President's words offer comfort to nation
By Cathy Lynn Grossman
Americans in countless houses of worship prayed for the Columbia astronauts Christian, Jewish and Hindu over the weekend. But for many, the most memorable words of comfort in the moment of tragedy came from their president, not their preacher.
President Bush's speech on Saturday resounded in biblical poetry, God images and an invitation to pray that "all are safely home." It came into millions of homes like a homily from a national pulpit.
He drew on Isaiah 40:26, one of the most beautiful passages in the Hebrew scriptures: "Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens. Who created all these? He who brings out the starry hosts one by one and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing."
The choice likely reflected the hand of his lead speechwriter, Michael Gerson, who studied theology at evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois. Bush, a born-again Christian who became a Methodist when he married wife Laura, is at home with scripture in a way that Ronald Reagan, who rarely attended church, was not.
When the Challenger exploded in 1986, Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan chose a sonnet by James Gillespie Magee, a World War II Canadian flier who died at age 19, to eulogize those who "slipped the surly bonds of Earth ... and touched the face of God."
"President Bush sounded more like a preacher than a politician and a good one," said the Rev. Rod Loy of the First Assembly of God, a megachurch in North Little Rock, Ark. In his Sunday sermon, Loy quoted Bush. "I thought Bush did such a wonderful job of acknowledging grief and loss but pointing us to the fact that there is a God of all. No one is excluded from hope."
The Rev. Mark Coppenger, pastor of Evanston Baptist Church, outside Chicago, was struck by the way Bush handled theological fine points. He made no assumptions about astronauts' salvation but called on everyone to "pray that all are safely home." "He preached, but he didn't obliterate theology," Coppenger said.
Rabbi David Ariel, president of Siegal College in Cleveland, said Jews, Christians, Hindus and others all could be comforted by Bush's words. "We don't know why such tragedies happen, nor can we attribute meaning to them. God's ways are not our ways, and his knowledge is not ours. Perhaps space travel reminds us once again of our createdness, smallness and fragility in comparison to the eternity, vastness and permanence of the universe."