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For Bush, a hunt for the right voters

Americans have heard the president speak of God and the nation’s destiny many times. But they have rarely heard him speak of his own faith in specific terms. MSNBC’s Alex Johnson reports.
President Bush met in June with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of the Eastern Orthodox Church, right, and Ali Bardakoglu, president of the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs. Bush has identified himself closely with a specific religious movement, conservative evangelical Protestantism, but rarely talks about the specifics of his own faith.Larry Downing / Reuters file
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Give me that old time religion,’Tis the old time religion,’Tis the old time religion,And it’s good enough for me.— traditional American spiritual

President Bush is deeply religious. More specifically, he is a born-again conservative evangelical Protestant. We all know that. Or do we?

Americans have heard the president speak of God and the nation’s destiny many times. But they have rarely heard him speak of his own faith in specific terms. In fact, Bush appears never to have said publicly that he is an evangelical. While he has dropped many clues, they do not constitute a definitive statement of his faith.

The ambiguity offers advantages and disadvantages, never more so than in the current campaign, when the president's strategists have made conservative white evangelical voters — 4 million of whom they believe failed to go to the polls in 2000 — their No. 1 target.

“I don’t think Bush says, ‘I’m God’s man,’” Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., said this month at a conference of religion writers. “But he doesn’t correct it when others say that.”

Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock.
— Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount

Whether or not Bush himself is among the 25 percent to 30 percent of Americans who describe themselves as evangelicals, he has made them the foundation upon which he has built his career. As early as 1987, Bush was overseeing outreach to evangelicals for his father’s presidential campaign.

In contrast with other recent Republican national candidates, the president’s re-election campaign has not openly courted the so-called religious right. That is not because conservative and evangelical Republicans have lost influence within the party; it is because they have been so thoroughly integrated into the Republican coalition that Bush’s operatives can safely appeal to them outside the media spotlight, where they run less risk of alienating  moderate and undecided voters. This year, the campaign aims to mobilize religious conservatives to get out and vote, confident it does not need to spend significant resources to persuade them.

That confidence is why Bush can speak in broad spiritual themes on the stump without explicitly referring to his own beliefs. He signals his solidarity with evangelicals through coded language and seemingly innocuous biblical allusions that don’t set off alarms among voters suspicious of religious politicking.

That is also why Bush rarely speaks about his opposition to abortion. He talks instead about the “culture of life,” which ardent anti-abortion voters recognize as the same thing. When he talks about the “family,” segments of the voting public grasp that he is really talking about same-sex marriage.

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said,— Job 38: 1-4

Likewise, when Bush speaks about God, many voters interpret his words not as a general acknowledgment of the United States as a religious nation, but as his agreement that God is on his side.

Working with Kevin Coe, David S. Domke of the University of Washington analyzed inaugural and State of the Union messages by every president since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. Historically, they found, presidents have spoken of God from the position of a petitioner, asking for His guidance or blessing, with two exceptions: Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Their message comes from a prophetic stance, as though describing God’s intentions from a position of knowledge.

It is the difference between “May God bless the United States” and “God has blessed the United States,” a common refrain in Bush’s speeches. Domke and Coe found that five of 12 addresses by Reagan and Bush explicitly linked freedom to God’s will. By comparison, only four of 61 addresses by all the rest of the presidents made such claims.

Typical of Bush’s rhetoric, Domke said, was his assertion during his acceptance speech at the Republican convention that “freedom is not America’s gift to the world; it is the Almighty God’s gift to every man and woman in this world.” Bush has been using that line or a variation for almost two years, since his State of the Union address in January 2003.

The Bush team maintains that the president’s approach is nothing unusual — “There is nothing that I know of that is different from any other campaign,” White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett said when asked about the campaign’s organizing of religious elements. And it is true that when Bush speaks of God, he does so in nondenominational forms. But underlying the prophetic phrasing is “this kind of sense that the United States is a kind of chosen people,” said Domke, author of “God Willing? Political Fundamentalism in the White House, the ‘War on Terror,’ and the Echoing Press.”

It is carefully calibrated. Domke suggested that even the president’s seemingly offhand reference to “this crusade, this war on terrorism” six days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — a construction that was widely seen as an incitement to passions in the Arab world — was calculated. “They’ve thought carefully about everything,” Domke said. It was intended to “get his point across” before it was disavowed.

Indeed, the word continues to pop up in targeted messages: As recently as March, the Bush-Cheney campaign sent a fund-raising letter to Republican donors in Florida asking for more help in the president’s “global crusade against terrorism.”

The direct appeals to religious conservatives are left to surrogates for Bush, who speak out when the media usually aren’t watching.

During a rally at which Bush appeared this month in Columbus, Ohio, National Public Radio’s microphones captured warm-up speaker Chris Spielman, a local football hero, firing up the crowd of 18,000 by declaring: “I don’t want to send my kids to school and if they mention the name Jesus, they’re suspended or taken to court.”

In Detroit this month, John Kruse, executive director of Michigan Catholic Radio, thanked Bush for “fighting not only to protect the most innocent among us, the unborn, but also fighting against the terrible idea of euthanasia and the terrible idea of experimenting on stem cell research.”

And he said unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar’s, and unto God the things which be God’s.— Luke 20: 25

Such rhetoric is important because it energizes conservative evangelicals to spread the message by reinforcing grievances they have against a secular society that allows abortion, homosexual relations and obscenity in entertainment.

Mouw, of Fuller Theological Seminary, says that beginning with their rise in the 1980s, religious white conservatives developed a sharp — and politically useful — “evangelical persecution complex.” They mobilized around a theology of marginalization, nursing a grudge against the wider society until they were fed up enough to so something about it politically.

By necessity, that theology is confrontational. Mouw, himself an evangelical, lamented this month that there was “lots of conviction” in religious political discourse, “but not much civility.”

That confrontational nature is also why it must be pursued out of wide view. Opinion surveys show that while Americans are broadly religious — 90 percent express some belief in God, a Gallup poll found in May — they are uncomfortable with overt links between religious beliefs and political policy, and they are growing more uncomfortable with Bush’s links.

In surveys by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, the proportion of likely voters who thought Bush mentioned his religious faith and prayer too much jumped from 14 percent in summer 2003 to 24 percent last month. By contrast, only 10 percent of likely voters thought Bush’s Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, spoke of his faith too much this year. Kerry was not included in last year’s survey.

The struggle for Bush, then, is to balance ecumenical messages of tolerance with messages of solidarity for evangelical and other conservative religious voters. In broader terms, the evangelical political movement has yet to develop a “theology of leadership” to succeed the theology of marginalization that helped bring it to power.

And it is a struggle. Even some of the president’s supporters in the evangelical movement said the campaign went over the line this summer when it issued a 22-point memo outlining how to generate enthusiasm among members of their churches.

Many of the points were uncontroversial, suggesting volunteers write letters to the newspaper or hold pot luck dinners. But one created an uproar: “Send your Church Directory to your State Bush-Cheney ’04 headquarters or give it to a BC04 Field Rep.”

Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention — who commonly wears cuff links bearing the presidential seal, a gift from Bush — issued a statement saying he was “appalled that the Bush-Cheney campaign would intrude on a local congregation in this way.”

Besides striking some voters as “smarmy,” in the words of Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals, such entanglement of churches in politics could cost churches their tax-exempt status. In June, the IRS issued an unusual letter to both parties noting that tax-exempt charitable organizations “are prohibited from directly or indirectly participating or intervening in any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate for public office.”

“Smarmy” or not, the prophetic religious message is at the heart of the president’s conservative philosophy, which he told religion writers in May was “to help cultures change [because] the culture needs to be changed.”

“I understand people’s view” about church and state, Bush said. “But I’m the kind of person who doesn’t change. The best thing I can do is to be myself so that when I finish my job here, I will say I was comfortable with who the world saw.”