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Religion in the White House: Then and Now
Compared to recent presidents, how different is George W. Bush 's personal spirituality? Here are the views of E.J. Dionne, Jr., co-chair of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life; Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals; Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention; Wayne Slater of The Dallas Morning News; and Steve Waldman, editor-in-chief of Beliefnet.

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ej dionne
Co-chair Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life; Washington Post columnist

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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 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.

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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. …

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Richard cizik
National Association of Evangelicals

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… [I]n the Clinton administration, the president sort of understood who we are, but didn't have the heartbeat of evangelicals. Let's face it. He didn't have that. God bless him, I like him, but he didn't have that.

This president somehow -- and I think his staff -- have the heartbeat of evangelicals. So we don't need to be constantly calling up the White House, or whatever, lobbying them on behalf of our agenda. I think that we see eye to eye. They understand how we think. …

So you think he really actually understands the community? President Bush really has the heartbeat?

There was always this objection in prior administrations -- and I've been through seven, since coming to this town when Jimmy Carter was in office. There was all this idea -- "Oh, if we can only get a staff person in the White House who would carry our concerns to the president." Well, a private joke inside the Beltway nowadays is, "We don't need a staff person. We've got one in the Oval Office." What do you want, a staff person, or do you want the president who understands you? I'll take the president. …

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Richard land
Southern Baptist Convention

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There's no question this is the most receptive White House to our concerns and to our perspective of any White House that I've dealt with, and I've dealt with every White House from Reagan on.

In the Reagan administration, they would usually return our phone calls. In the Bush 41 administration, they often would return our phone calls, but not quite as quickly, and sometimes not quite as receptively. In the Clinton administration, they quit accepting our phone calls after a while.

In this administration, they call us, and they say, "What is your take on this? How does your group feel about this?" I don't know if there's any question that this administration understands that Southern Baptists and other evangelicals are a very significant part of their coalition. By some estimates, 40 percent of their raw vote came from evangelicals. Mr. Bush carried every state in which there was a significant Southern Baptist presence.

This president is very popular with Southern Baptists; much more popular than he was in 2000. I think that he carried some baggage from his father's administration. The conservative evangelical groups and people never had quite the same trust level of his father that they had of Reagan. They did have the feeling that there were people in Bush administration below the president who were not at all sympathetic to where they were coming from; much less so than the Reagan administration.

This administration, everywhere I go -- and I'm in a different Southern Baptist church almost every week, maybe two or three in a week -- they say "Please, tell the president and Mrs. Bush that we're praying for them, and how much we support them and how much we're praying for their safety and for his wisdom and guidance." I've never seen an outpouring quite like it. …

You know, Bill Clinton knew the language. Bill Clinton could talk like a Southern Baptist evangelist when he wanted to. But they hated what he was doing with it, because they were in fundamental disagreement with him about so many very important social issues. Now we have a president who they feel like really sees the world the way they see it; understands them; is sympathetic to them; and has an administration that understands that they are a very important part of a governing coalition for a Republican president.

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wayne slater
Reporter, The Dallas Morning News

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Can 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. …

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steve waldman
Editor-in-chief, Beliefnet

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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. …

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posted april 29, 2004

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