Ever since George Washington held up his first inauguration to summon a Bible from the nearby Masonic Lodge to be sworn in on, the question of what the president is reading has fascinated Americans. In recent years, we've seen swoons of interest whenever a president endorses a book -- from Ronald Reagan and Tom Clancy, to Bill Clinton and Walter Mosley, to George W. Bush and Bernard Goldberg. This week, I received one of these out-of-the-blue bouquets from the White House.
Earlier this week, at the end of a thirty-minute interview on C-SPAN, Steve Scully asked the president, "Finally, what books are you reading these days?" President Bush said the following:
Well, I just finished a book called "Abraham," by a guy named Feiler. And it's a really interesting book that studies the prophet Abraham from the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim perspective. And the lesson is, is that if you -- you can look at Abraham as a unifying factor. In other words, all three of our -- all three of those religions started from the same source, which means it's possible to reconcile differences. And I was impressed by his writing. I really enjoyed the amount of study he did on the subject. And I appreciated his lessons that sometimes as each religion appropriated Abraham to suit their own needs, but, ultimately, we could view Abraham as a way to find a common God.
Even in this instant age (I write a blog called Feiler Faster), the first I heard about this was the following afternoon, when my father left me a message, "Did you hear that the President of the United States mispronounced your name on C-SPAN last night?" Actually, No. [To hear a clip of the quotes, click here.]
"But who cares?!" I thought. The leader of the free world had read my book, and, more to the point, had gotten it. I was impressed by how dead-on his summary was: Abraham is the shared ancestor of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. In scripture, his story is universal. Over time, each of the religions has tried to claim him for itself, but we can go back to the original source and find an Abraham who can be helpful for our time, helping promote reconciliation.
For a man who joked as recently as last week that he mangles the English language, Bush's description nailed the book. It was better than my flap copy.
Once the euphoria began to wear off, I began to feel something else. Everywhere these days people are talking about whether the West can coexist with Islam. Iraqi sectarian strife is at the top of every broadcast. Iran is on the cover of Newsweek and The Economist.
The president's military actions in the Middle East will go a long way to defining his legacy on religious coexistence, but they are not the only way. After mis-stepping and calling our response to 9-11 a "crusade," the president has emphasized that Islam is a religion of peace and that Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same God. Both of these steps drew stern rebukes from his base in the evangelical community. As I stand here grateful for his blurb, I am hopeful he is considering even bolder gestures - a White House summit of interfaith leaders, a call to grassroots dialogue, a man-on-the-moon statement that will help ensure that the legacy of September 11 is not just conflict and mistrust but a summons to unity around the shared God of Abraham.