events. In 1981, a service of celebration was held when American hostages returned from Iran; after the space shuttle Columbia exploded in 2003, a national memorial took place there; and most recently, the state funeral of Ronald Reagan was held at the cathedral. (Woodrow Wilson is actually buried in a crypt within the building.)
The service that we should compare with this one, however, is the National Day of Prayer that was held on Sept. 14, 2001, just three days after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. At the time, we were a country in shock, unified in grief and anger. Something terrible had happened, and while rescue efforts were taking place on the ground, what the rest of us needed most was comfort. The sight of the entire government, Republican and Democrat, gathered under one roof in solidarity provided simple reassurance. We prayed for strength and for healing. And for the many Americans who rely on religious faith, the president's eloquent words brought some measure of peace: "As we have been assured, neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, can separate us from God's love. May he bless the souls of the departed. May he comfort our own."
This time, however, it's far from clear what the purpose of the service was. The hurricane is now nearly three weeks past. The country is not united in grief so much as in frustration at the failure of the government's response. Even those involved with the religious side of planning the service were unsure about its mission. "The idea that it's somehow a balm on the nerves of a shattered nation is not the case," one such official told me.
This isn't to say that Americans aren't struggling to comes to terms with the loss of life and livelihood, but they don't necessarily need a preacher in chief to help them cope. Some of the most moving images the weekend after the hurricane struck came from services held in the ruins of former church buildings, and from a Mass held on the beach amid debris. Residents of the Gulf Coast are taking care of their faith; what they could use from the administration is not another hymn but single-minded attention to repair and recovery efforts.
Instead what they -- and we -- got was a suggestion that perhaps faith-based organizations are best suited to deal with evacuee needs (the Samaritan, Jakes said, was helped by "resources, not by revenue"); we heard praise from Bush of rescuers that sounded less like an acknowledgment of their heroism than a hope it would rub off. And we were reminded that at the root of all the suffering is a divine "mystery" that we may never grasp.
Sneaked into the service, though, was one rebuke to the president, delivered by Bishop John Chane of Washington's Episcopal Diocese, the official host of the event and a man who has not hesitated to criticize Bush in the past. Before he led the opening prayer, Chane reminded the audience, "Our Lord Jesus reminds us that faith without works is nothing."