The private faith of a public man

How religion shapes this presidency

It was the first meeting between President Bush and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.

The summit in the imposing Brdo Castle, a 500-year-old sanctuary for kings and nobles in the rumpled hills of Slovenia, carried an agenda of issues both portentous and prickly: antimissile defense, Russian participation in NATO, violence in the Balkans, oil exploration in the Caspian Basin.

When the two heads of state met on that sun-dappled day in June 2001, however, the first topic of discussion wasn't wars in space or fuel underground.

It was about God.

"You know, it's interesting, there is a universal God, in my opinion, and the first conversation I ever had with Vladimir Putin was about God – in Slovenia," Mr. Bush revealed a year later. "It was a way that we – we'd never met each other, and the first discussion we had was about our personal beliefs."

The revelation of this private moment, which clearly moved the president, offers a glimpse of how much faith has become a part of the Bush presidency.

Almost two years into his term, Bush's religious beliefs are emerging as a central influence in his policy and politics – inextricably linked to everything from the war on terrorism to the November elections.

While presidents throughout history have leaned on and invoked God, Bush has been far more public than most with his personal beliefs and values. Some of this clearly reflects the times: Moments of crisis – in this case, a horrific attack and the residue of fear in its aftermath – often bring out overt expressions of faith, as the nation looks to a president for comfort as well as leadership.

But for Bush, who reads his Bible every morning, faith extends beyond the national catharsis of the moment. By his own admission, his religious views shape much of who he is and, by extension, experts say, some of his most important decisionmaking.

"One of the animating principles of this administration is the restoration of the role of faith in the public square," says Marshall Wittman, the former legislative director for the Christian Coalition.

In some ways, Bush's religious fervor echoes that of one of his recent predecessors, Jimmy Carter. The peanut farmer from Plains, Ga., was the first born-again Democrat to be president. Bush is the first among Republicans.

Mr. Carter would sometimes show up unannounced at the First Baptist Church in Washington to teach Sunday school. While Bush hasn't yet taken to teaching tots about Daniel in the lions' den, he may have surpassed Carter in another area: He is "perhaps the first modern president who actually sees policy applications" for his faith, says Mr. Wittman.

Faith's influence on policy

Some of this is rooted in the issues surfacing today, such as human cloning, that already reflect a complex intersection of science and religion. In other cases, Bush has pushed a values-based agenda on his own – often with controversial results.

One of the most visible examples of a Bush-led program is the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, which seeks to ease the federal restrictions on the role religious groups can play in providing welfare and other services for needy Americans. Encouraging churches to help solve some of the nation's social ills has long been a central tenet of Bush's "compassionate conservative" philosophy.

The initiative, for now, remains bottled up in Congress.

Last summer, when Bush finally announced his position on the morally charged issue of human embryo stem-cell research, it didn't come without extensive consultation with scientists, ethicists – and religious leaders. A strong opponent of abortion, he decided to allow federal funding for research only on existing lines of stem cells.

"I don't think there's any question that his faith was absolutely determinative in his decisionmaking," says Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for the Southern Baptist Convention. A fellow Texan who has known the president for about 15 years, Mr. Land consulted with the White House at "high levels" on the stem-cell issue.

At the time, the stem cell case was viewed as one of the most important decisions facing Bush. But that was before Sept. 11.

Since then, the war on terror has been the predominant issue, and there is no doubt that here, too, the president believes God is on the battlefield. Many religious conservatives have publicly said it's providential that Bush is president at this moment and, given his past comments about divine plans superseding human ones, it's possible he shares this opinion.

When men and women reach across the rope line to shake his hand, or yell that they are praying for him and his wife, he responds by saying he feels it, and that their prayers are "the greatest gift" the first couple could receive.

"I often tell people that if you want to respond to what has happened to our country, you can do so with prayer, but, as importantly, you can do so by loving your neighbor like you'd like to be loved yourself," said Bush at a Hispanic prayer breakfast in May, quoting a central tenet of Jesus' teachings.

The views of an unusually religious president or simply ones that could be uttered by anyone with a moral sense? "Both," says White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. "Faith influences the president in that it helps make up his character and his judgments, and his policy decisions are based on his character and his judgments," Mr. Fleischer explains.

Indeed, advisers to past presidents say their bosses' religious views helped shape their presidencies, although often indirectly. Former Carter chief of staff Hamilton Jordan says it wasn't the president's theology, but the closely related impulses of compassion and humanitarianism that influenced his decision to return the Panama Canal to the Panamanians.

Gary Bauer, who worked in the Reagan administration, describes his boss as having a kind of civil religion composed of God, the flag, and apple pie. Mr. Reagan seldom talked in terms of his personal faith, says Mr. Bauer, yet his basic beliefs caused him to see communism as a dark force in the world.

Similarly, Bauer is convinced that this president's view on the war emanates directly from the prism of his religious beliefs.

"Many people will point to his faith-based initiative as evidence of how faith has influenced policy, but I think I would point to the war on terrorism and the fact that he's most comfortable talking about the war in terms of good and evil," says Bauer, a conservative Christian.

His vocabulary "is very consistent with an evangelical world view," he says, as is the conviction that America is blessed, and God is protecting the country.

A life-transforming experience

Officially, Bush is a Methodist, having adopted his wife's religion. Yet he retains a heavy evangelical accent.

Bush himself talks extensively about the "renewing" of his faith as a life-altering moment in his autobiography, "A Charge To Keep" (the title comes from a hymn.) Raised an Episcopalian, he was an altar boy and even taught Sunday School. But he didn't find deep conviction until a summer weekend in 1985, when the Rev. Billy Graham visited the Bush compound in Kennebunkport, Maine.

At the time, Bush was in his late 30s and the chief executive officer of a struggling oil company. By his own admission, he drank too much and was unfocused. One evening, Mr. Graham, at the request of George Bush senior, joined the family for a chat around the fireplace. The next day, Bush junior and the clergyman took a stroll along Walker's Point.

"I knew I was in the presence of a great man," Bush writes in his autobiography. "I felt drawn to something different. He didn't lecture or admonish; he shared warmth and concern. Billy Graham didn't make you feel guilty. He made you feel loved."

When Bush returned to Midland, Texas, he joined a Bible study group with Don Evans, now his secretary of commerce. Shortly after his 40th birthday, he woke up hung over one morning and decided to give up drinking. The time with Graham, he says, planted the seeds of transformation.

With his autobiography published in time for his presidential campaign, Bush had few qualms about mass marketing his faith. But he is surprisingly private in his practice of it. Last year, White House aides were miffed when the media discovered Bush had invited the visiting president of Macedonia – a fellow Methodist – to his private study, where the two men knelt alongside each other in prayer.

Bush has said he frequently prays in the Oval Office. "I pray all the time," he once told Fox News. But unlike past presidents, he does not regularly attend a Washington church with motorcade and media in tow. Instead, his pastoral home for now is the military-led services at the Camp David chapel, in the woodsy hills of Maryland.

Sometimes, the president prays on the phone with a minister in Texas whom he knows well. On the flight back from a trip to South America in March, several staffers traveling with Bush on Air Force One wanted to celebrate Palm Sunday. They put together an informal service in the plane's conference room, which the president attended.

Despite his strong religious views, Bush doesn't roam the West Wing quoting scripture or trying to influence others, though Cabinet meetings often begin with a prayer. When the president gathered the White House staff on the south lawn after the terrorist attacks, it was an ecumenical moment of silence. Bush has met with Muslim leaders and consistently preached a message of including Islam in American culture. Faith, says Fleischer, is a part of the American heritage, and the president "has a wonderful way of sharing that in an inclusive fashion."

Apparently, many Americans agree. According to a July Newsweek poll, 60 percent of those surveyed said it was "good for the country" for leaders to publicly express their faith.

Preaching from the bully pulpit

All presidents invoke the Almighty, sometimes for political purposes, sometimes out of deep conviction. But, generally, religion and the White House go well together only in times of deep crisis, says Martin Marty, a religious historian and professor emeritus at the University of Chicago.

Spiritual rhetoric flowed from the bully pulpit in both world wars, and although President Lincoln was the only president who did not belong to a church, he was not shy about bringing God into his speeches during the crucible of the Civil War.

In contrast, deific rhetoric was scarce in the 1960s, when civil rights was the national religion, and Vietnam divided the country, says Mr. Marty. One reason Carter's religiosity caused such a stir, he adds, is that the public just wasn't in the mood for it.

Bush also makes some people uncomfortable. Groups like Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and the Interfaith Alliance, a nonpartisan organization, believe the president has breached the firewall between religion and government. "Sometimes Bush comes close to crossing the line of trying to serve the nation as its religious leader, rather than its political leader," says G. Welton Gaddy, executive director of Interfaith Alliance.

Others believe the danger for the president lies in becoming a captive of the Christian right. Marty says many of the issues being debated today – from school vouchers to the Pledge of Allegiance – look as if they're religious, "but they're really politics."

There's no question that Bush's appeal to people of faith – especially Christian conservatives – is of paramount political importance to the White House. Bush senior antagonized the religious right, and this White House does not want to repeat the mistake.

Yet even this group is not entirely happy with the president. Religious conservatives worry about whether he'd really appoint a "pro-life" person to the Supreme Court. Bush has not completely toed their line on homosexuality, and he's let issues such as school prayer drop.

All of which points up the complicated intersection of politics and religion in the United States, a tension that has inspired and bedeviled presidents since the days of George Washington.

As Marty puts it: "A nonreligious president – or an overly religious one – could get himself in trouble."

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