Understanding the President and His God

[ Alert: Tonight’s Frontline on PBS might be a must-see. Catch it here. –BL ]

April 29, 2004 | New York Times



The question is not, When did George W. Bush accept Jesus as his personal savior? The “Frontline” documentary “The Jesus Factor,” on PBS tonight, raises a different issue: Do most Americans realize just how fervent the president’s evangelical faith really is?

“The Jesus Factor” is a little like those illustrated anatomy books where transparent plastic pages can be flipped to reveal the muscle, bone and organs beneath the skin. Stripping off the layers of patrician pedigree, Yale and his Texas business pursuits, the documentary lays bare Mr. Bush’s spiritual conversion and its consequences.

It is not a disrespectful look. Yet by pulling together well-known and long forgotten incidents and remarks, the program reminds viewers that this “faith-based” president has blurred the line between religion and state more than any of his recent predecessors: a vision that affects the Iraq conflict as well as domestic policy.

In the wake of Sept. 11 of course the religious influence seems obvious, since Mr. Bush has invoked a higher authority who has led him to battle “the evildoers.”

And at a time when Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ” is one of the top-earning movies, and the “Left Behind” series of books, apocalyptic Christian thrillers by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins (the Antichrist heads the United Nations), has outsold John Grisham, the evangelical Christian movement is highly visible even in places like New York and Los Angeles.

But like the evangelical movement, the president’s born-again faith was not as striking to outsiders in 1987, when he moved to Washington to work on his father’s presidential campaign. At the time reporters mostly saw him as the Bush family bouncer, someone who kept an eye on disloyal staff members.

Nor were his born-again evangelical beliefs much more than a biographical footnote in Mr. Bush’s gubernatorial campaigns. Even in his 2000 presidential race most journalists placed Mr. Bush’s religious beliefs behind his family lineage, career and political ideology. His faith was mostly examined in the context of a midlife crisis: a black sheep’s self-styled 12-step program that helped him stop drinking and focus on a political career in Texas.

“The Jesus Factor” examines Mr. Bush’s faith by mingling his public pronouncements with interviews with friends; fellow members of the Community Bible Study group in Midland, Tex.; evangelical leaders; and Texas journalists who covered him.

Doug Wead, who was George H. W. Bush’s liaison to the religious right during the 1988 presidential campaign, says that the younger Mr. Bush was his ally, serving as a behind-the-scenes link between his father, an Episcopalian moderate, and the evangelical movement, which is a critical base for the Republican Party. Mr. Wead says his memorandums to the vice president came back to him annotated by someone who seemed very knowledgeable about evangelical Christians; Mr. Wead says he thought the candidate was handing them over to the Rev. Billy Graham, a Bush family friend. “But it turned out he was vetting them with his son,” Mr. Wead says.

Once the younger Mr. Bush’s faith took hold, it spread to his political ambitions. “I believe that God wants me to be president,” is what Richard Land, a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, recalls hearing Mr. Bush say in a meeting with close associates on the day of his second inaugural as governor of Texas. Once elected president, Mr. Bush went to work. “We need common-sense judges who understand our rights were derived from God,” he says in a 2002 clip. “And those are the kind of judges I intend to put on the bench.”

The documentary revisits a 1993 interview Mr. Bush had with a reporter for The Houston Post, Ken Herman, on the day he announced his intention to run for governor. Mr. Herman recalls that Mr. Bush said he believed that a person had to accept Christ to go to heaven, a view that Mr. Herman published.

“The political ramifications of that were huge,” Mr. Wead explains. “And so he doesn’t talk about that anymore.” (During the 2000 campaign Mr. Bush said he thought schools should teach both creationism and evolution, but he has not been as forthcoming about which theory he personally prefers.)

The imprint of Mr. Bush’s faith can be seen on his appointments to the bench and on his decisions on embryonic stem-cell research and so-called partial-birth abortion. And religion also veins Mr. Bush’s discussion of war. Mr. Land describes him as a believer in “American exceptionalism.” Jim Wallis, editor in chief of Sojourners magazine, a liberal evangelical publication, refers to his talk of a divine mission as the “language of righteous empire.”

“The Jesus Factor” is an enlightening look at the president and the electoral clout of evangelical Christians. But one drawback of focusing so intently on Mr. Bush’s faith is that it screens out other perhaps equally important factors, like political expediencies, personality quirks and clashing interests, that inevitably influence decision making in the Oval Office.

And even some of the president’s closest allies say they are not sure when he is speaking from the pulpit and when from the Beltway. “There is no question that the president’s faith is calculated, and there is no question that the president’s faith is real,” Mr. Wead says. “I would say that I don’t know and George Bush doesn’t know when he’s operating out of a genuine sense of his own faith or when it’s calculated.”

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