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How a religiously sensitive president became a zealot in his critics' eyes


Eric Draper

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and their aftermath have influenced not only how President Bush speaks about faith "in the Almighty" but also his faith in freedom. Hes shown here with the first lady, Laura Bush, lighting a remembrance candle on the first anniversary of the attacks.

WASHINGTON - George W. Bush, a man with deep Christian convictions, invariably includes Jews and Muslims when he speaks of religion, and welcomes the "faith of every person." He even goes the extra mile for agnostics and atheists. The day after he claimed a second term, Bush volunteered that people with no faith are just as American as he is.

"No president," Bush declared, "should ever try to impose religion on our society."

But that is precisely what a sizable number of his critics accuse him of doing. In significant quarters of the nation and overseas, Bush provokes suspicion that, in its most exaggerated form, sees a zealot in the Oval Office - one intent on remaking his country and the world.


Presidential faith

The historical record shows Bush's language on God and faith is like that of most presidents - and perhaps more temperate.

Ever since George Washington impulsively added "So help me, God" to the Oath of Office, presidents have publicly invoked the Almighty one way or another. It was bad politics not to, as Thomas Jefferson - who hadn't put God in the Declaration of Independence, an omission fixed by the Continental Congress - found when he was denounced as "a howling atheist" during the 1800 campaign.

Bush's former press secretary, Ari Fleischer, refers to "a time-honored tradition of faith" in the public lives of American leaders.

An observant Jew, Fleischer counts the day Democrat Al Gore chose running mate Joseph Lieberman as one of the most inspiring he has experienced in politics. The Connecticut senator translated, from Hebrew, a passage from Chronicles: "He twice praised 'the Good Lord,'" as Fleischer remembers it, "and he said he danced before the Lord and reveled before the Lord.

"There was nothing to fear from Sen. Lieberman's expression of faith," Fleischer says, "and there is nothing to fear from President Bush's."

To Hendrik Hertzberg, writing in The New Yorker, what rankles people "on what might be called the cultural blue side" is "the way (Bush) speaks of making decisions with his gut, which, he has often suggested, takes its direction from God."

Bush's detractors "have real political differences with him," says Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. "This just adds to their disagreements - they think that he's not only wrong politically but that he thinks he's right because it fits his religious worldview."

Fleischer says the critics "believe their policies are so correct that no reasonable person could see things differently - unless people like President Bush are blinded by an extreme faith that prevents them from seeing the facts." To him, this is the same narrow-mindedness that critics claim to find in conservative Christians.


A religious electorate

The author Tom Wolfe, in a recent interview with public television's Charlie Rose, dismissed the idea of "a religious right." As Wolfe sees it, "These people are just religious, and the whole country used to be that way."

It mostly still is.

More than 80 percent of Americans say religion is important to them, as the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life documents. A president must speak to them all.

"Any president who violates this," Cromartie says, "violates something important."

Still, Bush's eloquence in talking about how his faith animates him can reassure his listeners or alarm them. And not incidentally, he is subject to polarized views of where and when it is appropriate to invoke religion.

In an African-American church? Among white evangelicals? In addressing social justice? Discussing abortion? The answers often depend on a person's politics.

But while there are real arguments to be had here, Jim Wallis, the self-described progressive evangelical who edits the magazine Sojourners, worries that political bickering too often focuses on a false issue.

"The question is not whether to bring religious language and God into public life, but how," he said. "I think Lincoln did it right, when he warned against claiming that God is on our side, but rather that ... we're on God's side."

Bush greatly admires the 16th president. On Nov. 10, he stood beneath Abraham Lincoln's portrait in the State Dining Room as he hosted a dinner for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, greeting guests with "Ramadan Mubarak," a similar sentiment to "Season's Greetings."

He has been at pains since Sept. 11, 2001 to speak up for Muslims and against religious bigotry, stunning some evangelicals and theologians with his assertion last year that "we worship the same God."

Bush, in fact, is as likely to use the word "faith" to articulate his belief in the power of democracy and freedom, a cornerstone of his since the terrorist attacks.

"We worship freely," Jimmy Carter observed at the National Prayer Breakfast in 1978. "But that does not mean that leaders of our nation and the people of our nation are not called upon to worship, because those who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights and our Constitution did it under the aegis of, the guidance of, with a full belief in God."


Unequal criticism

Carter, while in office, taught Sunday school. He spoke of turning to God throughout his day "in a quiet and personal way." Bill Clinton made a habit of speaking from church pulpits. And Gore, the man who aspired to be president, was unabashed in describing his faith to a Boston Globe reporter in 2000: "The purpose of life," Gore said, "is to glorify the Creator and to live in a manner that accomplishes that goal."

Democrats may have found Carter sanctimonious. But neither Carter nor Clinton, observers of the presidency agree, faced the cynicism and criticism directed at Bush.

"When he says that Jesus is his favorite philosopher, they (his critics) just can't believe that he would be serious," says Paul Kengor, an authority on religion and the presidency, and a professor at Grove City College, a Christian school in Pennsylvania.

"We don't seem to understand that George Bush is not atypical."