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interviews: wayne slater
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Wayne Slater is Austin bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News and the author of Bush's Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush. He has followed George W. Bush throughout his political career and here discusses some of his private talks with Bush about his faith which Slater says fits well with Bush's conservative political philosophy of "hard work, good things for business and an absolute right and wrong in everything." Slater also talks about how Bush convincingly reached out to Texas's evangelical community in his gubernatorial campaign, how he continues to shrewdly woo evangelicals, and how in the White House, Bush "has surrounded himself … with conservative Christians." In this interview Slater also talks about the moment when then-Governor Bush confronted a profound conflict between the necessity of public policy and his own personal religious belief. This transcript is drawn from two interviews conducted on Oct. 30, 2003 and Jan. 8, 2004.

… Tell me about your private conversations with Bush about his religion and his beliefs.

He was really open, privately. He didn't want to reflect it too much publicly for fear that he would look false. But privately, it was clear to me that faith was very important to him. A belief in Jesus Christ was very important to him. I think we talked about it, because I was living in a community that was fairly conservative. It was a little town north of Austin, and had a tradition of the Baptist Church, and so I think even though I was a reporter, he felt free to discuss religion.

I know one time we were talking about - as he approached the idea of running for president - whether God was calling him to be governor and run for president.  And basically he said, Yes.

It was really clear to me that religion was very much a part of who George Bush was. He is a guy who is a classic baby boomer. He came of age at a time, suddenly, with two daughters and married late. Earlier in life, he loved to have fun. He loved to drink, carouse, cruise -- both in Georgetown when he was at Harvard, and later here in Midland. Until he got married, he was a guy that had an awful lot of fun. But this whole conversion in his life was something that he talked about and he saw it as an important aspect of who he was. …

He believes very much sort of the core ideas of conservative Christianity, right?

Bush believes very much in the core ideas of Christianity -- the belief that you must believe in Jesus in order to go to heaven, that there is no other way to salvation. …That's a fundamental Christian belief, and he embraces it. He believes in the absolute nature of God. Fundamentally, he believes in the existence of evil, not as an abstract idea, a philosophy, but as something that's real and tangible. It's something we've seen really most recently when he talks about the terrorists. He talks of them openly about the existence of evil on Earth. That's something that means something to him. That's a designed comment. That's something that comes out of his heart, because he absolutely believes it.

When he was governor, he would read the Bible every morning. It was something that he had begun doing years earlier in Midland, Texas. It was part of a program, and it was part of something that helped settle him. I know we talked a number of occasions about how he felt in the morning when he'd wake up in Austin, Texas, at the governor's mansion. First thing he'd do was make coffee for his wife and feed the animals, a growing group of cats and dogs, and then he would read the Bible. He didn't want to talk about that publicly early on. But it was very much core part of who he was.

When George Bush was in college, he was a political conservative. He had come out of a tradition wherein the family had gone to the Episcopalian Church. It was natural that he would be offended by, and talked a lot about being offended by the "If it feels good, do it" generation. Those weren't his guys. He was a frat rat, a frat boy in college.

But he was also someone that liked the fundamental ideas of religion, even though at that time he had not been born again and he was not really following a rigorous church attendance. But when he was in college, he was offended, I think, by the kind of general tolerance, the political tolerance that reflected itself in the 1960s.

So it became only natural, I think later, that when he ultimately embraced religion in a new way, in a fundamental way, in his heart, in the very aspect of who he was, that it would seem very consistent with a conservative political philosophy which believed in hard work, good things for business and an absolute right and wrong in everything. So I think his religion, which he really embraced at the middle of his life, was something that was very consistent with the politics that he embraced all the way through it.

So in other words, his politics ran deeply through him throughout his entire life? It was sort of when he turned 40, or in his late 30s and his early 40s, when he was really sort of caught up in the religious side of things, so those things became parallel? Is that right?

George Bush, as he began to grow and approach 40 years old, found himself as the dark sheep of the family. He talked about that. You know, Jeb was the one who was going to be successful. Jeb was the one who was going to be the political success of the family. George told the Queen of England one time, "Well, I'm the black sheep in my family."

He told me that early on when he was drinking a lot, when he was smoking, he wasn't very productive. He clearly was going nowhere, although he thought he could succeed in the business world. But inside, he had these two girls. He had a wife who was really a very solid force for him, and he began to re-evaluate who he was. It was a natural thing for him, at that point, to stop drinking, and to begin looking at something fundamental in his background, something fundamental inside [him]. Religion provided that for him.

But his religion, the religion that he seems to have embraced in Midland, seems like a very different religion than the religion of his parents. …

His father and mother's church, the Episcopalian Church, is seen by some Methodists almost as a liberal or much-too-tolerant offshoot. The Methodist Church gives you an opportunity, and the Baptist Church even more, to believe in certain absolutes in an absolute way -- the inerrancy of Scripture. Not all Methodists believe that. But certainly there is that strain of thought that the Bible is the inerrant word of God.

The advantage of that is it gives someone like George Bush an absolute sense that there are absolutes in the world -- that the world is divided between good and evil; that the Bible is the absolute inerrant truth; that it is the word of God.

For someone who earlier, as a young man, was having an awful lot of fun drinking too much and maybe playing more than he was working, this imposition of absoluteness at a time when he had a young family, of something true and right, became for whatever reason enormously important; not only in making him the guy he is, but also turning around that potential reprobate, which in the tradition of these evangelicals [is] the reprobate he might have become.

So when [Bush] talked to you personally about [his faith] … did you get a sense that it's really genuine?

… Yes. It became really clear to me, within a couple years of his tenure as governor, that he believed this stuff; that this was not some artifice; that inside, he fundamentally had been changed somewhere along the way, and that faith was important.

It was important in who he was and how he viewed the world. We talked a number of occasions about good and evil and his idea that, no, there are bad people in the world. They are bad, not simply because they're born bad, but there is a character. There is something external. I never heard him use the word "Satan" or "the devil" that I remember. But it was clear that that was what he was talking about -- a tangible, absolute presentation stalking the Earth, which some evangelicals believe that imposes the aspect of evil on us. He believed that that evil is very real. I think it governed a lot of the way he viewed the world. He also believed that the aspect of good, that God's essential goodness, is something that helps guide him.

I know one time we were talking about -- as he approached the idea of running for president -- whether God was calling him to be governor and run for president. He basically said, "Yes."

… It's interesting how his choices to run for governor, to run for president, are all motivated, he says, by his beliefs.

Yes. I don't think he's done anything in his political life that hasn't been guided, at least in part, in what he believes God wants him to do. He and I have talked about this when he was governor. He believed that God had a very clear role in his decision to run for governor and had a very clear presence in the decisions he made as governor, whether it was about tort reform or whether it was about welfare. It was very much a part of his approach to governance.

The key moment I think happened in this regard in Austin, Texas, when after his inauguration for a second term, he was in a church service, a private church service across the street from the Capitol. This is a tradition for the incoming governor, in this case, the governor beginning his second term. During that church service, the pastor read a piece of Scripture and delivered a sermon that clearly said to him, "We need someone," that "Someone is needed to rule this country, to guide this country. Leadership is needed in this country."

Bush thought, "That's me." His mother reinforced the idea by saying to him turning to him and saying, "Honey, he's talking about you." Clearly, what he was talking about at that point was not -- although it was 1998, early 1999 -- simply serving another term as governor, but to lead the nation as the president of the United States.

Now, publicly he's very, very wise not to say, "I'm God's candidate." He's never said that that I know of. He's never said that, "God absolutely wants me to run, and I'm the person he wants in the White House." Privately, he has said those things. He said he believes that he is God's candidate, that God has chosen him -- not necessarily to the exclusion of any other leaders somewhere else. But clearly that he is a person chosen by God at this particular point and time to represent the interests, not only of a nation, but the guidance of God at a troubled time in the country. It's something he absolutely believes. …

Let me take you to the national arena, where as you're watching him as president. … How much do you sort of put yourself out there as a believer? …

Throughout his political life, George Bush has tried to balance this idea of being evangelical Christian with sort of the necessities of politics -- not only how you govern, but also how you get elected.

If you look sanctimonious, if you look hypocritical, if you look like one of these TV preachers who's out there talking all the time about religion, then he knows that works to the detriment on the political side. There's nothing wrong with that. Frankly, it is a pragmatic understanding of politics. Americans want their president or their governor to be religious. They want them to be ethical. They want them to stand for high moral standards. But they don't necessarily want them to be some firebrand who creates a theocracy.

Bush, both as a candidate, I think, and certainly as a governor and a president, has tried to balance that, understanding that our government is a secular government. The role of religion, whether it's faith-based organizations who get involved with the government on welfare or prison ministries or helping folks in need -- this partnership can be a partnership without violating the church/state separation.

But the role of religion in transforming the lives of people -- Bush would talk to me about how his life was transformed by God, from a guy who was drinking and running around, to a person who looked at life in a whole new way.

So when he sees these religious programs, charitable faith programs, and applies those as a partnership with government, he's not trying to create a theocracy. He's not trying to smear the line between, blur the line between church and state. What he's doing in his heart is saying, "What's the best way to help people who are poor and people who are in need?" In his life, his experience tells him the best way is not simply to hand them money, but the best way is to transform their heart. He believes it, and he believes these programs can do it. …

Let's talk about the couple of times he got in trouble as governor, and then later, and what that was about.

When George Bush first ran for governor of Texas in 1994, he did an interview. In that interview, he really offered up what in many Protestant communities is boilerplate, an absolute fundamental part of Protestant evangelical belief. That is, in order to go to heaven, you have to believe in Jesus Christ. That is your savior. That is the only way to salvation. No other way will get you there. If you go to Christian churches, they say, "Yes, that absolutely is a fundamental belief." He was expressing that.

It caused a firestorm when he said that, because in effect what he was saying was anyone who doesn't believe in Jesus, goes to hell. It was a political uprising in the state of Texas. He survived it, but it became something he tried to back away from.

Part of the way he backed away was to recall basically a discussion between himself and Billy Graham, in which his mother was involved. He asked that question of Billy Graham. "Do you believe that the only way to go to heaven is to believe in Jesus as your savior?" The answer from Billy Graham was yes, that was his belief. That's the fundamental belief.

But then, according to George Bush, Graham offered him an out through his mother. The out was, "That's what we believe. That's the heart of our faith. But others may get to heaven in other ways, although we don't believe that. The ultimate decision is God's decision, and we should not judge." It was a calculated way where Bush could, on the one hand, advance the fundamental thought, which is exclusivity of one particular approach to salvation, and on the other hand, use Billy Graham, the vaunted Billy Graham, to say, "But ultimately these decisions are God's decisions. Who are we to say what's going to happen to the Catholics and the Jews and the Muslims? God will make that decision."

Some years after George Bush served as governor, we were in Washington, D.C. The whole uproar over his comments of years earlier, where he had said that the only way to heaven is through Jesus -- he was talking to a group of us about going to Israel. It was a trip that he and a few other governors were going to make to Israel. On the way out of this room, he kidded a friend of mine, a Jewish reporter -- it was a private conversation -- by saying … "When I get there to Israel, I'm going to tell them, tell the Jews, they're all going to hell."

What he was trying to do was reinforce the idea that back years ago he had gotten in trouble, and he knew he had gotten in trouble, and he was making what was really a clunky, clunky joke.

But one thing I think the episode showed was, in an interesting way, he was still growing spiritually, that he still was a fundamental Christian who could joke about these things, perhaps among fundamental Christians. But when it got to more tolerant or perhaps less religious reporter types, then that kind of joke didn't sound very funny.

His worldview is a Christian worldview. So after 9/11, when he used the word "crusade," that "We're going to launch a crusade," he never in a million years understood fundamentally, as other scholars and other people who had a larger sense of world affairs did, that that was a deeply offensive word with 500, 600 years of extraordinary history behind for Muslims.

In a weird way, he had to be instantly educated on the significance of using words like "crusade" or, just as he was in this case, when he had to be educated in effect that you can't even joke if you're the president of the United States or if you're a public leader like a governor, speaking from a Christian conservative tradition about how others might or might not go to heaven. It gets you in trouble. …

Let's talk about Bob Jones, the university.

… Going into Bob Jones University, when we arrived in South Carolina for the primary in 2000, I don't think anybody among the journalists who I was with -- and certainly nobody on the Bush staff, I know -- thought that it was going to be a real problem, a big story.

There were a few of us who knew a bit about Bob Jones and its policies about [inter]racial dating. In fact, I mentioned that, and I think a couple of other people did to Bush operatives at the time. But they pretty much dismissed it. They thought that so many political people, including the current governor, the senator and other political types over the years had always made this pilgrimage to Bob Jones University; they were Republicans, some Democrats. Then this candidate would be safe to do the same thing. …

It became pretty clear in the days that followed that he had made a big, big mistake; that in places and elsewhere in America, that this looked like a fundamentalist Christian, almost cult school with backward views that he had visited.

I have to tell you though, in South Carolina, it was absolutely embraced by those Republicans who went out in the primary. Bush would have won that primary anyway, but when he appeared at Bob Jones, it absolutely cinched his prospects of winning. It hurt him later, but absolutely helped him then.

Very interesting, right? It's interesting to be inside all of this as it's happening, and looking back at how affected him at that time.

Yes, well, let me just say one other thing about that. I talked to some Bush people after his appearance at Bob Jones, and after the appearance, but before he went to a news conference, where we all quizzed him on his appearance at the university. He was given basically a 10-minute memo delivered by one of his staffers about what to expect in South Carolina, about what was upcoming and so forth in the campaign.

At no point then or before had anyone told him about the racial policy or the potential backlash that might happen because of his appearance at Bob Jones. Among these Republicans who were working in South Carolina on behalf of Bush and Bush's staff coming out of Austin, Texas, nobody thought this was going to be a problem. So when he appeared at that news conference and began to be peppered with questions about why he went to this school, he I think was as surprised about this as anyone.

But it was sort of like, "Oh, my God, what have I gotten myself into?"

Yes. But he won South Carolina. And that's what it's all about.

I came to Midland because I thought in Midland, I could understand about Bush's faith. What can you tell me about Midland? Do you think that's a true assumption in your conversations with him?

The thing to understand about Midland is that it's politically and socially conservative. … It's flat. There's nothing to do here but to make money, if you're in the oil business, or to work for companies that make money because of the oil business, and to go to church.

This is not a pretty place in any classic sense. But it's an historic place, because in the rise of Texas, ranching and oil were so important in developing the myth of the entire state. Midland is really the heart of the [oil] basin, really the heart of this whole oil machismo experience and conservative experience.

Midland is probably the most conservative area of Texas, most conservative county, I think, in the state, and it's here where the Bushes live. It's where so many business conservatives of the old school [live]. These are considered in larger cities the country club conservatives, and who increasingly have become part, really an important part socially, of the evangelical movement. Midland is a place where churches are really important … because this is where the foundation of the values in the families is inculcated.

For George Bush, this became really the incubator, the place where he became a Christian again, the born-again experience. … He became actively involved in Bible study, which was important, with a group of men and others. It was a place where the girls went, the two daughters. It was important that they would go to church.

He actively became part of a building program here and later in Austin, Texas, which is fundamentally very much a part of Protestant churches. You have to be part of a building program to build the church. The church is to build itself and to proselytize others and to grow. It's the grand commission by Christ, and here, where money and faith is important, George Bush really manifested both. …

[Can you talk about Bush's role in his father's re-election campaign?]

… In 1988, George Bush went effectively to help his dad in his presidential campaign. The father and son have a very close relationship, always have, and still do. He was seen in part as the enforcer of the campaign, the protector of the father. But he was also seen as the liaison in a way the father never could be with the Christian conservative community, with a growing group of evangelicals.

You have to understand that, since the rise of Pat Robertson, who was involved in the presidential race, Christian conservatives have become involved in politics at a degree that was greater than it ever happened in America. Bush understood, and reached out to some key evangelical ministers, and became the person who would meet with these ministers, reassuring them about the values of his father in a way his father, an Episcopalian, could not do.

George Bush could speak their language. He talked the way they talked. He thought the way they thought. He was a person who understood the Bible really, in a fundamental way, as a student of the Bible who was fundamentally Protestant, who was Christian, who is religiously conservative and is committed to the family values that these religious conservatives and pastors saw was important, and which they believed. …

Because the son understood the heart of the father, he made enormous inroads. In fact, if it wasn't for the son, George Bush the father wouldn't have received as much support as he did in the evangelical community. Frankly, it was a very important part of the Republican base, and it allowed him to win in 1988.

Doug Wead said to me … that George Bush learned a lot in the 1988 campaign with his dad that he was able to translate into his campaign for governor. He actually was able to use a lot of the stuff he learned with Wead and those folks, and apply it in Texas.

George Bush had been looking to run for governor of Texas since his father ran for president in 1988. When his father was elected, he knew and understood implicitly that he could not run in 1990. But the lessons that he had learned, including the lessons of the importance of social conservatives, religious conservatives, evangelicals, was a lesson that he carried with him when he finally decided to run for governor in 1994.

I saw George Bush in church settings, and he was a master. He spoke the language. He absolutely understood who members of the community were. Pastors embraced him.

You know, you have a community in a Christian church. You have a politician coming in, and it's a sophisticated audience. If you go to a Baptist church in Brownwood, Texas, or you go to a four-square, non-denominational church somewhere in East Texas -- which is the heart, really, of the state's Bible Belt -- and you're a phony, they pick it up right away. Bush was no phony. Bush understood that these people were important.

Evangelical conservatives had family values, which were consistent with his values. Evangelicals understood politically and supported the ideas in terms of abortion. They politically understood and embraced the ideas that extended from that -- taxes, ideas about crime and punishment. They were consistent with his political points of view. And they voted.

So George Bush basically went out of his way during the campaign in 1994, understanding that his opponent, Ann Richards, was not going to reach this community, would not attract this community -- many of whom actually are Democrats. But they're social and conservative Democrats.

He reached out to them, especially in East Texas. He was marvelously successful in talking their language, in reinforcing their values, and most importantly, based on what he had learned with the father, appealing specifically to the kinds of people who were important in the evangelical community, who not only would vote for him, but would tell the neighbors to vote for him; not only would organize phone banks for him, but would call prayer lines and talk about George Bush as a campaigner.

George Bush ended up on Christian radio in Texas. He talked at many churches in Texas. He was a person who clearly was embraced by social and religious conservatives and evangelicals all across the state. …

Would you say that Bush and Rove were the first ones to really harness [the evangelical vote], first with Bush senior, and then also as president?

… I don't think any political president ever in the history of this country was able to harness and assemble the kind of organized and consistent evangelical religious support from the political side as George Bush. It's a group that, in years past, has been divergent in many ways, many times voting for Democrats.

This group is as solid for this president as he approaches re-election as it was for him as he approached election the first time around. That's not easy for anyone to do, if you operate in the White House. But this president has been able to keep that force, and frankly, if he's re-elected, it's in large part because he reflects the support and has gathered this support consistently throughout his presidency.

What do you think is at the heart of this is? [Is it] because he actually is a true believer?

One of the reasons that George Bush has the support of the evangelical community is because he's a true believer. He truly believes this stuff. He is one of them, and they see it.

So while some evangelicals and social conservatives would like George Bush to have a firm and stronger position on abortion, you'll notice he'll dance around the abortion issue. When you ask him, "Is it time to have a constitutional amendment banning abortion?" he'll essentially say, "I don't think the nation is ready for that yet. I would support that idea, but I don't really think it's ready."

When you ask him, "Will you make abortion a litmus test in the selection of Supreme Court justices?" he'll say, "No." He'll say that, "I want people and judges who believe in the sanctity of life as a general issue. But the most important thing is that they construe the Constitution strictly, and not in some liberal way."

That's code to the evangelicals, who Rove and others in the Bush camp have reinforced, it's OK. This guy's position on abortion, his outward expression, his refusal to say, "I'm going to make a litmus test of abortion" is not enough to knock him out of the box. "He's one of our guys. Don't worry about it, he's with us. Even if he doesn't articulate the full heart position of the church, we, inside, we know that he'll do what's right when it's time to do what's right." …

When you look at Bush in the White House, he surrounded himself, you look at his staff … he has really stacked the administration with conservative Christians. Can you talk about that?

Even more than he did as governor, the president has surrounded himself inside the White House with conservative Christians. Whether he picks these people because they're conservative Christians, or whether he picks them because they are exactly the right kind of people on policy issues and they happen to reflect the Christian conservatism, [I] don't know.

You look at the people he's surrounded himself in the White House. Karen Hughes is very, very active in her church, and although she's moved to Texas, she still is an active advisor to the president. Mike Gerson, the speechwriter, really came to this White House in part because the president found his Christian conservative evangelical heart important. Gerson understands the community, and it's part of Gerson's wordsmith, when he puts these phrases like "wonder-working power" in the speeches that reflect and resonate so deeply with this evangelical community.

You look at Don Evans, the old friend from Midland. The guy he was in Bible study with, an evangelical Christian. You look at Condi Rice, you look at a number of people in that White House. A White House where Bible study was understood. Bible study was very, very active, and very much a part of the lives of many of the people in this community.

You see a group of Christians who take their faith very, very seriously, and a group of Christians who have, from the outside at least, a very narrow evangelical point of view that is a fundamentalist [view]: Christ is the only way to heaven, the Bible is the inerrant word of God, and the world is created in two parts by God, with evil and good in an eternal battle.

These are people in the White House who fundamentally understand as matter of faith -- and the president does too -- that they're part of a divine drama. They take this seriously, and the drama is between good and evil. Although their time may be a brief time -- that there will be presidents after them, and that there were presidents and leaders before them -- this is their moment. They're part, not simply of administering and administration as part of a history or America, they're part of a divine drama played up across the world, in which good is fighting evil and they clearly believe themselves to be on the side of good. It's true. And maybe they are. …

Can you give me a specific example of how you think his evangelical Christianity is leading his policy?

You see again and again in George Bush's administration areas where his evangelical beliefs, his sense of who he is and the place of religion in his personal life, reflects itself in policy.

You see it in faith-based organizations. When he was here in Texas as governor, he did a great deal to try to cut some of the paperwork, and to provide federal money and state money for various faith-based programs, in which church groups, charities and non-profits could work instead of bureaucracies to help with welfare reform, to help with child care for welfare mothers when they work, as part of prison ministries.

It began a controversy of sort while he was governor. This whole partnership, as he would describe it -- or as his critics said, this blurring the line between church and state, using the state to carry out public policy in a religious way with religious groups -- he was very successful all along the way was governor. You see that reflected now in his faith-based initiatives, where the country is trying to use these faith-based programs in ways to help in welfare, in prison ministries, in other ways.

Another area that you see this -- although it's not quite so obvious -- is in the area of education. When he was governor, he talked to a number of people about the idea of applying more rigorous standards in schools. Now, most Americans would think that this is simply good education policy. As president, he and Ted Kennedy famously were partners in the Leave No Child Behind approach to, among other things, apply more rigorous standards and testing to children in schools.

But as a larger part of that program -- which much of it hasn't been done, but is a goal of this president in the future -- is this business of empowering home schooling, empowering after-school programs, having the creation of charter schools and various variations on public education in which private religious groups can be reimbursed in some way or benefited in some way to provide education.

He would like to see private schools supported by churches flourish in this country. I've talked to him about this, and he says, "Look. Never will these private groups ever supplant the government. The bureaucracy of the government will always be part of education and welfare, and so forth. But there is a bigger place in education and welfare in helping people to use these private religious groups, who not only can teach or consist or can care for children for a welfare mother, but also can instill the values that change a person's heart, and make you" -- in Bush's point of view, and in the point of view of so many Christian evangelicals - "a truly good person when you grow up and you're out there in the world." …

We're a secular nation. So it is kosher that our president is deciding issues like this through religion?

If you asked George Bush, "Are your public policies based on your religious beliefs? Does God dictate that a particular public policy be a public policy in a secular nation?" he'll be careful. He'll say, "This is not what God dictates. But my religious faith informs my attitudes about public policy."

It's a clear, but somewhat subtle distinction. On the one hand, he's the president of a secular and pluralistic nation. So he has to make decisions and advocate policies, whether it's about gay marriage or whether it's about taxes, or whether it's about highway funding, that reflect the best interest that he has and who he is in his heart.

But as an evangelical Christian, he has a role as part of the divine drama that's underway, that he reflects those ultimate values, those intrinsic values of evangelical Christianity. So if you talk to George Bush and you say, "Do you make decisions based on what God tells you?" he'll say no. But if you ask him, "Do you make decisions based on a fundamental faith that reflects your attitude about Christianity and the attitudes and points of view of Christianity?" he'll say, "Yes. I reflect the fundamental values and ethics of a Christian faith."

Isn't the outcome of those questions exactly the same thing?

Yes, the outcome is exactly the same. When President Bush says that, "I don't make public policy based on what God tells me in my ear," but on the other hand, says, "I make public policy that reflects my Christian attitude and tradition," he's, in effect, saying and doing exactly the same thing. The resulting policies are the same. They reflect the Christian worldview, an evangelical ethic. But politically, it's much more successful in his approach.

The truth is, I think Americans like the idea that their president is ethical, and that their president is fundamentally religious. But I think an awful lot of Americans would be very uncomfortable if their president were to say to them, "Not only am I acting as it reflects my Christian values, but I'm acting exactly as God told me in my ear." The result may be the same. But to Christians and to non-Christians alike who are among voters, that's a very different approach and a very different message. …

Let me say something. There was a moment when George Bush was governor where I think he reached what I saw, personally, his absolute low point in the conflict within himself between the necessity of public policy and the needs and ethics of his Christian faith. That was the execution of Carla Fay Tucker. Carla Fay Tucker was an axe murderer, an awful person who had killed some people, and who was on death row, but who had turned her life around by all examples.

In the end, before her execution, the pope, Pat Robertson and others in evangelical community, seeing this star on death row who was witnessing for Jesus, witnessing for faith in a way that only this extraordinarily once evil and now ultimately good person could do -- the evangelical community hit this governor hard. They urged him to spare her the death penalty. As governor, he wrestled with this. I know this, because I've talked to him since then. He wrestled a lot with this. On the one hand, his public policy side said, "She's a murderer and she must pay the penalty that murderers pay, even if some people say she's turned herself around while in prison."

But the evangelical side, both politically and in his own heart, said, "If there ever was an example of someone who has been saved by grace by this message of Christian faith, this is the shining example, an extraordinary woman."

On the night that he refused to delay her execution, I was at the Capitol with him. He was absolutely ashen. He was emotionally spent. I have never seen him so emotionally spent as I did in the hour before she was to die. When he came out in public, he said that he would not stop the execution or delay her death; that although he understood that what she had done in her life and it was a good thing, that there were victims of this crime; that he prayed, not only for her, but for the victims, the family of these victims; and that while God has justice and that he hoped that Carla Fay, if she had truly turned herself around, would indeed become a shining example [in] heaven, that as governor, his role was to carry out public policy, and it was to allow her to die. And he did it. …

Could you [compare Clinton and Bush], and how they expressed their religion?

I think Clinton really came out of a South that is very comfortable with evangelical Christianity and expression of that Christianity. … In an odd way, he was able to talk about Christianity and faith in his own life, quote the Scriptures, show up in church, be there with a Bible, because there was no fear, really, in the larger community, that he, Clinton, wanted to create a theocracy. Democrats don't want to create a theocracy. It seems to be the Republicans who have to be more careful of being charged with bringing too much religion to the advocacy of politics and public policy. …

The moment a conservative Republican comes out of an evangelical tradition, [and] expresses his faith in a public way, you have this fear among some Americans that, "Wait a minute. Is this an effort where you're going to create a kind of place where religion is too much a part of the public policy?" Bush has to worry about that, and has to be temperate in how he reflects his religious attitudes, for fear that some folks in the community, even religious folks, will think he's gone too far. Clinton never had that problem. …

[Can you talk about the impact of Bible study on Bush?]

One of the things that was important to George Bush was Bible study. Going to church is fine. Going to church on Sunday night with the family for an event is good. But Bible study is the kind of glue that really puts things together. Bible study is a small group of people who systematically go through passages of the Bible, study those, deal with those, and apply those in their everyday lives.

Bush became actively a part of Bible study. He was brought in by Don Evans, his good friend here in Midland, Texas. For him, it was important, because it really introduced him to a systematic study of the Bible and understanding, not simply of a few words and phrases here and there, but the fundamental concepts of religion. …

It helps you make sense of the world and your place in the world. It became for him really important, because before this, he had a problem with alcohol. He had been a guy who was drinking too much. He was running around, and was smoking and did not have the kind of stable life that even his wife said he needed. After he found God in his life, and after he began going to church, it was Bible study that really fundamentally nurtured this belief system and helped him grow in an understanding of what evangelical Christianity was in his life. So it was enormously important.

That's one reason why you see Bible study at The White House, where so many people, like the president, believe that Bible study is fundamentally a part of their continuing what they'll call their walk with God. Not simply that you're born again, but that you continue, refresh and grow in this attitude, in this aspect, in this understanding that Christian faith informs, not only who you are, but how you operate in the world. …

Let's talk about Bush's 1978 campaign [for Congress]. …

When George Bush ran for Congress in 1978, his first election effort and his first big loss, he ran against a very smart guy, Kent Hance, who sized Bush up very quickly and framed him early in the debate as a Yankee kid from a rich family who did not belong in this community. …

Hance did something else that really was genius. At one point during the campaign, he talked not only about how Bush was from somewhere else with these Eastern values, not the fundamental values that we have in West Texas, but a person who, in one case, was sponsoring a beer party at Texas Tech University. This was a horrible scandal. In fact, some of the Bush people had [held] at Texas Tech University … a beer party there with beer in a campaign event.

Hance played that up among the temperance crowd, the conservative folks, the family-values voters of that district, suggesting really that Bush was not just a Yankee, not just a graduate of Harvard University, but one of those who would drink. One of those who don't share our values about temperance, about conservative values, about family, about religion

In that campaign, he framed Bush exactly in a way that would assure his defeat, and it did. Bush learned something in the 1978 campaign, and that was he would never again run as an outsider, as a person from some other place. He was going to be from Texas. He had never been born in Texas. He was born in New Haven, Connecticut. But he was raised in Texas. So in the governor's race, he talked a lot about Texas. He talked about his bass boat in East Texas on Lake Austin. He talked about the church a little bit that he went to, though he wasn't that open about his religion at that point. He talked about his daughters. He talked about his family. He talked in a Texas accent with Texas boots on. He reinforced the idea that he was the candidate of family values and that his opponent, which in this case was Ann Richards, a Democrat, liberal, was not.

It was a marvelous transformation from the outsider rich wastrel, who would drink and possibly ruin the effects of these young Texas Tech kids, to the insider Texan, a valued native of the state even though he hadn't really been born here -- the person who understood the values, the religious ethic, the social ethic, the cultural ethic. Most importantly, the conservative sense of family that was so missing in his first campaign was very much in evidence in the second campaign. He used it. He was transformed. Texans loved it, and they elected him. He was a real Texan. …

What I'd like to do is talk about him as governor, just a bit. What I'm trying to do is understand what he did as a governor that he's now doing as president. …

… When George Bush was governor, he served notice fairly early that he was open to the idea that government not only couldn't solve every problem, but that government shouldn't be involved in as big a way in some programs -- to serve the needy, the folks on welfare, other individuals, and that people involved in churches and faith-based organizations would be more effective.

It's a fundamental understanding that he had that in order to make people's lives better, to teach them to work, to teach them to have their children taken care of, to move them from welfare to jobs, that you don't just institutionally give them jobs [through] a bureaucracy but you fundamentally change their heart.

To do that, Bush was receptive to the idea that the people that ought to do it would be the people whose hearts had been changed, and who, through religion, could change the hearts first of those people who were having a tough time. Ultimately, those people being transformed would find work, would be more receptive and productive. So he liked the idea of embracing faith-based organizations.

The first opportunity came with Teen Challenge. Teen Challenge was a group that worked with teens. But what happened was, the state and the bureaucracy of the state was threatening to shut it down, the Alcohol and Drug Division, effectively, of the state, saying, "You are trying to deal with teens with alcohol problems and drug problems and other problems. But the people who you are using to teach those programs and to educate the kids and to bring the kids along and to change their lifestyles haven't gone through the bureaucratic training; haven't gone through the X number of hours that you need to do to become a bureaucratic trainer."

Bush understood right away that, I think, that some people who used to be alcoholics, who used to have problems with drugs, who had real problems with their own lives but who were transformed in almost every case by religion, by new faith, who had been transformed in their own life much the way that George Bush had, [were] the perfect kind of teachers. So he basically moved in a way and forced the legislature, and the legislature went along ultimately and signed a bill that opened the doors for programs like Teen Challenge to use faith-based organizations to teach these kids.

He fought all kinds of criticism. He brought the same kind of criticism in Texas that you now see in Washington. "This is a violation of the separation of church and state. These people who aren't licensed appropriately by bureaucrats and the bureaucracy are not qualified, are not capable. They're not appropriate to deal with the teens that have problems or ultimately with young mothers with children who need to find a job, or other welfare recipients who are looking for work or homes or families or any kind of problem."

Bush fought that off. In a conservative place like Texas, where the idea that people who've been involved in religion can be darn good teachers in trying to bring kids around with drugs or welfare mothers to work or families who are down on their luck to more successful and productive life -- in Texas, he found a willing audience, not just among Republicans, but conservative Democrats.

He seems to be having a bigger problem in Washington, D.C., where it's much more pluralistic. But it's the same initiative. It's the same instinct, and it's the same impulse that he had in Texas. The funny thing is, you watch George Bush fight Congress on this issue, and the critics nationally on the issue of the separation of church and state, on the appropriate role of teachers and social programs, whether faith-based organizations ought to have a role.

I watch it from a distance now, because I've seen it all played out before. In Act I, George Bush and the conservative friends of the faith-based organizations won here in Texas. We'll see what happens with Act II. …

Let's take you to 2000 now. You watched him in both campaigns. How did he do in 2000? Did he take what he learned in Texas and apply it to the campaign in 2000?

… In 2000, something interesting happened. George Bush began to talk in the most open way about religion and about the personal faith in a way that he really hadn't done as governor. Now we knew he had a religious conversion, a religious experience. We knew that his politics was really informed by fundamental religious ideas. We knew he was a Christian. But he didn't talk about it as much as he ultimately would do during the 1999 and 2000 campaign.

Early in 1999, I had an interview with him. He was very reluctant to talk about his personal religion, his personal walk of faith. A lot about his church, a lot about his background, and the religious conversion and what it had meant in his own heart. I think, at that point, he still was uncomfortable talking so publicly about it in a political setting.

He was afraid I think that he might be seen as a zealot, and he might turn off certain voters who might see him as an unusual person nationally, although, many people in Texas wouldn't see that as unusual at all. But as the 2000 campaign developed, 1999, when I saw in some interviews early in 2000, I saw him more freely talk about his religious experience, talk about the religious conversion.

He appeared on religious television stations and gave interviews. He began to use the words of faith in the most open way, talking about spirit, talking about grace, talking about goodness, talking about God in a way -- not that he'd been totally alien before, but in the most effusive way, a way that I'd never seen as governor.

I think part of that was George Bush becoming more comfortable in who he truly was, expressing the religious heart that he truly had. I think part of it was in the calculated appeal to Southern and Midwestern religious conservatives who he knew had to be an important part of his base, part of the political base in bigger numbers that even supported his father. He had won in Texas with the religious conservatives, Republicans and Democrats flocking to his side.

He knew, in order to win as president, he would have to appeal to these same bloc of social conservatives, evangelicals, conservative Christians, who had to see in him something of themselves, and with that, pick up votes that he knew he was going to need [in] what was ultimately an extraordinarily close race. …

Tell me about his actions [as president] that would please the evangelical community. …

Throughout the first administration, George Bush, from time to time, would do something to reinforce and remind evangelicals who've been part of his political base [that] he's their guy. He would re-institute the National Day of Prayer. He would re-institute the gag order about abortion. He very quickly established the office of faith-based Initiatives.

But then there'll be periods where he wouldn't do much. I've talked to some religious pastors in the South who say, "You know, I'm not sure. Is he like the father -- lukewarm about these issues? Or is he truly our guy?"

Bush has been very good periodically to remind social conservative and evangelicals that he is a person who shares their values and will, from time to time with the stem cell research issue, and more recently in the campaign, with the signing of the partial birth abortion ban bill, and most recently talked about the idea that he would support a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, if necessary.

These are messages that absolutely have invigorated, reinvigorated social conservatives across many places of the South that I visited. Pastors, members of the Christian Coalition and others who've heard this president talk and act on these issues are reminded, "This is the reason we elected him in the first place." It's the purpose that he's doing it.

He basically is sending the message to this important voter bloc. "I'm not only with you, I'm with you totally on the key issues that you care about. Re-elect me, there's more to come."

Ralph Reed was sort of brought into the fold a couple of years ago, right? And now is playing a very important role. He was one of the founders of the Christian Coalition. He is regularly ultra-conservative. How did this happen?

… In order to be re-elected, George Bush has to fundamentally do two things. First, you invigorate your base of supports, the guys who like you, and you get them to the polls. Then, toward the end, you attempt to reach to the swing voters, those people who are more moderate politically, and attempt to pick off as many of those as you can, build ultimately a voting bloc that will get you elected -- in this case, re-elected -- president.

Ralph Reed is part of an extraordinary, though largely under-radar effort by the Bush campaign to invigorate, identify, and recruit millions of religious evangelicals all over the country. These are the people who Ralph Reed, when he was with the Christian Coalition, knew very well. These are the kinds of people who he knows how to push their button on the issues that count, on the friends that they know, on the networks and relationships and community groups that they're a part of.

The key vote is to not emphasize that for the Bush campaign. Inside the Bush campaign, they talk about broadcasting and narrowcasting. Narrowcasting is a process that will be underway in this campaign, in which the Bush campaign will attempt to push messages directly to specific voter groups. In this case, the campaign, through direct mail, person-to-person contact, phone messages through pastors, and social work in various communities, will attempt to reinforce the idea that Bush is a man of faith, that Bush believes in what they believe in, that Bush is strongly against gay marriage, that Bush absolutely opposes abortion, that Bush is a man of prayer.

They will reinforce, tell, and re-tell the story of Bush is a man who's had a religious conversion in his life, has taken Jesus into his heart, and that informs everything he does. But they'll do it by and large by going directly to these communities, and hopefully bypassing the largely secular community that might be offended, might be alarmed by this kind of intense appeal.

It's really proselytizing. Christians are called upon to proselytize, to tell the world and to share the good news about who they are and what they believe, and to convert those who don't believe.

In an odd way, what the Bush campaign is involved in is a political proselytizing effort, where they go out and express to those voters who need to hear the good news of the Bush campaign -- who he is and what he stands for, and recruit them into this effort. This is not simply about attracting a voter who might support you on a tax issue.

This is about bringing in a community, people who share the faith of a heart. This is about talking about something bigger and larger and more fundamental. It's not a cult that we're talking about here. But it's an enormous community that shares, not just a few political ideas, but something more fundamental. …

… Would you say that President Bush is in bed with the religious right?

As governor, as a candidate for president, and as president, George Bush has been very shrewd, really, in the way that he has wooed the religious right and has really served their purposes in many policy decisions in his administration. He's very much, if not in bed with the religious right, he certainly much expresses and has been embraced by pastors I've talked to all across the South and in parts of the Midwest as someone who is simpatico with the religious right. …

When George Bush initially ran, and as he's running again, he's run as a compassionate conservative. It's a great way of knocking off the rough edges. When you say you're a compassionate conservative, the people who are conservative say, "Ah. I like that. Because he's conservative." The people who are more moderate, say, "He's compassionate. I like that. That means he's not really conservative in a way that would be uncomfortable for me." It was a great campaign effort. …

[A] memo that he sent out when he was governor was titled, "A Charge to Keep." If you can explain to me what that memo said and sort of how important it was, that would be really great.

Very early in his administration, George Bush sent out a memo. That memo was entitled, "A Charge to Keep," and it's instructive, because that's really a religious idea. It was based on a Wesley hymn. The whole idea was that a charge to keep was a charge by these Methodist circuit riders who … would go to one church and preach and then go to another community and preach, and another community and preach. In that way, the charge to keep was a charge to spread the Gospel as broadly as possible.

It's important to realize that George Bush had a painting in his office, in the governor's office. It was a painting called "A Charge to Keep," in which one of these Wesley circuit riders, a Methodist circuit rider preacher on horseback, was fighting his way through some part of Texas, our far-flung state, going from chapel to chapel, congregation to congregation, community to community, to spread the word. That was the message that George Bush, in effect, was saying in that memo, that "We are now part of something bigger than ourselves. We are going to spread the word about what it is we believe in government."

It really set a religious tone, a tone not only about taxes and government, but about faith and principle and values, very early on; that this was an administration that was going to express values, fundamental values, Christian values, Methodist-Protestant values. He expressed that very early.

That painting, the painting that he had in his governor's office, is now in the White House. It's basically the only painting he took with him to the White House. I think expresses his attitude about the importance of spreading the word of that which you believe as far as you can, to a new community of believers, whether those believers are in Texas, those believers are in New York, whether those believers are in Iraq.

It's all the same message, from a Christian point of view. And this is a president and a community that wants to spread it around the world.

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posted april 29, 2004

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