Bush was very clear that there's right and wrong. What happened was done by "evildoers." He was making a statement to Americans that he was willing to be unequivocal in naming evil, and in not taking a kind of moral relativistic approach.
His use of terms like "evildoers" was important in conveying a sense of strength and certainty, and making Americans feel like he was clear. … You have to feel certain that what you're doing is right, and that there's a moral cause to it, and so he was very unambiguous about it. He was very clear in using very moralistic language that we are fighting evildoers.
I think that comes from his religious background, where obviously people who are very fluent with the Bible and are very religious, are comfortable using that kind of moral language. And I think it was also politically astute. It was a way of rallying Americans around a cause.
Now it's important to look at Bush's rhetoric in terms of domestic impact and foreign impact. His use of moralistic and religious rhetoric played extremely well domestically and not so well overseas. And so it created problems, where people thought we were on a crusade, or that it was a religious war from our end, or that maybe President Bush was so certain of what he was doing that he was not adequately assessing the practicalities of the war. But domestically it was both an effective expression of his personal faith and an effective political strategy.
Let's talk about the word "crusade," since you brought it up. He did use that word in his speech after 9/11. It threw shockwaves throughout the Muslim world. Tell me what the word "crusade" means and why that would be the case. Was it a mistake that he used that word?
When President Bush used the word "crusade" it had a big impact in the Muslim world, or at least it was well noted because the Crusades were among the lowest moments in world history of Christian persecution of Muslims.
So a lot of people thought, "Well surely this is an intentional signal that President Bush is sending that he views this as a religious campaign against Islam, perhaps for Christianity." …
I think it was just a mistake. It was a mess-up. I don't think they sat there thinking, "Oh, let's use the word 'crusade' because that will send signals to the Muslim world that we're serious about beating them back." I think it was just careless. And they were surprised to see that the impact of their words, and that when you're using a term that's religiously loaded, you have to be extremely careful.
Mike Gerson is [the president's] speechwriter. He uses evangelical phrases in some of his speeches. The one that I'm thinking about is "wonder-working power." He laces his speeches with religious rhetoric or religious phrases. Can you talk about that a bit, and how important it is that the person who's writing his speeches happens to be evangelical?
Mike is very good at using religious language that evokes certain messages to certain constituencies without freaking out everyone else. If you look at Bush's religious rhetoric, a lot of it has to do with a very broad general description of God as a supporting figure, as a figure of strength, as a figure who's watching over history.
None of that is something that's going to scare people. And yet this certain language that turns on light bulbs over the heads of certain voters.
The use of the phrase, "wonder-working power" -- there was much made of the fact that that was a clever way of signaling, "I'm one of you guys" to evangelicals at the same time it sounded neutral to the rest of the population. I've heard that some evangelicals were actually upset by that, because he took a sacred hymn and used it for secular purposes. So I don't know whether that worked the way it was supposed to work or not. And I think it probably points out that using religious rhetoric is a very dicey thing. It can often cut in ways that you're not expecting.
But in general we think of Bush as being a very religious man, and religion as playing an important role in his administration. All of that's true. But if you actually look at the religious rhetoric that he's used, it's very mild and general, and inoffensive. It's really no more out there than what President Clinton did, or Jimmy Carter, or just about any other modern president.
We look at it differently because of who's saying it, and because of his personal faith and the importance to him, and because of his political constituencies. So we're coming to this with a whole different set of expectations. And that, I think, is making us look at his religious rhetoric in a very different way than if Clinton had said exactly the same thing.
Let's take Jimmy Carter. Jimmy Carter was evangelical. He was born again. He said those things very openly. He used a lot of religious language in his speeches, as well. But there wasn't the same sort of concern. … [Why?]
When people who don't like Bush look at Bush's religious rhetoric or when people who don't like Bush listen to his religious rhetoric, they're not just hearing the words, they're seeing a whole landscape of other conservative evangelicals -- of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Bible thumpers, discrimination against gays, a whole set of issues which may or may not be fair, but which comprise the world of the religious right, which people ascribe to Bush. At least, you know, among people who are critical of Bush.
So people view Bush's religiosity not just as a spiritual matter, but as a political matter. They view it not just as a way of understanding what helps him get through the day, but as a way of understanding who his political supporters are, who he owes favors to, what he's going to do, who he's going to attack, who he's going to support, where is the money going to go through. It's a whole package.
So it's very hard to disconnect Bush's personal spirituality from all the political pros and cons that come with it.
Why was it different with Jimmy Carter?
It was different with Jimmy Carter because he was a Democrat. And so people looked at his born-again spirituality, and actually, they did think it was kind of weird.
When Jimmy Carter first started to talk about [his spirituality], a lot of reporters were like going to dictionaries and looking up "born again" and trying to figure out what is he talking about, because it was a new concept in American political life. Not that it was new in spiritual life. But we hadn't had a president who talked that way before.
So people were a little bit weirded out by Jimmy Carter saying he was born again. But it didn't have a negative political impact because he was a Democrat. And so people didn't think that him being born again meant that, therefore also, he would be discriminatory against gays, or that he would be anti-civil rights. …
You've interviewed the president and he's talked to you about his religious benefits. Tell me a little bit about what the president's told you about what he believes.
The most interesting thing to me about Bush's spirituality during my interview with him was that he seems to be both a devout Christian and a genuine religious pluralist. He was one of the first candidates to routinely, in campaign speeches, refer to the importance of synagogues, churches and mosques. That was new.
When I would talk to him about the faith-based initiative, I remember thinking, "Oh well, I'm going to trap him on this." And I'd say, "Okay, but what if you give faith-based money and there's this great Muslim program that reduces prison recidivism, but they do it by teaching the Quran. Are you really going to want to use federal money to teach the Quran?" He said, "Absolutely. If it helps reduce crime, and it's a good program, absolutely."
And when I asked, "Do you think one religion is more true than another?" He artfully avoided that. He said, "That's not for me to know." I thought he was really brilliant at both talking about the importance of religion and faith in his life in a way that was inoffensive to everyone else who didn't have that experience. …
[How do evangelicals relate to President Bush?]
Evangelicals view Bush as one of them, on a very personal level. They just feel like he understands their personal experience. He's had it. He's been on the same journey that they have. And there's a tremendous bond between evangelical voters, many of them, and Bush, for that reason.
It's interesting to me that, in fact, the bond seems to be so important on a personal level, that the numerous times when Bush doesn't deliver for them on the political agenda [don't] seem to matter.
When you think about how little George Bush does to campaign against abortion, for example -- here you have an evangelical president, you have a Republican House, a Republican Senate, a conservative Supreme Court. If there was ever a moment in the last 30 years for a national campaign to outlaw abortion, this is it.
And he hasn't gone close to that. He's supported the ban on partial birth abortion, but that's a really minor issue. Symbolically it's important. But it just doesn't affect a lot of people.
In some ways, this should have been the big moment for the conservative movement to campaign against abortion. Bush hasn't done it. And they don't seem to mind. The evangelicals don't seem to mind. They like what he's doing on other things. They have a strong personal connection with him as a personal spiritual matter.
So it seems to be really an amazing political formula, because he, by talking about his personal spirituality, is able to make a connection with evangelical voters that's so strong that, even when he's not fighting for them politically, they tolerate it.
What is he doing for them? He must be doing something enough for them to make them happy. Because you had Jimmy Carter, [who] spoke through his personal and spiritual belief, but he was not an ally in the White House. So he must be doing something for them.
Part of what Bush does for evangelical voters is symbolic. He talks about the decline of morality. He talks about the sacredness of life. And you know, we can sort of say, "Well, that's just symbolism. Why doesn't he do [something] more concrete?" But symbolism is really important. And they view having someone in the White House who is willing to say the right things in the culture wars as being really important.
The other thing that's important to remember about evangelicals is in a lot of ways, they're just regular voters. You know, their religion is important to them, but it's not the only thing they care about in political terms. Probably the single most important thing that Bush has done to appeal to evangelical voters is the war in Iraq.
So it has nothing to do with prayer in school, or abortion, or stem cell [research], or something like that. It's the sense that President Bush is fighting a war for a good cause against bad people. …
Can you talk to me about the faith-based initiative and founding an office inside the White House and what kind of significance that had?
During the campaign, other than tax cuts, faith-based initiative was his domestic policy, one of the most important things that he talked about. Basically, he believes that government funding for social programs has discriminated against faith-based programs, and that the government should subsidize programs that have a religious element to them if they work to reduce prison recidivism, or crime, or addiction.
Once he became president, he ran into a lot of obstacles with the faith-based initiative. For one thing, though he was a religious pluralist -- saying that he's perfectly happy for money to go to Muslim groups -- it turns out that a lot of his supporters didn't actually like that idea.
And a number of religious conservatives actually came out in opposition to the faith-based initiative after Bush's election. It turned out to be a very complicated and very controversial set of proposals. So it has not amounted to as much as he proposed during the campaign.
[Did the fact that he set up a faith-based office inside the White House have a symbolic importance?]
It was symbolically important that he set up an office of faith-based initiatives in the White House and they worked to try to change federal regulations, and to write legislation. Where they didn't have a lot of success was in getting legislation through Congress that really put a lot of money toward this. …
So evangelicals claim President Bush as their own. Yet Bush is a member of the United Methodist Church. And it confuses me. I mean is Bush an evangelical or is he a Methodist, or is he both? Can you be both?
You certainly can be evangelical and Methodist. I think a lot of people assume that evangelical means Baptist. But evangelical is a style, and an approach to your personal faith that actually cuts across a lot of different Christian denominations.
In fact, a lot of evangelical churches now are non-denominational. Distinctions like Methodist, or Presbyterian are less important than they used to be. And so you can be evangelical and be a Methodist.
Would you say Bush is an evangelical?
I think if you look at the definition, the characteristics of an evangelical, he pretty much fits it. He talks about having a personal relationship with God. He talks about having had a transformational experience. He talks about the centrality of the Bible in his life.
The only characteristic of evangelicals that he probably wouldn't say he has is the obligation to evangelize. And as he has appropriately said, that's not really the proper role for the president of the United States. But in three out of four of the characteristics that you often see of evangelicals, he fits the bill.
Why doesn't he call himself an evangelical or a born again? I think for political reasons, probably. That he knows that the word "evangelical," in some sectors, is a scary word. And that the word "born again," in some sectors, is a scary word.
So he talks about the importance of God, which is actually kind of a popular concept, without talking about being evangelical or a born again, or part of the religious right, or anything like that, that carries baggage.
[What were Americans' reactions to Bush's use of religious rhetoric in his speeches?]
A lot of reporters, when Bush started using all this religious rhetoric, thought, "Whoa, he's really going to alienate people with that. He's gone way too far."
Well actually, there've been studies that have shown that most people think that Bush's use of religious rhetoric is fine, that he doesn't use too much. In fact, [there are] more people who say that he doesn't use enough religious rhetoric than who say he uses too much.
Even the majority of Democrats say that he doesn't use too much religious rhetoric. So in political terms anyway, he seems to have found the right balance of how to use religious rhetoric in a way that conveys strength and compassion and moral certainty without going too far and scaring people.
Were you surprised when you saw those survey results? Are reporters just making a lot of bunk out of this whole thing? Is this just what Americans want? Do they want their president to be religious? They want him or her to use very strong religious language?
I think Americans do want their president to be someone of faith. Partially I think it's because they know how hard a job it is, and they want their president to have inner resources. They want the president to be talking to God instead of the paintings on the wall when there's a really stressful, horrible moment.
I think they think it gives you strength and that he can identify with people like them. So by and large, I think people view piety as a positive.
After he decided that he was going to run for president, he had a private meeting with a number of religious leaders in Texas, in which he told them, "You know, I really believe God has chosen me to run for president. If I don't win, it's not a big deal to me. But, you know, I have been chosen to run." Did you hear any language like that yourself? Did he ever talk about a sort of divine plan, or God wanting him to do this?
Bush has never said in a public speech that he was chosen by God. He said that the United States has a God-given destiny. But he's never said in a public speech that he was chosen by God.
All the accounts of Bush saying that, "I was personally put here by God at this moment," have been secondhand accounts of him talking to private groups. Which may mean that he thinks it's true, but realizes it would sound bad if he said it publicly.
That might be something that would cross a line. That might make people think that he has a messianic complex or thinks that his policies are divinely ordained. That, I think, would scare people.
He has spoken about America being sort of chosen at this time in a divine sense to lead the world in morality and the war on terror and the war on Iraq. What would you say about that? When you heard those words and you heard these things, were you concerned?
There was a phrase in one of the speeches that said, "God is not neutral in the war between good and evil." And the implication was that the United States was on the side of good, and therefore, God was on the side of the United States. …
I think in the United States that was basically a popular thing to say. In the rest of the world, it sounded a little bit off key, perhaps, because it basically was saying that of all these countries in the world, God has chosen the United States, and that we think our foreign policy is divinely ordained. Which you can understand if you're living in another country you might not like.
Many people look at his language since 9/11, and say that before 9/11 he had a sort of Methodist or Wesleyan thought in his speeches. But then all of a sudden, it sort of shifted into this more Calvinist language. And I'm wondering if you can address that a little bit.
If you think of Bush's rhetoric in almost theological terms, you almost can say he's shifted from a Methodist emphasis to a Calvinist emphasis. And what I mean by that is that he used to talk about religion in terms of personal salvation. It was all about how he got strength from God's grace.
Now he talks about God as a force in history, God as the force that is watching over the way events transpire, and will protect the forces of good. That's a different emphasis. I don't think he's by any means given up on faith as a way of explaining personal strength and personal salvation. But there is a depiction of God as a force in history that has become a much more important part of his rhetoric because of the war.
Talk about the 2000 campaign. Was religion important in that campaign?
Even though Bush talked a lot about religion, it wasn't actually an important political factor in 2000 because evangelicals did not actually vote in record numbers. When they voted, they voted for Bush. But their turnout was about average. Little bit above average.
Whereas in 2002, their turnout was up, and Bush's political advisers are very intent on making sure that evangelical turnout is higher in 2004. And they believe that that is really going to be a key factor in his political success.
You think they will turn up?
I do think evangelical turnout is going to be higher this time. First, because the administration is focusing so carefully on it and second, because of gay marriage.
That is the issue that has changed everything. It has so upset evangelicals, and many other Americans. But evangelicals in particular, they view the culture war as having been ratcheted up another level. And I think they're going to turn out in higher numbers than they did before, which is going to be good for Bush.
What you told me in our conversation in your office so many months ago was that abortion is sort of the cornerstone of the evangelical agenda. But gay marriage is now, perhaps at least in this election, going to supercede abortion as the issue that gets people to vote. Can you talk about that?
When we talk to evangelicals about political issues, we actually hear them talk much more about gay marriage than about abortion. It's not that they're not concerned about abortion. But it's like people have been fighting that battle for a long time. Everyone knows this script. There's a sense that if there's going to be movement in one direction or another, it's going to be relatively minor.
Whereas with gay marriage, there's a feeling that they've just gotten hit with a tidal wave, and that society as they know it, and as they think it should be, is being destroyed rapidly. It's urgent. It's an emergency. And something has to be done about it.
And so I think that that is going to instill a new sense of energy in the evangelical voting block, and is likely to increase the turnout. It's an issue not without risks for President Bush, because he has to be seen as supportive of their point of view without going so far that he makes independents feel like he's intolerant.
But so far, it looks like it's an issue that's going to help energize the evangelical voting block, which will be crucially important to him in the election.
What is it about gay marriage that just gets evangelicals so upset? …
Even though the most common argument against gay marriage is that it's going to undermine the institution of marriage, I don't actually think that's really the main reason why they're so upset. I think the main reason is that they believe it's a sin, and a big one.
And that it's wrong. It's in the Bible clearly as wrong, they believe. And that it is on the level of something like adultery or a society-threatening vice. This is not just about cheating on your income taxes. It's something on a whole different scale that threatens society. …
You mentioned that Karl Rove and the people who support [Bush] politically within the White House, his advisers, are very concerned about the evangelical votes, so they're making a real push to garner favor with the evangelicals. What are they doing? …
I think first, he's used language that says that he's one of them. And also, just validates who they are. Says not only, "I am like this," "It's great to be this way."
His support of the partial birth abortion, that was very important. His position on stem cell was important. His approach to helping to fight persecution against Christians in third world countries has been important. And in general, he has used language like "fighting for the sanctity of life," that is appealing to them.
But is he doing enough, do you think, to get this evangelical base to support him in the election?
Before the [Massachusetts] Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage I would have said I'm not seeing how Bush is going to dramatically increase his evangelical turnout over what he had before. Sure, they like him. But are they going to be motivated to come to the polls more than in 2000? Now I think if he plays the gay marriage issue right, he will be able to mobilize evangelicals in larger numbers. …
[Can you talk about the] difference between fundamentalists and evangelicals?
People often get confused between the terms evangelical and fundamentalist. They mean two different things. Evangelicals are a very broad group. It's probably a third or 40 percent of the population of the United States. Fundamentalists are a subset of that. They are very conservative politically. Have a literalist view of the Bible.
Evangelicals have a much wider range of political views. A lot of them are conservatives, but not all of them. About a third of evangelicals voted for Al Gore. So it's a pretty broad range.
And you tend to think of evangelicals as being fundamentalists because the most well known evangelicals are people like Jerry Falwell who are fundamentalists and are very conservative. But in fact the evangelicals who are part of Bush's inner circle are not all fundamentalists. They are often very devout evangelicals. But their approach to politics is much more nuanced than the fundamentalist approach. …
Will religion matter in the 2004 election? Talk about how important it's going to be?
… Religion is going to be more important in the 2004 election in part because evangelical voters are going to be crucial to Bush's re-election. Religion is also going to be more important because of 9/11. We're just much more conscious of the whole world and the interaction between Islam and the rest of the world. And the extent to which Americans feel threatened by terrorism and fundamentalist Islam will probably be an asset for President Bush.
There's also just a sense at this point that Bush pushed the envelope in talking about personal spirituality. And it worked for him. So I think that the Democratic candidate is going to need to figure out how to talk about faith, personal faith, as well. If the Democrats decide to say that personal faith is something that only Republicans talk about, they're going to lose the election. And they're really going to show people that they're out of touch with the mainstream of Americans.
Amy Sullivan had that great article about, you know, "Do Democrats have a prayer?" What's with the Democrats and their lack of ability to talk about religion? What's going on with the Democratic Party in this way? That don't get it that religion really matters to most Americans?
I tend to think that even though most Democratic voters are believers, just like most Republican voters. In the leadership of a lot of Democratic campaigns, there tend to be more secular people. And so I think that's part of why they don't quite get how important religion is to most Americans.
What has Bush done for evangelicals?
In addition to using the right language and signaling to evangelicals that he understands them and that he's one of them, he's also done a number of practical things that have been very popular. He signed the partial-birth abortion ban. He's instituted the gag rule when talking about abortion and oversees family planning clinics. He signed a stem cell policy that was pro-life.
He appointed John Ashcroft as attorney general, which is very important because he does a lot of things that are below the radar screen in terms of national press coverage, but are very important to them. …
Did Bush talk to you about his personal transformation? In your conversations with him, did he tell you about the transformation that happened in his life and sort of the more loose days of drinking and those days to where he accepted Jesus Christ or anything along those lines?
Bush has been very clear to me and to anyone else he's talked to about this that it was his faith and the growing intensifying relationship with God that helped him to shift from one phase of his life that was more decadent and alcoholic to another phase of his life where he was more responsible and pulled together. He's been consistent in saying that faith was the key for him to grow up and get his life together.
What do you know, if anything, about "A Charge to Keep" and why that seems to matter to him so much? I know it's the mural behind his desk. It's his personal motto. [As governor of Texas], he wrote a memo to his staff [saying], "This is our charge. This is what we're doing. We're doing the will of God."
The phrase, "a charge to keep," which comes from a hymn by Charles Wesley, is an important phrase for Bush. It's the title of his autobiography. He had a painting in his governor's office depicting that idea. And I think it evokes the sense that his political calling is not just a secular calling. That he has a moral obligation to use his political office to help improve the world.
What does this say to you? …
I think to some extent how people feel about Bush's relationship to faith depends on whether you think God is a source of strength for Bush or whether God is a source of policies for Bush. If you think that Bush believes that he's divinely ordained and carrying out God's will, that makes more people uncomfortable. If you think that God is what gives him strength to do the job, then that is something that Americans find extremely beneficial. …
What is something like the Community Bible Study in Midland? … How does that transform your belief or how does that give you a foundation in the Bible?
The Bible study group in Texas was extremely important in Bush's spiritual evolution. And I think what's interesting about these kinds of groups is that it's not just about theology. It's not just about memorizing what this passage said or didn't say. It's usually about taking a passage and thinking about how it applies in your life and how it applies to the rest of the world.
You're supposed to look at the Bible as a blueprint for your life today and not just as a sacred text in its own right. And so, Bush, if he was taking his Bible study seriously, would be thinking not only about what was written, but what his obligations were as a Christian to the rest of society. …
[How important will evangelicals be in determining the next president?]
People tend to think of evangelicals as a monolithic group. All conservative, all Republican, a lock for Bush. We looked at the evangelical voting block and actually, there are actually two types of evangelicals politically. There's conservative evangelicals and a group that we call "freestyle evangelicals."
Theologically and spiritually, they share a lot with their evangelical brethren. They also have the Bible as a central part of their life. They also have a personal relationship with God. But politically, they're different. They care more about things like environmental issues, poverty issues. They tend to be politically more moderate.
Bill Clinton in 1996 won the majority of freestyle evangelicals. But in 2000, George Bush won the majority of freestyle evangelicals. It shifted by about 10 percent away from Gore towards Bush, which, in an election that close, it was a very important shift.
And what kind of impact does that actually have? I mean, are they really a swing vote or are they smaller than a swing vote? Could they actually swing the election?
Well, when an election's so close, you know, Joe's bar could be a swing vote. It's like any group moving a little bit in any direction can turn an election. Freestyle evangelicals are not as big as the rest of evangelicals. But they're about as big as Hispanics as a voting block, to give you a sense of perspective.
So, if you can shift it 10 percent in one direction, if Gore had won freestyle evangelicals by the same percentage that Clinton had, he would have won the election. So, if the Democrats can swing some of those freestyle evangelicals back, they'll have a much better chance. It's not as big a vote as the Catholic vote or evangelicals in general. But it is a group that's fluid and in play and can be gotten by either candidate. …