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E.J. Dionne is a columnist for the Washington Post, the co-chair of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, and co-editor of What's God Got to Do With the American Experiment? Here, he talks about America's longtime "healthy ambivalence" about religion and how Americans respect those who are religious, "but a large number of Americans don't want religion to enter the public square too much." However, he believes that the country may be at a stage now where "it's perfectly legitimate to root your political views in a set of religious beliefs." This interview also covers his thoughts on whether the Bush White House is the most religious ever, the issues reflected in the debate over the faith-based initiative, and why conservative religions are growing. This interview was conducted on Dec. 12, 2003.

In a Washington Post column several years ago, you wrote that scholars are predicting a new, great awakening of religious fervor in this country. Can you talk about what you mean when you write something like that, and about what's going on in America right now?

I think there's always a spiritual yearning in America. It's a country that has one awakening after another. The 1960s are so paradoxical, because so many people on the right see it as a time when we moved towards secularism, which, in some ways, we did. And they see it as a time of permissiveness, which in some ways, it was.

When Joe Lieberman ran for vice president in 2000 he emphasized his religion.  He was very open about it. I think that kind of encapsulates a certain change in the last 40 years.

But it was also the beginning of a kind of spiritual search that, for a lot of people, ended up in various forms of deep religious feeling. Whether it was the rise of evangelicalism, the rise of a new orthodoxy among Jews, there was a sense that the spiritual mattered. I think you've seen that play out from the late 1960s to the current time. …

Now, yes, some of it was rooted in a reaction to the 1960s. A lot of evangelicals and fundamentalists felt marginalized by the culture in that period, that television went from reinforcing their values to attacking their values.

Sociologist Nathan Glazer once talked about the rise of evangelical politics as a "defensive offensive." I think that's a really good term, because it's not that most evangelicals wanted to impose a Christian nation on everyone else. It was that they were trying to defend something that they believed they had lost. They were trying to restore where we were in the 1950s, at least in their mind. That's a kind of honorable motive, if you think of it as defending a certain set of values.

So I think a lot of this was a reaction to the court decisions banning prayer in schools. It was a reaction to Row v. Wade and the legalization of abortion. It was a reaction to the media.

So I think you had two things going on that [fed] this religious spirit. Just a general spiritual yearning that applied to a large part of the public, including people who might have been seen as countercultural, and this reaction against what a lot of evangelicals saw as a rise of secularism.

What happened after that? I know the Moral Majority was founded in response to Roe v. Wade, and Jerry Falwell came on the national scene. A lot of evangelicals became politically active for the first time. Can you talk about that? …

Let me step back if I can. … Evangelicals were very publicly active in politics. They were kind of pushed out of politics by two things that happened in the 1920s. The first was that they succeeded in establishing Prohibition. Then Prohibition proved to be a failure, and it was repealed.

The second was the Scopes trial, about the teaching of evolution in the public schools. The evangelicals found themselves made fun of in newspapers all over America. In some ways, H. L. Mencken made his reputation doing that. So they retreated into their own world. They never became disorganized. There were enormous radio networks of evangelicals in the 1930s and 1940s, Bible schools on the radio. But there was less public activity in politics. For the most part, especially lower-income evangelicals voted Democratic for Roosevelt, like everybody else in that class did.

It really wasn't until the late 1960s and early 1970s that they became active again. … I think you had events … whether it was Roe v. Wade, whether it was court rulings against prayer in schools -- you sort of began this mobilization that culminated, first in the Moral Majority, and then in the Christian Coalition.

Now I think the other thing [is] you cannot take this out of a Southern context. A lot of people ascribe the movement of white evangelicals in the South entirely to the religious right. Actually, it started happening in the Goldwater campaign in 1964. That had nothing to do with religion. It was a reaction against what was happening with civil rights.

Richard Nixon actually did better in the Baptist counties in the country in 1972 than Ronald Reagan did against Jimmy Carter in 1980. Now granted, Jimmy Carter himself was an evangelical Christian. But I think you've had this intermingling of regionalism, some racial politics and a genuine religious feeling. I'm not saying here this is all about race or racism. It's not fair to evangelicals to say that. But all these things were going on at the same time.

Why is it that evangelicals are, for the most part, white? …

Well, in truth, an awful lot of African-Americans are evangelical. In fact, when you look at the surveys, it's so striking that, if you sort of covered up the category on the piece of paper and looked at the religious attitudes, you would say that the vast majority of African-Americans are actually white evangelicals, because on most religious questions -- including now gay marriage -- African-Americans are very close to evangelicals.

The big different has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with civil rights and the splits in the 1960s over civil rights. … I think it's one of the great fascinations of American politics. In many ways, on Sunday, African-Americans and white evangelicals pray very much the same way and think very much the same thing, and the next Tuesday they vote absolutely differently. …

You've written that right now, the new millennium, that there's going to be a renegotiation of how we understand church and state. Can you talk about that a bit?

Yes. I think we've gone through a series of stages in our national public life. I think the moment the Constitution was written, there was a very strong feeling for, if not church-state separation -- that's Jefferson's phrase, but not all the founders' phrase -- a strong sense of an emphasis on religious liberty.

But the context of that over a long period of our history was really a white Protestant context. You could argue that much of our history was a period of a tolerant white Protestant hegemony. The word tolerance is important, because a lot of other people came into the country, including my people. But it was nonetheless a time when the public language of the country was very Protestant. Probably the highest form of that language was Lincoln's second inaugural address.

That began to break down first in the 1930s, I think, with first, Al Smith runs for president. The cities and the new immigrant groups including Catholics and Jews start asserting themselves. Then John Kennedy is elected president.

I think you had a kind of second stage in the 1960s, when you had a combination of the assertion of African-Americans and later Latinos, Catholics, with Kennedy saying, "No, this is not a white Protestant country." A lot of liberal Protestants were supportive of that project. You had the court decisions against prayer in schools. You had a real kind of pressure for greater secularization, and I think some of that happened in the broader culture.

I think we're at a stage now where what we're trying to do is to preserve the gains of religious liberty from that period, but accepting that perhaps we were too hostile to religious voices in the public sphere. I don't think this view is confined to the religious right. I think there are a lot of people who say that their own views on matters -- for many liberal Christians, on poverty and welfare and attitudes towards the poor, that it's perfectly legitimate to root your political views in a set of religious beliefs.

You have certain obligations in a free tolerant republic to present your arguments in ways that are accessible to everybody else. But your views can perfectly well come from your religious beliefs. That's why I think we're in this new stage of renegotiation.

The example, I think, of the difference between, if you will, the second and third stage is the difference between Joe Lieberman and John F. Kennedy. When John F. Kennedy ran for president, it was very important, as a Catholic, to say to white evangelicals that his Catholicism would not influence his presidency. He said if there were ever any conflict, he'd resign. He played down his religion. When Joe Lieberman ran for vice president in 2000, he emphasized his religion. He thanked God for the fact that he was chosen to be vice president. He was very open about it.

Now I think two things were going on here. One, there is a real difference between John Kennedy and Joe Lieberman. I think Joe Lieberman is simply more religious than John Kennedy. But in the other differences, political and social, in Kennedy's time, to reassure white evangelical Protestants, Kennedy had to say his religion didn't matter.

In Lieberman's time, there was this desire for the public expression of religion on the part of many white evangelicals. So it actually helped Lieberman with that group to declare that his religion really did matter. I think that kind of encapsulates a certain change in the last 40 years. …

You've written, "Don't be scared about this." A lot of people are really scared -- this sort of merging of church and state when it comes to faith-based initiatives; this idea we can give money to organizations that are religious in a different way than, say, the Salvation Army is. Talk about that a little bit.

The reason I'm not scared about this stuff representing a major threat to religious freedom is because I think religious freedom is baked so deeply in our culture, and indeed, baked so deeply in each and every one of us. My friend David Brooks popularized this great term, "flexidoxy." He said on the one hand, we're are at a moment when people are looking for religious certainty. They're looking for orthodoxy.

Yet, being American, we're also looking for our orthodoxy to be flexible. Some people might not be comfortable with the way orthodoxy looks at sexuality or the role of women or any number of other things. So we created this flexidoxy. So I think it's inherent in Americans to be this sort of mixture of things and to keep something in balance. …

If you look at popular attitudes toward religion, one of the things that's struck me out of some of the peer polling we've done is if you ask two different questions, you get two very different answers. On the one hand, you ask people, "Do you want your president to be a religious person?" You get a number like 70 percent saying yes.

Then you ask, "Do you dislike it when a politician talks too much about how religious he is?" And you get 50 percent yes. So you've got a big overlap here. I think that speaks to a healthy ambivalence. Those two might look inconsistent. How are we going to know somebody's deeply religious if the voters don't want them to talk about it? But there's a healthy ambivalence there, which is they respect people who are religious, but a large number of Americans don't want it to enter the public square too much.

I guess the other thing I don't worry about it as much as some people do is that this has been going on for a long time. Organizations such as Catholic Charities or Lutheran Services or the Jewish Federation have always had relationships with government in providing social services. So we're not creating something entirely new. We're re-negotiating the boundaries a little bit at the edges.

Yes, you could get too far off the edge and create a problem. But I think of this much more as a rather narrow re-negotiation of boundaries than a gigantic revolution, where we're about to send all social services back to the churches and sort of re-enter a medieval period. I don't think that's a threat in the United States.

Let me ask you a couple of questions about faith-based initiative. I understand Lutheran charities, Jewish charities, a lot of these guys have received money over the last few decades. What is different about what is going on now? Are there different organizations that can accept money?

You see, I think of the rise of the faith-based initiatives among conservatives reflects two very discrete interests. On the one side, I think there are a lot of conservatives, who, over a period of time, listened to liberal arguments and said, "You conservatives don't care about the poor."

A lot of those conservatives had a genuinely bad conscience about it and said, "Wait a minute. We are supposed to care about the poor, but we don't really like the way the traditional welfare state works." They sort of came upon this idea of providing social services through non-governmental institutions, including the churches.

I think there's another brand of conservative, who were most interested in the faith-based initiatives as a way of reducing the role and power of government. A lot of times these groups overlapped. But I think their motivations and hopes were quite different.

I think the other thing that's going on here is a big debate over whether the causes of poverty are primarily social, structural, and economic, or whether they are rooted in personal failures. If you listen to Bush's first inaugural address, he has some beautiful language in there where he talks about how children who are born poor are not at fault for the state of their birth. He says it better than that, actually.

But then when he goes on to talk about it, he talks more about broken families and a lack of love than he does about whether there might be some structural injustice. So there's a big argument here. Now, historically, if you look at say, at Christian progressives, they brought the two together. There's no reason, in principle, that you can't care about personal responsibility and say, yes, people ought to take care of themselves and live good lives. …

One of the fascinating things about this debate is that there are quite a few evangelicals who deeply worry that taking a dime of government money will force them to do something other than preach the full Gospel. …

If you're evangelical, you have a moral obligation to preach the Gospel. The question is, can you have religious organizations that believe … apart from that message? I think some of the historical answer is, well, yes. There are an awful lot of religious groups that deliver the food or health care or childcare, and care first about poverty, and do as much by example as they do by preaching. But some of these other certain areas, I think it's very hard to disentangle. In those areas, you really do have a church/state problem.

The one that I think is most vexed is drug treatment, where, in many drug treatment programs, the Christian drug treatment programs, if you will, have the sensible theoretical view that we're not there just to get rid of the addiction. We're there to transform the whole person. The way you transform the whole person is to create a relationship with Jesus. Once you have to relationship, you will have the strength to overcome this particular problem.

Programs like that have had success. The question is, can government go so far as to fund the program so deeply rooted in religion? I had an argument about this with a conservative evangelical friend who said, "Look. Their method is Freud. Our method is Jesus. Why should Freud get the money and Jesus not get the money?" I thought that was an interesting argument. But we still do have the First Amendment, and it raises a real question.

When you look at what George Bush believes, he does believe by accepting Jesus into his heart, he actually was able to transform his life. He talks very openly about this. This is the kind of stuff that he did in Texas. He was very open about trying to get charitable choice all over the state of Texas. He takes it very seriously. What would you say about his take on the faith-based initiatives, and whether it crosses the line?

I think Bush is pretty out front in saying his interest in these programs is rooted, in significant part, in his own biography. He talks very openly about being somebody who drank too much and decided one day to stop, and did. He talks about finding a relationship with Jesus Christ as being essential to that personal transformation.

In a funny way, the faith-based initiative is almost like George Bush's form of New Dealism -- which is, he wants every American to have the same opportunity that he had. There's something, at some level, quite beautiful about that. It raises other kinds of questions. But I think it's very much part of his experience. …

What has actually changed [since the faith-based initiative was passed]? …

I think structurally, the biggest difference may be that there's an effort here -- which may or may not work -- to try to get more of the money to some of the smaller storefront evangelical churches, as opposed to either the mega-churches that have always had very substantial faith-based programs, or the old charities, like Catholic Charities and Lutheran Services. …

I think one of the ironies of Bush's faith-based initiative is that potentially, the constituency that might most have benefited from it, was a constituency that was most skeptical of Bush -- which is the African-American church.

A very good scholar, Mark Chavez, did a study, asking a survey of churches whether they would accept government money for social programs. What did he find? African-American churches were much more likely to want to take the money than white churches. Liberal and moderate churches were much more likely to want the money than conservative churches. So what you had in the Bush initiative was an initiative that might be most taken advantage of by the political groups most hostile to Bush. Those churches and those people who are most sympathetic to Bush [were] not as interested in the initiative. So one of the reasons it ran into trouble is that it was very hard for it to find an appropriate political base.

How important was it that Bush founded the [faith-based] office inside the White House? I mean, we know that Clinton signed the welfare bill of 1996, which had charitable choice in it. So it was sort of already starting before Bush came in. But Bush actually got an office in the White House. How important was that, either symbolically or in a real way?

I think establishing an office in the White House is a way for a president to say, "This issue really matters to me." So it was important in that respect. In the long run, it will be important, because the way in which Bush is probably going to achieve the greatest change is not through legislation -- because it doesn't look like there's going to be any far-reaching legislation -- but rather through changes within the executive. He's going to do it through executive orders, and also by changing the way various programs work in the agencies.

So the White House faith-based office, which began as an office designed to push a piece of legislation, I think has ended up being an office which is designed to change the way the federal government disperses money and treats religious organizations who apply for money.

In the long run, it could have great effect. It could be a large effect that goes largely unnoticed for a long time, because the press tends to cover big legislative fights. There are not nearly enough people looking at the Federal Register to see what's happening to these regulations or where the money is going. …

Talk to me about "compassionate conservative." What does that word mean, and does it have religious roots?

I once searched this out, and there's evidence that the term may go back as far as the first President Bush, who used it a long time ago. Jack Kemp, a Republican congressman presidential candidate used the term. The term has been floating around for some time. Another person who used it early was Mike Gerson, who's the president's speechwriter, who was using it when he were working for Senator Dan Cotes. So this is not something Bush invented. It goes back very deep into Republican history. …

I once found a Herbert Hoover speech back in his administration where he didn't use the term "compassionate conservatism," but everything he said about the compassion of the country and the ability of private organizations to solve problems sounded just like compassionate conservatism. …

I interviewed President Bush, then Governor Bush, back in 1999. The phrase he used was interesting. He said, "We must put a compassionate face on our conservative program." Now he knew which face he had in mind. But he wasn't willing, in the course of discussion, you could see that there was anything wrong with conservatism. He said, "We are compassionable. We need to put that face out there."

So it's an investigating about, to what extent was this substantive? I do believe there was some substance there. To what extent was it a public relations maneuver? David Frum has this wonderful line in his book on Bush. It's a very sympathetic book where he writes -- and I'll try to get this right -- "Love conservatism, but tired of arguing about abortion? Try our new compassionate conservatism. Great ideological taste, with less controversy." That's David Frum on compassionate conservatism.

The irony of the phrase "compassionate conservatism" is that a lot of conservatives used to make fun of liberals for being compassionate. They critique compassion as something less tough than what social policy required. I think what gave compassionate conservatism an acceptance among a lot of conservatives is that they could root it in, if you will, a biblical injunction. It's hard to read the Gospel and say that Jesus doesn't care about the poor. Jesus talks a lot more about the poor than he does about the capital gains tax cut. So I think that the compassionate conservatism got its power when you could link the idea of compassion to a religious imperative.

Let's move on to President Bush himself. Tell me about your conversation with him.

When I interviewed then-Governor Bush back in 1999, I was fascinated by this religious side of him. I asked everybody I talked to at some point or other, "Is this religious commitment thing for real?" Everybody I talked to -- including people who really didn't like him -- said, "Yes, this is a real part of him. We don't think this is fake; we don't think it's about politics. It may help him politically, but this is who he is. He's had these experiences, and that's part of him."

But it also seemed terribly convenient. When I interviewed him, I asked him, "Look, this works for you on three levels. This idea that you had a religious conversion and are compassionate helps you with liberals, because you look more caring about the poor than they think conservatives are. It obviously helps you with evangelicals, because you're one of them, and they share your religious feelings. It also draws a line between the earlier part of your life that you don't really want to talk about, when you said you were young and irresponsible, and now." He became the prodigal son, the reformed man, the repentant sinner.

So when I asked him about, "How does this works for you on all three levels?" what he said is simply that he didn't much like the question. I don't blame him. He said people will see through that in a minute. … What he meant was that it's not something that you can put on. If it were fake, people would know it.

Do you agree with that?

Well, I guess there are skeptics around enough that I chose to ask him the question. If you ask me personally, I don't know what's in anybody's heart. But I think the religious feeling is authentic.

When you were interviewing him, since you know so much about religion and you know so much about evangelical thought, did you think right away [that] he was an evangelical? …

It's hard to know exactly what kind of Christian somebody is, let alone what kind of evangelical Christian someone is. It has more to do with a form of expression. You know, how does somebody refer to Jesus or to Jesus Christ or to critical moment in their lives? Most of the time, if you're talking to President Bush, in my limited experience, and watching him like all the rest of us, you don't know that this is deeply a part of him. But there are certain critical moments when you hear him talk that you know that there is something in the evangelical tradition going on here.

I remember when Bush in the famous debate in Iowa said that Jesus Christ was his favorite political philosopher. I always thought the problem was not with that answer, which is a legitimate answer. But when he was asked to explain this, he basically said, "If you haven't had this experience, you don't know what it is."

I was offended by that, because I thought, in a sense, in a tolerant democracy, a politician has an obligation to explain things to people who don't necessarily accept their religious terms.

I had an assistant at the time who was a Democrat, no friend of Bush's, but an evangelical Christian. She was upset with me, because she said, "That's how we talk. You should understand that." I think it's those moments, when Bush speaks like that, that evangelicals know in their hearts that he's one of them.

[Do you think] that religious organizations, especially evangelical ones, have had more of an influence on this White House than any other presidents in the past?

I think both George Bush and Karl Rove, his top legal adviser, are acutely aware of how important evangelicals are to George Bush's political coalition. Karl Rove, early on, said that one of the reasons the 2000 election turned out to be so close is because there was a fall-off in the white evangelical vote. He's quite clear that he and the president are determined that that's not going to happen again. So Rove is somebody who is very proactive about reaching out to people in general, but especially important constituencies to Bush, and evangelicals are clearly one of those constituencies.

I think there's a subtlety in the White House. It's not evangelicals as one big bloc of people. I think they understand there are different groups in different places, and they're sensitive to some of those differences.

If you look at the issues that Bush has delivered on -- the obvious ones, like the ban on partial birth abortion and the appointment of judges who are, for the most part, critical of Roe v. Wade -- but there are issues that people in the mainstream don't necessarily associate with evangelicals that are very important to them. AIDS in Africa is actually a very important issue to evangelicals. One of the speeches that Bush gave on Iraq was this long section about human trafficking around the world. Now personally I think that's a serious issue. But politically it was also something that appealed to evangelicals that they cared about. So even in areas where people don't notice, he is there for this constituency, and evangelicals do notice. …

So is President Bush listening to this constituency more than other constituencies? Or do you think it's just a sort of healthy amount? What do you think?

I think he listens to all the constituencies that were critical to his election. I don't think he listens to evangelicals any more than he listens to the groups that benefited from the dividends tax cut or the HMOs or the drug companies.

I mean, he's got a political constituency that he seems determined to deliver to. They are part of it, and he's attentive to them as he is to others.

Would you say that this is one of the most religious White Houses in the history of [modern] American presidents?

It's hard to say is it the most religious. Jimmy Carter, as a person, [is] as religious a president as we've had. But Jimmy Carter comes out of an old Baptist tradition that very much respected -- highlighted, revered -- the separation of church and state. So Carter had was very religious in a less public way.

I think it's worth remembering that, when Carter first described himself as an evangelical, born-again Christian, he was treated in a lot of the press as if he were some sort of Martian. It's hard for us to remember how new this very public presence of evangelicals is. There are 20 million of them in the country, and Carter was strange because he was one of 20 million people. But Carter was very reserved about this. …

Bill Clinton was religious. Bill Clinton could quote Scripture with the best of them. Bill Clinton could preach with the best of them. He gave some very powerful speeches at Notre Dame, where he sounded Catholic; at African-American churches, where he sounded AME or Baptist. Now, these all overlap. It wasn't contradictory. And he quoted Scripture at least as much, if not more than George W. Bush does.

So what's different about George W. Bush's religion? Why is everybody thinking about it, writing about it, talking about it lately? …

I know Bush, in his own presentation of himself early on, was very open about his personal religious experiences and how they helped transform his life. So in the first instance, Bush chose to do this himself.

To that, he grafted on his interest in faith-based programs which grew organically from that, but then became very much part of who he was as governor of Texas. Then, those faith-based programs in turn became an important part of his presidential campaign and what he cared about when he came to power.

So the interest in this is not made up, and it predates 9/11. It has to do with Bush's self-presentation and what he thinks he is about.

[Can you talk about Bush's use of religious language in his speeches?]

Well, the fascinating thing about religious language is that so much of it -- especially biblical language, but also language from hymns -- has entered our everyday speech. So if someone is secular and hears the phrase, it sounds familiar, or it sounds like a cool phrase. If someone is religious [and] hears the phrase, the "wonder-working power" of the American people, they know it comes from a hymn. So two audiences can hear these things on different levels.

I mean, you can say much the same of Martin Luther King's speeches, because a lot of what he said in some of his best speeches was rooted in Scripture. But if you had never read Scripture, you'd still like what he said.

I also think, [in] Mike Gerson, you have a gifted speechwriter who is genuinely religious, and is steeped both intellectually and in spirit in this language. It's not confined, by the way, to evangelicals. The president's speeches are all so full of references to Pope John Paul II. … So they're aware there are a lot of constituencies out there. Gerson is somebody who takes this stuff seriously, and it shows in Bush's speeches. I think on balance, it helps Bush a lot more than it hurts him.

Remember when Bush used the word "crusade?" It was sort of an off-the-cuff remark that he made soon after 9/11. … There is a perception around the world that the language that's going out is overtly Christian. Can you just respond to that?

I think Bush, precisely because he has been open about his Christian belief -- and there's nothing wrong with that -- has a special obligation to be careful in his choice of words, because of the way the rest of the world looks at him. So my hunch is that if Bill Clinton had used the word "crusade," people would just say that's a term that politicians use. But when George Bush uses the term "crusade," it's endowed with all kinds of meaning. …

Can you talk to me a little bit about why you think the conservative religion is growing? If you look at the mainline denominations, you see the numbers shifting downward. You look at evangelical churches, and you see that they're shifting upward. What's going on in our country where this shift is happening?

I think, for religious people and religious denominations, there's this great challenge, which is on the one side, denominations and religions that are very demanding, very aware of the need for clear boundaries, insistent on giving people a strong sense of meaning. When people come to religion, many are looking for precisely those kinds of things, and what may seem to some like a greater ambiguity within liberal churches is not what they were looking for at that moment.

The paradox is that, for the long haul, religious traditions that have been able to come to terms with changes in the civilization, changes with the scientific revolution, with the rise of industrialism, with the Enlightenment -- they have more long-term staying power. So the question is an issue between the short term and the long term.

But I think that, to the extent that when people go into a church or synagogue, they don't want to be told, "Well, maybe you do this, or maybe you do that." They're actually looking for some guidance of, "Well you really should do this, and you should not do that." More authoritative conservative churches are going to have a jump on a lot of the evidence.

Do you think it has anything to do with sort of the age that we're living in right now -- with terrorism and sort of the fear of the unknown of what's happening?

I think it may have a lot more to do with the fact that people who may once have gone to liberal churches have become more secular. In other words, we tend to view this as a shift of liberal religious people to conservative religious people. What you probably have is a clear group of people who are remaining religious, more orthodox, and that a lot of people who might have been more liberal members of congregations have simply left. That may explain as much as whether conservative churches are more attractive than liberal churches.

That's actually a different way of looking at it, which is really great.

Because if you look at Andy Kohut's polls, the fastest growing group are seculars. Those seculars, once upon a time, might have been liberal Presbyterians or Episcopalians or Catholics. So there's a bleeding out the other way.

Can you tell me what the difference is between Bush's Episcopalian upbringing, and what he sort of transformed into, which is the United Methodist Church with the sort of evangelical twist?

On the whole, the Episcopal Church has been a church more of the upper class than the Methodist Church, which has been a much broader more popular church, much like the Baptists.

Theologically, the Episcopal Church is much more liturgical, much closer to the Catholic Church. The Methodist Church is somewhat liturgical, but it's not quite like that. The Methodist tradition is very interesting, because it has a very strong sense of self-improvement and a very tough sense of morality.

It also has a very strong social justice, social activist tradition. It's said in Britain that the Labor Party owes more to Methodism than to Marx. So it's that social justice side. …

How important was that to the evangelical world that John Ashcroft was put in charge as attorney general? It's a big job. Tell me also [which church] he comes from, and what that means.

Whatever you say about John Ashcroft, when it comes to religion, he's the real deal. He's the real deal in almost every respect. He grew up in a preacher's family. He stayed in. He's a member of the Assemblies of God, which is a very devout and kind of has a passionate sort of aspect to the … liturgy. He loves to sing hymns. This is a strong part of him. He is the person who helped create the original charitable choice proposal. So to name somebody like John Ashcroft to this position is clearly a strong signal to religious Christians.

I think one of the interesting things that's happened is a kind of reorganization of politics when it comes to religion, which is, once upon a time, these distinctions between, say, Pentecostals and evangelicals and fundamentalists -- not to mention between Baptists and Methodists -- were a big deal to people. You might mistrust someone if they were in the other frame.

Now what you tend to have done is, all these groups are kind of gathered together in coalition, because broadly, they're on the same side of public issues like abortion. They are [galvanized]. That group even includes some conservative Catholics.

I think that's a big change. It might have come been a time when having an Assemblies of God attorney general might bother somebody who was a Baptist or a Methodist. That's not the way it works anymore. It's wonderful. It's sort of the moral issues are trumping denomination. I think that's really interesting. …

In 1980, Reagan trumped Carter obviously. How is it that Carter, who's such an evangelical, lost the evangelical vote to someone like Reagan, who never claimed to be religious really at all?

I guess one of the problems with the way we talk about all these things is we act as if someone is very religious, then they must always vote on religious issues. A lot of times people who are very religious do not vote on religious issues. Reagan carried the evangelical vote, yes, partly because of abortion and some of those issues.

But he carried the evangelical vote for a lot of the same reasons he carried a lot of other votes, which is that there was massive inflation. The country felt weak in foreign policy. Evangelicals who tilted more conservative in their politics were obviously inclined toward Ronald Reagan. I don't think any evangelical Christians doubted that Jimmy Carter was one of them. They just didn't like inflation and what was happening in Iran.

That's true. George Bush helping his father in the late 1980s -- can you talk about that, and what that meant?

I've been told by Republicans that Bush himself developed this skill at talking to evangelicals by being the point person with them on his father's campaigns. He spent a lot of time within these churches, and obviously, he was already fluent in the language. They knew when they encountered him that, at some level, he was one of them.

But it created a kind of depth of relationship that certainly his father didn't have, and probably very few major Republican figures have.

How do you think that helped him as he became governor and then president?

It sure helped him in the South Carolina primary to beat John McCain. Again, I think, one of the interesting things about Bush is that he can appeal to this vote indirectly at times, as well as directly. He can use language and seem to be one of them without ever really having to say it. It's almost like a secret handshake. It's just a deep sense of connection. I'm certain that it's real on the side of the evangelicals, and it seems real on Bush's side.

Charitable choice -- how important was that to what we know now as faith-based initiatives? Is that sort of the foundation of what we think about today as the faith-based initiative? …

The irony of charitable choice is that it passed with very little public controversy. Yet if Bush is able to move more money to these programs through executive action, it's only because of a law passed under and signed by Bill Clinton.

Charitable choice kind of snuck in the welfare bill. There was a debate about it, but it wasn't extensive. So much of the focus was on whether this was a good or bad welfare bill that the debate over charitable choice was really truncated, and yet it was a huge transformation in public policy. It got very little attention, yet it charted a major new direction in social policy. …

There was a great potential here for this to be a less partisan issue, and I think several things happened to make it less likely. One is that, over time, Democrats developed very strong partisan feelings against Bush, and saw him governing in a partisan way. Second, certain very divisive questions began to enter into the debate, notably in the controversy surrounding the Salvation Army, about the question of hiring gays.

So suddenly, you were moving from something more or less unifying, "Well, we really all do admire what these religious institutions do," to very divisive -- about what should the rules be about hiring or not hiring people who are gay. Then the third thing that happened is that it fell sort off the table with the war on terrorism.

I actually have come to believe that, if there is going to be a big advance and change on this, it's probably going to be a Nixon to China thing. It will probably be a Democrat who will succeed in changing this, more than a Republican can; partly because a Democrat would have the trust of the African-American church, which in the end is going to be a real driver of this, because those are the churches so deeply engaged in some of the hardest social problems.

Secondly, people will be less skeptical of a Democrat. Liberals will be less inclined to think that a Democrat will sort of violate the separation of church and state. So to me, the big debate about this may be in the future after George Bush is president, not during the Bush presidency. …

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posted april 29, 2004

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