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updated 9/16/2004 8:20:38 AM ET 2004-09-16T12:20:38

Before President Bush addressed a Knights of Columbus convention last month in Dallas, the audience of 2,500 conservative Catholics watched a documentary film about a woman who chose to die rather than end a pregnancy that threatened her life. Then the president gave a speech in which he called Pope John Paul II "a true hero of our time" and used the pope's phrase "culture of life" three times.

When it was over, many in the audience were convinced that the president shared their view that abortion is murder and should be banned. "The 'culture of life' is a very important code word that will resonate with Catholics," said Carl A. Anderson, head of the 1.6 million-member Knights of Columbus, the world's largest Roman Catholic men's society.

But Bush had not actually said that abortion is tantamount to murder. Nor, according to aides, has he ever said that all abortions should be illegal. When asked by reporters during the 2000 presidential campaign and again last fall whether abortion should be banned, Bush said the nation was not ready for that step, without indicating his position.

George W. Bush is among the most openly religious presidents in U.S. history. A daily Bible reader, he often talks about how Jesus changed his heart. He has spoken, publicly and privately, of hearing God's call to run for the presidency and of praying for God's help since he came into office.

But despite the centrality of Bush's faith to his presidency, he has revealed only the barest outline of his beliefs, leaving others to sift through the clues and make assumptions about where he stands.

Bush has said many times that he is a Christian, believes in the power of prayer and considers himself a "lowly sinner." But White House aides said they do not know whether the president believes that: the Bible is without error; the theory of evolution is true; homosexuality is a sinful choice; only Christians will go to heaven; support for Israel is a biblical imperative; or the war in Iraq is part of God's plan.

Some political analysts think there is a shrewd calculation behind these ambiguities. By using such phrases as the "culture of life," Bush signals to evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics that he is with them, while he avoids taking explicit stands that might alienate other voters or alarm foreign leaders. Bush and his chief speechwriter, Michael J. Gerson, are "very gifted at crafting references that religious insiders will understand and outsiders may not," said the Rev. Jim Wallis, editor of the evangelical journal Sojourners.

Current and former White House aides, as well as religious leaders close to the president, maintain that underneath Bush's religious references is a no-frills set of classical Christian beliefs that he holds firmly but voices softly. While some of his opponents portray him as a closet fundamentalist, some of his allies cast him as a closet moderate whose differences of opinion and style with the most vociferous elements of the religious right have been played down by his political advisers and underreported by the media.

How voters perceive Bush's beliefs could be a major factor in a tight presidential contest. As he courts both conservative Christians and swing voters, the GOP is seeking to move those perceptions toward the middle.

"If you asked me how I would describe George Bush's religious expressions in a word, I would say 'gentle.' He's never harsh, and abortion is an example," said former White House speechwriter David Frum. "He's coaxing the country to move gradually in his direction, and that's been happening."

In addition to what Bush's allies say, there is a growing historical record of his religious statements and practices, including several new books, dozens of presidential speeches and some recent campaign interviews. Yet much about his faith remains opaque or open to interpretation, beginning with two versions of how he came to accept Jesus.

Finding Jesus

The first account is Bush's own. In his 1999 campaign autobiography, "A Charge to Keep," which helped introduce him to a national audience, he fondly recalled serving as a teenage altar boy at his parents' Episcopal church in Houston. But as a young oilman in Midland, Tex., he joined a Presbyterian congregation. When he and Laura Bush married in 1977, he switched to her denomination, the United Methodist Church.

Though he was always somewhat religious, Bush said, a turning point came in a private talk with the Rev. Billy Graham along the coast of Maine in 1985. Graham's words planted the "mustard seed in my soul" that eventually led to a decision to "recommit my heart to Jesus Christ," he wrote.

In addition to being a Bush family friend, Graham is a widely admired Baptist evangelist who has counseled many presidents, and his frequently cited role in Bush's journey of faith adds to its ecumenical air. But from the point of view of some evangelical Christians, this story has a basic flaw: It lacks the drama of a single moment when Bush accepted Jesus as his savior, a true born-again experience.

The second account of Bush's conversion is contained in two new books about his faith. Both say that more than a year before the seaside chat with Graham, Bush requested a meeting with Arthur Blessitt, an eccentric evangelist known for carrying a 12-foot cross around the world.

David Aikman, author of "A Man of Faith," who confirmed his account with presidential adviser Karl Rove, said Bush and Blessitt sat at a table in the empty Holidome restaurant of a West Texas Holiday Inn. Blessitt's Web site says the following exchange took place:

"If you died this moment, do you have the assurance you would go to heaven?" Blessitt asked.

"No," Bush replied.

"Then let me explain to you how you can have that assurance and know for sure that you are saved," Blessitt said.

"I'd like that," Bush said.

That conversation, which Blessitt's Web site says ended with the two men holding hands and praying for Bush's salvation, sounds much more like a born-again experience than Bush's celebrated talk with Graham. But Bush made no mention of it in his autobiography, and has not discussed it since.

An Evangelical?

Because he does not claim to have embraced Jesus in a single moment, aides said, Bush does not call himself "born again." Nor does he refer to himself as an evangelical, though evangelical leaders do not hesitate to claim him as one of their own.

"I think most of us recognize him as a guy who sure has the same orthodox beliefs we do," said Charles W. Colson, a Nixon White House aide who heads Prison Fellowship Ministries.

John C. Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron in Ohio, said that despite many variations, evangelicals generally adhere to four core beliefs: the Bible is without error, salvation comes through faith in Jesus and not good deeds, individuals must accept Jesus as adults and all Christians must evangelize.

Where Bush stands on that litany is not entirely clear.

According to aides, Bush rises early each morning to read the Bible or other religious literature. But he has not indicated where he stands on the great debates over biblical inerrancy and interpretation.

In 2000, he suggested that creationism should be taught alongside evolution in public schools since "religion has been around a lot longer than Darwinism." But he avoided stating his choice between the two positions. "I believe God did create the world. And I think we're finding out more and more and more as to how it actually happened," he told U.S. News & World Report.

On the question of salvation, Bush has also adopted a nuanced position. In a Houston Post interview in 1994, as he was beginning his first run for governor, he suggested that heaven is open only to those who have accepted Jesus as their savior. Though to many Christians that is a basic article of faith, the comment caused a small furor among Jews in Texas and threatened to become a bigger problem when Bush considered running for president.

In 1998, he sent a letter of apology to the Anti-Defamation League stressing his respect for all faiths, and throughout the 2000 campaign he denied ever having made any exclusivist claim about salvation.

"No, no," he told NBC's Tim Russert during a Republican debate in New Hampshire on Jan. 6, 2000. "What I said was, my religion teaches -- my religion says that you accept Christ and you go to heaven. That was a statement that some interpreted that I said that I get to decide who gets to go to heaven. Governors don't decide who gets to go to heaven . . . . God decides who gets to go to heaven."

Bush's record on evangelization is more clear. Some of his religious supporters believe that he fulfills his obligation to evangelize through his example. But there is no evidence that Bush has engaged in direct proselytizing. On the contrary, aides said Bush has joined in common prayer with Sikhs and Hindus, something many conservative Christians would not do.

According to Jay P. Lefkowitz, an observant Jew who served as Bush's chief domestic policy adviser in 2002-2003, the president went out of his way to make White House visitors and staff members of other faiths feel comfortable. Religion, Lefkowitz said, is "part of who he is. But he doesn't try to push it on anyone."

Private Faith

Aides said that Bush does not discuss the content of his own faith, either publicly or with his staff. Though religion is far from a taboo subject in the Bush White House, where many workers gather for Bible study during their Thursday lunch hour, Bush rarely if ever participates in such discussions.

"I've learned most about his prayer life when he makes a public statement about it in a speech," said H. James Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, which helps religious charities obtain federal grants. "That's why when I see this image -- when people say he's really so outwardly religious -- yes, he feels very strongly about the faith-based initiative, he feels strongly about the rights and importance of faith in the public square, but he's not the kind of person who wants to talk about faith during work hours."

People around Bush suggested several possible reasons for this reticence.

"Because he is appealing to all people of faith, he doesn't want to start arguments," said Frum, the former speechwriter. "Religious faith unites people, so talk about that. The particulars of religious faith divide people, so he's not going to share those kinds of religious opinions with us."

Anderson, the Knights of Columbus leader, said religious people who go into politics have learned from bitter experience that baring their souls opens them up to attack.

"Jimmy Carter talked about having lust in his heart, and look what happened to him," Anderson said. "Any serious Christian man would say he had at some point had that problem. But nobody dealt with it seriously. They just parodied him. You get burned like that once or twice, and you're not going to do it again."

Bush himself said in a 2000 interview with Beliefnet.com, a religion Web site: "To be frank with you, I am not all that comfortable describing my faith, because in the political world, there are a lot of people who say, 'Vote for me, I'm more religious than my opponent,' " he said. "And those kind of folks make me a little nervous."

Fulfilling God's Will

While Bush does not say much about his own beliefs, he does talk a lot about faith, and some of that talk has made others nervous, particularly when he has suggested that he sees God's will at work in his presidency.

In "Plan of Attack," a book about Bush's decision to go to war by Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor Bob Woodward, the president is quoted as saying that he prayed "for the strength to do the Lord's will" in Iraq. "I'm surely not going to justify the war based on God. . . . Nevertheless, in my case I pray I will be as good a messenger of his will as possible," Bush told Woodward.

Earlier, Bush had told members of the clergy that he believed God called upon him to run for president. In his book "A Charge to Keep," Bush said he was moved to run by a sermon delivered by his friend Mark Craig, a Methodist minister, in 1999 during his second gubernatorial inauguration. "I believe God wants me to be president," the Rev. Richard Land, head of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, quoted Bush as saying.

Observers have interpreted Bush's words in different ways.

"This is so conventionally Christian piety and Christian faith that of course it ought not to raise any alarms," said the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the Catholic journal First Things. "Any devout Jew, any devout Muslim, also believes God has purposes for his life and tries to divine them. There is nothing that Bush has said about divine purpose, destiny and accountability that Abraham Lincoln did not say. This is as American as apple pie."

But Wallis, the Sojourners editor, said Bush has adopted a "theology of empire" that suggests God is on America's side and confuses the nation with the church.

During Bush's 2003 State of the Union address, for example, he evoked an old gospel hymn when he said, "Yet there's power, wonder-working power, in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people." What the hymn says, however, is that there is "power, power, wonder-working power in the blood of the Lamb." The hymn, Wallis said, is about the power of Christ -- not the power of the American nation, or any nation.

"It's a good thing, and a normal thing, for religious people to have a sense of calling as a pastor or a teacher or a journalist or a politician. But I think this goes farther," Wallis said. "It's almost a sense of divine appointment for this president and this war on terrorism. . . . When it comes out as 'They're evil and we're good,' and 'If you're not with us on all issues, then you're with the evildoers,' I think it's bad foreign policy and dangerous theology."

As the United States prepared to invade Iraq last year, the mainline Protestant magazine Christian Century said Bush's words and actions also raised the question of whether he shares the view of many evangelicals that history is racing toward an apocalyptic clash and the second coming of Christ.

"Millions of Americans believe that the Bible foretells regime change in Iraq, that God established Israel's boundaries millennia ago, and that the United Nations is a forerunner of a satanic world order," the magazine said in an editorial. "The American people have a right to know how the President's faith is informing his public policies, not least his design on Iraq."

But Bush has not publicly voiced any apocalyptic scenario, and aides scoffed at the notion that he holds one. Neuhaus, who has met several times with the president to discuss abortion and other issues, said that "the whole realm of biblical prophecy . . . with respect to the Middle East" is "quite alien to George W. Bush."

The Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, a prominent black minister in Houston and close friend of the president, said Bush is "a mainstream Christian" whose faith is "terminally misunderstood."

"He does not believe God told him to run. He does not believe God told him he would win. He surely does not believe God told him to drop any bombs anywhere in the world," Caldwell said.

A 'Mere Christian'

Recent books on Bush's faith have made the case that his religious beliefs are sincere and that he fits in naturally with evangelicals, in style as well as substance. But none of the authors found it easy to summarize Bush's beliefs.

Aikman, who was given wide access to Bush's friends and senior officials to write "A Man of Faith," said he "could not get from anybody a sort of credo of what [Bush] believes" and was forced to "intuit" many elements of the president's faith. In the end, he said, he concluded that Bush is "a mainstream evangelical with a higher-than-normal tolerance of dissent."

Stephen Mansfield wrote in "The Faith of George W. Bush" that Bush is "a conservative Christian," but added: "On many issues, Bush is less doctrinaire than his faith would make him appear, and this too is part of the mystery of George W. Bush."

Some White House officials suggested that the reason Bush's beliefs seem hard to categorize is not that they are complex and nuanced, but that they are relatively simple and few.

Tim Goeglein, who directs the White House Office of Public Liaison and is the president's official intermediary with Christian groups, said Bush is an evangelical but also fits the Irish theologian C.S. Lewis's definition of a "mere Christian" -- someone who looks beyond denominational lines to the central, common teachings of the universal church.

Frum, the former speechwriter, said: "If you want to know what George Bush really thinks, look at what he says. He believes in a personal god who answers prayers. He believes that truth is found in all religions and that all people who pray pray to the same God. He believes that prayer and faith can allow one to improve one's own life and save one, not just in the theological sense but in this world. And he's told us that he does not ask God to tell him what to do, but asks God for wisdom and judgment and calm. If you said to him, 'Does God want you to invade Iraq?' he'd say, 'I don't know.' He'd say, 'I asked for the best wisdom I could have to make that decision.' "

But if Bush's beliefs are so ecumenical and his prayers so generic, asked the Rev. Shaun Casey, an assistant professor of Christian ethics at the Methodist Church's Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, do the president's positions on such matters as abortion and same-sex marriage really derive from his faith? And what influence do his religious beliefs have on his budget priorities or tax policies?

Casey, who went to college in West Texas, said he recognizes in Bush an "indigenous West Texas evangelical piety" and thinks "the critics who dismiss him as purely manipulating religion" are wrong.

"The real question is how he moves from this vague constellation of beliefs to specific policies," Casey said. "That's an enigma."

© 2013 The Washington Post Company

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