Any discussion of President Bush’s presumed evangelicalism is complicated. Evangelicalism is a style of worship, not a set of beliefs, and to a large extent evangelical Protestants are defined by their personal stories of faith and by whom they choose as their pastor. But core to many evangelicals’ identity is the “born-again” experience described in John 3:3, when a sinner undergoes an intense conversion during a personal interaction with the Holy Spirit, often Jesus Himself.
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George Bush has not said directly that he was ever born again. He has often said he was pointed on the path to God after a discussion with evangelist Billy Graham in 1985.
“Over the course of that weekend, Reverend Graham planted a mustard seed in my soul, a seed that grew over the next year,” Bush wrote in his 1999 campaign autobiography, “A Charge to Keep.”
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.
— Matthew 13:31-32
The “mustard seed” is an allusion to verses in the Gospels relating faith to a bush that grows slowly, taking over the field only over time. It is not the searing thunderbolt of awakening that is commonly accepted as characterizing the born-again conversion.
There is a second story about how Bush started on the road to salvation, one that is more in line with the common narrative. While Bush has never confirmed it, he has also never contradicted it, nor has he apparently sought to reconcile the two accounts.
Evangelist Arthur Blessitt, best known for carrying a 12-foot cross around the world, writes that in 1984, Bush asked to see him and told him: “Arthur, I did not feel comfortable attending the meeting, but I want talk to you about how to know Jesus Christ and how to follow Him.”
The two men and an aide prayed together and discussed salvation, Blessitt says in a long article on his Web site, which comes complete with photographs of Bush and Blessitt together and of personal, handwritten notes Bush wrote to him as late as 1998.
“It was an awesome and glorious moment!” Blessitt writes. “We were just three brothers rejoicing in Christ. I said ‘There is rejoicing in Heaven now! You are saved!’”
Bush does not mention the episode in his autobiography. The Republican National Committee, however, approved the screening of a film, “George W. Bush: Faith in the White House,” at off-the-floor events during its national convention this month in New York; the film recounts the story and implies that Bush’s meeting with Blessitt was the true beginning of his spiritual rebirth.
Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., said this month at a conference of religion writers that the ambiguity surrounding Bush’s religious beliefs was, if not intentional, at least a fortuitous development for the president’s campaign.
“I don’t think Bush says, ‘I’m God’s man,’” Mouw said. “But he doesn’t correct it when others say that.”
© 2004 MSNBC Interactive