A White House spokesman on Monday refused to say whether President Bush’s premature comment last week about Yasser Arafat’s death implied the president believes the Palestinian leader is going to heaven.
Erroneously informed at his first post-election press conference that Arafat had died, Bush commented: “My first reaction is, God bless his soul. And my second reaction is, is that we will continue to work for a free Palestinian state that’s at peace with Israel.
This week at another press conference with White House spokesman Scott McClellan, Les Kinsolving, a talk-radio personality and Washington correspondent for the conservative Christian Web site WorldNetDaily, asked, “Did the president mean to say God cleanse his soul, or is the president a universalist in believing that everybody goes to heaven?”
“I think you know what the president meant by his remarks,” McClellan said.
“No, I don’t know,” Kinsolving replied. “That’s why I’m asking you…. Is he a universalist?”
McClellan responded: “I don’t think I need to elaborate. The president addressed that last week.”
While “God bless his soul” might pass for a figure of speech in the mind of many American listeners, Bush’s comment was reported widely in Israel and the Arab world. Internet message boards lit up with discussions both about how the comment appeared to distance Bush from his conservative Christian base and whether Muslims might be offended by the suggestion that the Christian God, instead of Allah, is responsible for Arafat’s eternal destiny.
That sort of ambiguity has sparked discussion before. After initially describing the U.S. response to Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack a “crusade,” Bush has since judiciously avoided language that could be construed that the war on terror is a war against Islam.
Bush distanced himself from controversial comments by religious leaders viewed as degrading Muslims and surprised some conservative evangelicals last November when he said he believes Muslims and Christians worship the same God.
The president’s latest comment comes amid speculation about whether in his second term he will work to implement a socially conservative agenda supported by millions of religious voters who helped put him in office or reach across party lines to unite Congress on issues where there is middle ground.
Asked last week what he would say to people who voted against him who view religion as a political divide, Bush said: “I will be your president regardless of your faith, and I don’t expect you to agree with me necessarily on religion. As a matter of fact, no president should ever try to impose religion on our society.”
“I don’t think you ought to read anything into the politics, the moment, about whether or not this nation will become a divided nation over religion,” he continued. “I think the great thing that unites is the fact you can worship freely if you choose, and you don’t have to worship. And if you’re a Jew or a Christian or a Muslim, you’re equally American. That is such a wonderful aspect of our society, and it is strong today and it will be strong tomorrow.”
Asked Monday if Bush would involve the evangelical community more directly in a second term, McClellan said, “I don’t know what you define necessarily as that community, but the president reaches out to all Americans to get his agenda accomplished.”
Asked about press reports that the White House has had weekly conference calls with leaders in the religious right, McClellan said: “This president has reached out to people of faith. He believes that we ought to welcome people of faith into the political process, and he meets regularly with religious leaders from across the spectrum. And he has done that; he will continue to do that.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.