Second, I would say that another hallmark of evangelicals is you get a sense that there is one source of religious truth. Again, this gets back to biblical authority. But there's that idea of the Bible is the truth and the Bible is the one path to eternal life. Evangelical Christians are going to be much more, I think, in unison telling you that Christianity is the truth, and it is the way to eternal life, and it's not one of multiple options. So if you believe Christianity is truth by definition, from an evangelical perspective, it means that other understandings of the divine are false. I think that's, again, a hallmark.
Then finally -- and this is where the term comes from -- the whole idea of evangelizing [is] that you need to tell others. If you believe that you know something is true and you believe it has eternal consequences, then you want to share that with other people. You don't want to just hold that to yourself and be silent about it. So there is a sense of wanting to make converts, wanting to let people know the Gospel, the good news, so that they would be a part of it, as well.
Evangelicals believe that the Bible is the truth. So what about other religions? Does this exclude other religions? It's not that you would say other religions are bad. It's just that that's not the truth, in your mind?
Right. … I guess there's a couple things going on there. If you look at the Hebrew Bible, the God of Abraham, Moses and Jacob, the God that we represent as evangelicals, Christians, is also the same God of Judaism and the same God of Islam. So from sort of historical roots, we look at the Old Testament and see a break, which creates Judaism as one branch and then Islam is the other branch.
So I think it's fair, when the president says we worship the same God, I think that's a statement that most evangelicals would be comfortable with. I could be wrong. I think there's the fine line between saying, "We worship the same God," and "Our religions are equally true."
After 9/11, President Bush used the word "crusade" and he talked about the "evildoers." How do you respond to his use of this kind of language?
… I can't get into the president's mind. But he used the word "crusade" once when talking about the war in the Middle East, in an off-the-cuff remark. It was not part of a prepared speech.
When you think of the word "crusade," you think in the United States … it's merely saying "I have a mission." Again, not really a religious mission. "I have a purpose. I have a goal." So when the president used the term "crusade," my assumption is that he was using the term "crusade" in that very generic, non-religiously-charged term.
But when you replay that sound bite on the international scene, and you hear "crusade" and you think of the Crusades, you think of a very difficult and not pretty picture in international history. Immediately you think of holy war. Immediately you think of death and destruction. It's a very, very different image than "We have a mission, we have a purpose." So I think the president always has to, of course, be very careful with that line.
I also think of the president using terminology of good and evil, which he uses a lot. That seems to me to have some implications internationally, and also nationally.
There are very few shades of gray. I think that does, in many ways, come from his evangelical understanding of the world, because that is part of, in many ways, our theology or worldview -- that we view things as either right or not. In a lot of things, there really isn't room for compromise. So when rhetoric says good and evil, when rhetoric makes these black and white distinctions, I think that's very difficult to hear politically. I don't think it's necessarily the wisest of rhetoric.
But it resonates to evangelicals?
It is the prism in which you see the world? …
Right. Whatever prism you use to understand the world, to take things in and to respond to it, is going to be the natural way that you speak about it. So the president, coming from an evangelical perspective, is going to naturally use rhetoric that comes down to terms like good and evil, us versus them, black and white kinds of images in his perspective and understanding. I don't necessarily see that as he's pandering to evangelicals and trying to use evangelical language.
I think it's much more of a natural reaction to how he views the world, and how he understands the world. One of the things that complicates matters, when you're in public life [is] an elected official has to make a distinction between his or her private understanding of the world, private views, personal views, and what they translate into politics, and how that affects the public's fear.
In some ways, rhetoric is the bridge between those two spheres. So we have to be careful in judging a politician based on off-the-cuff remarks, because we often say things in our own way, in our own language, that we understand in our world, in our milieu that, taken out of context, wouldn't make sense, and taken out of context, would seem much more offensive than they are. There are so many examples of politicians who have been taken out of context or who have said things that they later regret, be it racist remarks, be it derogatory remarks, sexist remarks.
So there is a sense if the president is using rhetoric that resonates with your understanding of the world or sort of the way that you speak. You like that. It makes sense to you. For example, if you had a Jewish president using a Yiddish phrase. So the president calls someone a schmuck or says "Oy vey," that resonates. That has meaning beyond the Jewish community. But it would have a special connection if you were used to using Yiddish phrases as just part of your common everyday parlance. So there's kind of that sense of, it makes you feel comfortable to hear someone speaking like you speak, saying things that you would say. You feel like that person is one of you.
It's funny for me, because I'm a Texan. I was raised in Midland, Texas, which is the president's hometown. I'm rather amused and sometimes a little bit annoyed by when the president says something that is just so Texan, and it just is so Texan, it's exactly what I would expect anyone to say back home. It resonates with me. It makes sense. It amuses me. It connects me to something that I appreciate. It connects me to something that has meaning. ...
I think that's exactly the same thing that's going on with the president's rhetoric when he uses, as a natural part of his way of speaking, phrases that come from his understanding of the world as an evangelical.
So he uses these phrases that resonate with evangelicals. Again, I don't think even as necessarily as "Let me say something today that will really connect with evangelicals." It's just a part of who he is, and how he views the world. So if he uses a phrase-- Sometimes he'll mention something from a hymn. He'll quote a hymn, both in a public speech, or sometimes even just in an off-the-cuff remark, or use again this sort of black and white, good versus evil rhetoric. Those kinds of phrases, that way of communicating, is comfortable and familiar to an evangelical audience.
I think in particular for evangelicals, maybe often evangelicals feel rather misunderstood. If you look at portrayals of Christians in the media, particular conservative Christians and particularly evangelicals -- I know I often look at these portrayals, both the things that I teach about and things that I see on my own, [and] I think, "That doesn't represent me at all. That isn't who I am. That's a caricature of who I am."
So when you see someone or hear someone using language that resonates with your experience, who you are, how you view the world, it's comfortable. It's also very soothing to realize that maybe here is someone who actually gets it. It's not a caricature.
President Bush has never called himself evangelical. He's a member of the United Methodist Church, which is a mainline Protestant church. So why do many evangelicals believe that he's evangelical?
That is interesting. We hear a lot of talk of President Bush as an evangelical. It's not a term that you hear him ascribe to himself, but I think it fits. Again, it goes back to, who are we as evangelicals, and how do we define ourselves? It also goes back to how definitions of categories don't always work.
He's a member of the United Methodist Church. That's a mainline denomination. But his faith experience is very rooted in something different than the mainline church. His faith experience, in large part, comes out of his experience in the Community Bible Study and in an ecumenical group, learning about the faith through this ecumenical organization and through Bible study and time, talking with others, [and] prayer.
I think all of this really goes back to that definition of evangelical, and where does that come from. If indeed we understand the evangelical Christian -- not as much by what denomination do you currently affiliate with, but how do you understand your faith experience -- it makes a lot more sense to describe President Bush as an evangelical.
If you look at his story, there's an emphasis on the personal. He talks about his transformational religious experience. He doesn't use terms like "born again." He tries to sort of stay away from some buzzwords that have caused political trouble for other politicians.
But he speaks about an individual personal salvation, and he speaks about an individual personal relationship with Christ. He talks about his prayer life. He talks about his devotional life. He seems clear in his statements that he believes the Bible to be the source of truth. He's very clear about that. He also, in many ways, of course, has to be careful. … As president, he's not going to evangelize, perhaps, in the way that a public citizen could or should.
But you understand and sense that he shares that goal of wanting people to know, and he does tell his story. He's open with his story. He has never really hidden his faith story. It's upfront and center. He's been ridiculed for it.
I think of that debate where he was asked about what political philosopher is most important to you, and he answers Jesus. Some people -- a lot of people -- ridiculed him for that answer, I think partially because most people don't think of Jesus as a political philosopher. But from his perspective, I think that was an honest and legitimate answer to "My political philosophy is probably most shaped by my understanding of Jesus Christ." So it seemed a natural answer to him. In many ways, I think that sort of fits with this evangelical understanding of the world.
Tell me about men's Bible study in Midland. The studying of the Bible to evangelicals is so important.
The central role of Bible study is something that I think some people can't understand or is complicated. … The best way to understand a Bible study [is] if you believe that there is one source of religious truth, and that source is this text that we call the Bible, it makes sense that you want to understand what it says, that you want to spend time not just reading it like you would read a novel, pass over the words, and go on. But it's something that you want to meditate on. You want to think about, what does this really mean? You want to interpret it.
So Bible study gives us an opportunity to look at this text that we believe to be the word of God -- spend time looking through it, thinking about what it means, trying to apply it to our lives, because this is a way that we connect with the divine. This is how God speaks to us -- through these words. So every time I open a Bible, I'm going to hear something different. I'm going to see something different, because it isn't just words on paper. It's a transformative text.
Bible study is then that opportunity to gather with other believers. So you have that community. You have that fellowship piece, where you're sharing with others that shared faith. You're learning from one another. You're opening the same text. You're looking at the same words. You're reflecting on it individually. "Well, I think it is what this might mean." Then someone says, "Well, actually, I was thinking about it this way." So there's dialogue. There's conversation. It makes it living. It makes it fluid. It brings something that could be rather opaque, and makes it real.
Can you talk in particular about when the president went to Community Bible Study in Midland?
Actually, both of my parents are involved in Community Bible Study in the same town, in Midland, Texas. I am very familiar with it. It's a very intensive, planned Bible study program. It's deliberately ecumenical, so that you bring people across denominations, Protestant, Catholics, evangelical denominations, mainline denominations. You come together.
You prepare in advance. You sort of have homework, if you will. So you go home. You spend time preparing your questions. You come together. You hear a lesson taught by one of the leaders, then you move into small groups. In those small groups, you then work through the questions together.
Because it's ecumenical, because it's bringing people together across different denominations, it helps remind us of our unity and our faith. We worship the same God. We have the same fundamental beliefs. We are trying to understand the same truths from the Bible. Even though there are lots of differences that may divide us, the unity is much more important.
I think it's a wonderful example of bringing people together in unity, bringing people across what often seem like big divides.
Because you're actually familiar with it, does it comfort you that the president of our country went through that program?
I guess it is it is comforting in its own way, to know that the president has done something like the Community Bible Study, because it says to me that he takes his faith seriously. One of the things that we find when we look at presidents of the United States -- there's sort of this unwritten rule that presidents are supposed to be religious. [But] they don't want them too religious and we don't want them to be non-religious. We want them to somehow be good people, good, moral men.
So if they're going to be good and moral, they should have some form of religion. At least to this point in our history, we expect that religion to be Christian. I hope it will change. … That somehow makes us comforted, because then we think, "This person's making life-and-death decisions. This person's having to make moral choices all the time." We want our president to have a basis for the moral choices made.
From my perspective, if the president says he's a Christian, that means very little to me. It's interesting information. But I want to know, what does that mean to him? Is this a label that he has chosen? Is this to say, "I think I better sound like I'm a Christian?"
So when I see someone like President Bush, who is not just using evangelical rhetoric, but has a credible testimony that he believes this, that this is part of who he is, and this is the prism through which he views things, that speaks volumes to evangelicals in general.
We look to see what are the actions, what are the fruit, if you will. We've seen the president speaking a language we understand, talking about God in terms that we would use. He's involved in things like a Bible study that suggests a deep, personal commitment, and it doesn't appear to be a public show.
I do think it's interesting that, most of the time that he goes to church is in Camp David, in a very quiet way, without the cameras rolling. I respect that. When someone walks to church with a Bible in hand, that that has some meaning, but not a lot of meaning. It doesn't tell me, "Why are you going? Do you want to go? Is this a photo op, or is this because you want to go for a worship experience?" … What I want to know is, is this person a person of faith or not? How do I know that? How does this person's view of religion, how does this person's view of eternal life affect his or her decisions, how this person operates in politics?
In your mind, what has he done that furthers what evangelicals care about?
It's somewhat difficult, I think, to assess the Bush presidency on what evangelicals care about, because it's really hard to look at evangelicals in a monolithic bloc.
Having said that, I think there are sets of issues that generally resonate, more often than not, with evangelical voters. I know that often the first issues that are discussed when you talk about evangelicalism and politics are the social issues. From the beginning of Bush's presidency, religious conservatives were waiting to see how he would actually follow through on his commitment to be pro-life, and what did that mean.
So things like immediately reversing the gag rule were very important. … The stem cell decision coming early in his administration in August… He's at the ranch in Crawford, and stops his vacation to give a national address from Crawford, Texas, about the stem cell decision, I think was really important and spoke volumes. I mean, the stem cell decision was a difficult one. It wasn't the resolution … that pleased all religious voters. In some ways, it's what we would call Solomonic decision -- cutting the baby in half.
It's sort of trying to figure out how to deal with an issue once it has begun. Once the destruction of embryos has begun, what do you do now? So I think the stem cell decision was a good decision.
In many ways, I think evangelical voters, particularly those who vote on social issues, would like to see the president do more on the abortion issue. But it's very difficult, because there aren't that many things that the president can do on the abortion issue.
Let's just talk about the stem cell research, because I talked to a lot of evangelicals who said that's incredibly important.
…What you're going to find, more often than not, [is that] more evangelicals are what we call pro-life than pro-choice. If you believe that God created all human beings, and that human beings all bear the image of God, then there is a sacredness. There's a sanctity to life that is of eternal importance. Then you say, "Well, when does that life begin?" And that's pretty complicated.
Medical doctors disagree; everyone disagrees. But what many evangelicals will say is, to the extent that we know from the conception when that human being begins to take form, that is where we see life beginning.
Again, I'm speaking in broad terms for the larger pro-life movement, recognizing that not everyone agrees on this issue. But if you do take that as sacred, that human life is sacred and that human life begins at the point of the creation of unique DNA -- which would be at the point of inception -- then an embryo, a fetus, a 33-week gestation baby, a baby just born, a baby six months old all bear the image of God. All are sacred and valuable, despite their size, despite their development. They're all uniquely human. A human embryo doesn't develop into anything other than a human. So there's kind of this sense of humanity carried in.
After President Bush came into office. He did three things. He lifted the gag rule; he founded the Faith-Based Initiatives and Community Office inside the White House, which has never happened before inside the White House; and he undertook the founding of the National Prayer Day. Three very symbolic things within the first two weeks of his presidency. Talk to me first about the significance of the faith-based office being placed in the context of the White House.
The faith-based initiative is obviously a hallmark of this presidency. Probably the most important piece of it was that very first action of creating the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives as a part of the White House office. It does a number of things.
It was created by executive order. So he creates this office as part of the larger White House apparatus. Often, a president, if he has a particular policy interest, may create sort of an outside agency that answers to his administration. But in this case, what President Bush said, "This is so important, I'm going to issue an executive order and create this particular office."
[And regarding] … the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, a future president has two options. One is to abolish that office by executive order. Or, two, if the president isn't interested in working on this issue, try to make the office meaningless, but keep it in place.
So it's not just a statement for this administration, but it's a legacy for future presidents that they now have to address the issue. They can choose how to address it. A future president may say, "I do not think it's appropriate to have an Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in the White House, and I now, by executive order, will abolish it." But that would put a president immediately on the record as being sort of against faith-based initiatives. It puts a future president in a difficult position.
Can you talk about the concerns people had with this faith-based initiative?
Yes, there are and were a lot of concerns about this -- some of them based in truth, and some of them based in confusion and misperception. A very common perception of the president's faith-based initiative was that somehow this was designed to funnel millions of dollars directly to faith-based organizations.
That's really not the design of the program at all. The goal of the faith-based initiative is to allow religious organizations to compete for government programs -- just as other non-profit organizations do -- to provide services that others do already. In certain areas, religious organizations have been excluded.
So what the president wants to do is ... as he puts it, to level the playing field, so that religious organizations can participate as well. When stated that way, I don't think it's particularly as controversial.
But the first thing was a controversy over funneling millions of dollars to churches: that we're violating the separation of church and state, and this is not appropriate. There's also the level on the idea of allowing religious organizations to provide certain social services to run a homeless shelter, to run a job-training program for welfare-to-work. Some of these kinds of things have already begun.
One of the concerns is that religious organizations will use these programs as a method of trying to proselytize -- that the goal is not to serve people in need, but the goal is to win souls to Christ; that the goal is somehow to convert people to this new religion; and the government would therefore be sponsoring, paying for conversion. I can naturally see why that would be a concern to people. I think sometimes it's hard to disentangle what it means to want to serve someone's physical needs and what it means to serve someone's spiritual needs.
Can you talk about how the controversy over faith-based initiatives [as it] relates to what you were talking about in class today?
I think this does relate to what we were talking about in my religion and politics class earlier today. That is, what should the role of church and state be? You have what we call pietistic separationists. You have those who say we need to separate church and state because the role of religion is distinctive. It's special. There's a prophetic voice for religion, and we don't want to be corrupted by the government.
In the case of the faith-based initiative, that's exactly what critics from the right were saying. They were saying, "If we take government money, there will be strings attached." And they're absolutely right. When you take government money, there are regulations and expectations. That's part of the game.
So they said, "If the government is going to tell us certain things we can do, certain things we can't do, if they're going to attach strings to this money, it's going to change the fundamental nature of who we are. It's going to change who we are. If they're going to say, 'You can't proselytize, you can't share the Gospel,' and we're all about sharing the good news with other people, that takes away who we are and what's most important to us."
So that's very much the opposition to the faith-based initiative from that camp. We don't want that to happen, because it strips us of who we are as religious people.
The other side, groups like Americans United and others just say, "We don't want the government funding religion, period, end of story." They are coming from perspective of, "We don't want people to be coerced to have to follow a particular religious perspective."
There's a concern if you have a welfare-to-work program, it's successful, it's working, you're helping people find a job, but in order to be a part of it, you have to go to a Bible study. All of a sudden, you're forcing someone to adhere to a tenet of Christianity in order to receive a benefit. So I think those critics are also right to be concerned about forcing someone to listen to, be a part of a particular religious perspective, whatever that religious might be, in order to receive a benefit.
Where I think a lot of people missed what was really going on with the faith-based initiative as the president perceived it. The idea of the faith-based initiative was to allow broader choice, and to allow people more opportunities for faith-based or secular programs. There were lots of secular programs that already existed.
Another piece that I think is interesting, too, is that, as we've already talked about, many Americans are religious. So I think there's also the freedom of choice for that religious person -- that evangelical, that Catholic, that Muslim, whomever. If you're a person of faith, and your church, your synagogue, your mosque, could offer a program that would help meet your needs, a social welfare program that would help you, but would come at that program from a perspective that you share, how much better would that be to be able to go through that program in a way that doesn't strip it of the things that you think are the most important?
How successful has the faith-based initiative been?
In some ways, it's still too early to measure the complete success of the faith-based initiative. On the legislative front, I think it has been somewhat of a failure. There were grand plans legislatively, and most of them fell apart for a variety of reasons.
The bill that's currently in Congress, which has passed the House but has yet to get through the Senate, is a very, very stripped and much weaker version of what the president first envisioned, and then second, what the House Republicans created, which are two very distinctly different things. So on the legislative front, I'd say it has not been a success.
I think the greatest success, and the one that I think a lot of people have missed, is in the executive branch. The president has been able to do a lot through his power as the head of the executive branch to promote his faith-based initiative. The second executive order on the faith-based initiative created faith-based centers in five departments of the U.S. government. Later, an additional executive order of the president expanded that, so that there are now a total of seven, adding the Department of Agriculture and USAID.
As that's been expanded, what's happened in those seven departments [is] there's an office in those departments which may have a couple people or a larger staff who are there to try to look at, what are the regulations in place? How are we currently implementing things that affect this particular sector of the government? How can we be more friendly and open to faith-based and community organizations? Where do we have either practices written into the law, or just understandings?
They may not be written down. But everyone knows that you do not allow religious organizations to receive this money. So there have been these audits, and these sincere, and I think very intense and very effective efforts of looking throughout these agencies and saying, "OK. Where in the Department of Labor could we be doing this differently?
Because these are executive actions, as the head of the executive branch, the president can do this without needing legislative authority.
Critics of that type of action would say that the president is infiltrating all of the Cabinets. It's not just the faith-based initiative office, it's also in seven of our cabinets. What's next?
Yes, the faith-based initiative is much larger than most people thought. The faith-based initiative as the legislative piece itself, was, I think, in many ways the smallest piece. The executive branch piece is the larger piece, the more complex piece. I think as people learn more about it, we're beginning to hear more criticism of what's going on in the executive branch, because it's unchecked, because it's the president doing as he chooses with the executive branch.
There is a criticism, obviously, that the president is just circumventing the legislative process. There are a couple of answers to that. One is, the Cabinet centers were a part of the design from the beginning, the executive branch, this is nothing new. You can look back throughout the speeches, even during the campaign. This is not something that comes out of the blue.
The second point, though, I think is a larger one, and that is that we often forget about the executive branch. We forget about the president's role as the head of the executive branch. The president does have a lot of power, and can make decisions that affect the entire federal government without any checked power from either the legislative or the judicial branches, in most cases.
So I think it's just kind of a lesson, if you will, in separation of powers. Civics 101. It's a lesson to remind us that the executive branch is important, and that the president can make a lot of difference there, and that that is indeed an important policy avenue. If you look back across presidential administrations, I think you'll find that many presidents have been most effective by the changes that they've been able to make in regulations and in working with the executive branch.
Is President Bush changing our government? Is he changing the way government's going to be run by doing these kind of actions?
I don't think President Bush is changing the way our government is going to be run, in any broad holistic sense. I do think that the working of the faith-based initiative through the executive branch is moving more towards a standard of neutrality, which is actually the standard the Supreme Court upholds right now, having to do with church and state as well.
We should not advance religion nor should we inhibit religion. We shouldn't keep religious organizations out, just as we shouldn't protect religious organizations and give them special privileges.
In general, it's hard to completely generalize. But I would say that from what I have seen of the work in the executive branch, most of it has been about trying to truly level the playing field. Most of it has been about trying to allow religious organizations to compete.
Part of the question, though, is how is this implemented? What do these religious organizations do? To what extent do they follow the guidelines? Do they stay away from proselytizing? Do they keep their secular purpose, their secular work separate, and allow the religious pieces, the religious components to be purely voluntary? If the organizations do follow that as they're supposed to, I think it could be a very good thing. But there's always the issue of enforcement that's out there.
Last question. Tell me about the students we saw in your class.
The class that you saw was a Religion and Politics class. Most of the students are political science majors, although not all. All of them obviously have an interest in politics. They are all coming from some version of an understanding of Christian belief. All of them would define themselves as evangelicals.
Some of the students are from mainline denominations. Some are from non-denominational, very evangelical churches. They come from a broad sort of background of churches, but we all come to the subject as sort of fitting that traditional definition of evangelical -- wanting to understand, "What does it mean to hold these beliefs -- to have this view of who God is and how he works in the world and in my life? How do I take those views and translate them into politics?"
What we've been trying to do in that class is understand that tension -- recognize that there's a tension, and try to understand to what extent that works. One of the things that I when I started the class that we talked about that's been a theme throughout -- this black-and-white nature of our faith -- how we often view things in very sort of polarized, "This is good, this is evil. This is right, this is wrong."
Politics almost always happens in the shades of gray. Politics is compromise. Politics is this middle ground. So how can we hold to something that we believe to be true, and operate in a sphere, in a world that's about compromise and shades of gray? One of the things I try to help my students understand is that some Christians can operate in those shades of gray, and some can't.
I'm not trying to put a value statement on that. But some people's worldview makes it so difficult to view a world that's not black and white, I don't think politics is the right place for them. Other students understand that you can hold certain beliefs personally, and then operate in a political system that doesn't share those beliefs, and work with that as a healthy tension. I think there are many legislators who do that right now.
I think that's what the president is trying to do. But it is always going to be at least what I would argue a healthy tension.