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The Jesus Factor

Written, Produced and Directed by
Raney Aronson


Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: My relationship with God through Christ gives me meaning and direction.

ANNOUNCER: He is by most accounts the most openly religious president in generations.

E.J. DIONNE, Jr., Author, Sacred Places, Civic Purposes: The interest in religion is not made up. It has to do with Bush's self-presentation and what he thinks he is about.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: I'll talk about it, OK? I've got a personal faith. Billy Graham came into my life.

ANNOUNCER: From the beginnings of his faith--

MARK LEAVERTON, Midland Men's Community Bible Study: He told me at that point, he said, you know, "I realized that I had to be born again."

ANNOUNCER: --and his mission to become president--

Dr. RICHARD LAND, Southern Baptist Convention: Among the things he said to us was, "I believe that God wants me to be president."

ANNOUNCER: --to his embrace of conservative Christians--

DOUG WEAD, Advisor to Pres. George H.W. Bush: The message did come home. My God, you could win the White House with nothing but evangelicals.

ANNOUNCER: --and his ideas on God and government--

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: We need commonsense judges who understand that our rights were derived from God.

ANNOUNCER: Tonight, FRONTLINE examines a president--

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: I, George Walker Bush, do solemnly swear--

ANNOUNCER: --and his faith.


NARRATOR: George W. Bush has often said that to understand him, one must go to Midland, Texas. And it's in Midland that his religious journey begins.

WAYNE SLATER, Sr. Political Writer, Dallas Morning News: The thing to understand about Midland is that it's probably the most conservative area of Texas. 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.

NARRATOR: Midland's motto is "Where the sky's the limit," but in the mid-1980s, during the biggest oil bust in a generation, that kind of optimism was hard to find. The downturn lead to bankruptcies, divorce, even suicide. And it was during those desperate times that this group was formed, Midland's chapter of Community Bible Study, or CBS, as it's called.

SKIP HEDGPETH, Midland Men's Community Bible Study: Men were searching for help, trying to have an air of confidence for their families that things were going to be OK. And they were themselves looking for help to find out that everything was going to be OK.

BIBLE STUDY LEADER: Tonight in Romans 5, the Apostle Paul is going to help us discover the vast riches that are available to all people through faith in Jesus Christ.

SKIP HEDGPETH: Hard times have a way of making people draw closer to God. Out of the struggles, we become aware that, you know, we're not in charge of everything. And so we start looking for a power greater than ourselves to help us when we're in our troubles.

NARRATOR: Facing his own troubles, in the fall of 1985, George W. Bush joined the Bible study group.

MARK LEAVERTON: When he came, it was noteworthy. It was always neat to me because I thought, "Isn't that wonderful? Here's a guy who has so much in his life, and yet he has a need, just like I do."

NARRATOR: Bush had been given so much in his life. He was from a privileged family with powerful business and political connections going back generations. But very little had gone well in Bush's own life. As his father had before him, Bush had moved to Midland hoping to make his fortune in the oil business. But in the middle of the oil bust, facing bankruptcy, he had been forced to sell his company.

WAYNE SLATER: As Bush approached 40 years old, he found himself as the dark sheep of the family. He talked about that.

NARRATOR: Wayne Slater is a Texas newspaperman who has followed George W. Bush throughout his political career.

WAYNE SLATER: 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."

NARRATOR: Bush's family were East Coast Episcopalians, churchgoing but not particularly devout. When he had married Laura Welsh, Bush had adopted her family's United Methodist Church.

WAYNE SLATER: His father and mother's church, the Episcopalian Church, is seen by some Methodists 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.

NARRATOR: But Bush had expressed little interest in religion. Though he had gone to church every Sunday, by his own admission, he had been more interested in an active social life, fueled by heavy drinking. But with a wife and two young girls, his lifestyle had begun to cause problems.

DOUG WEAD: He knows he's got a drinking problem. He loves his daughters, and he was going to lose his daughters if he lost his marriage. And he was going to lose his marriage if he didn't stop drinking. But he's going every Sunday to this Methodist church with Laura, for the kids' sake, for the girls' sake. No matter what he believes, he's there, he's hearing this stuff. He's already had some literature that shows that people who are able to beat their drinking problem often do by invoking a higher power.

NARRATOR: Then, the summer before he turned 40, he had a conversation with the Reverend Billy Graham, an old Bush family friend. Years later, Bush would write, "Graham planted a mustard seed in my soul." And soon after his 40th birthday, Bush made a decision.

DOUG WEAD: He woke up one morning and he said, "Eureka. That's it. I'll take God. I'll beat drinking. I keep Laura and the girls. That simple. I will never take a drink again the rest of my life. Done. So where do you go to sign up? How do you believe? I'll believe."

BIBLE STUDY LEADER: "Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus." Sing it twice.

NARRATOR: The Bible study that Bush joined was evangelical Christian. To evangelicals, it is not their Christian denomination that connects them but a series of beliefs. One of the most important is committing yourself to Jesus Christ, or being "born again."

MARK LEAVERTON: We all have that deep yearning for something genuine, something real. And I'm sure that's exactly what George was feeling. He'd changed, and all of a sudden, studying the Bible was important.

NARRATOR: Bush became one of a 120 Midland men who began a rigorous study of the Bible.

BIBLE STUDY LEADER: This week's passage provides a beautiful picture of God's unconditional love.

NARRATOR: Many of the men in this room today were in the group 19 years ago when George Bush joined.

BIBLE STUDY LEADER: If ever there is a Scripture verse that defines the grace of God this is this one. So who's got the memory work this week?

[ More on Midland's Bible study class]

NARRATOR: Conservative evangelicals consider the Bible to be the word of God, and without error, and reading it daily is more important even than going to church.

BIBLE STUDY PARTICIPANT: God demonstrates his own love for us in this. Christ died for us.




MARK LEAVERTON: I remember after George Bush had been in CBS for about a year, a year-and-a-half, my wife and I went to the Yucca Theater, which is a little downtown theater. And there were these little tables you could sit at. I sat down, my wife Vikki, and I. And then George and Laura Bush came in and set at this little table with us.

I leaned over to him, and I said, "George. How have you been enjoying CBS?" Really kind of conversational. I wasn't trying to get deep with him at-- you know, at this play. And he looked at me, and really just very strong eyes and feeling in his voice, he said, "CBS has changed my life." I was really taken aback by the fervor, the way he said it. It was something deep. And he talked about the fact that when we had studied about Nicodemus and how Nicodemus asked Jesus about life, and Jesus told him, "Nicodemus, you've got to be born again," and that little story really impacted him because he told me, at that point, he said, "You know, I realized through studying that that I had to be born again."

NARRATOR: But being born again did not solve all his problems. In 1987, still struggling with his career, George W. Bush left Midland and moved to Washington, D.C. His father was running for president, and he had a problem.

Vice Pres. GEORGE H.W. BUSH, Presidential Candidate: Let me say we've just gotten the returns in from Iowa. Round two is over. And I congratulate both Mr. Dole and-- Senator Dole and Pat Robertson.

ROBERTSON SUPPORTERS: Hats off for Pat! Hats off for Pat!

NARRATOR: The Bush campaign was stunned when their candidate came in third in the Iowa caucus behind televangelist Pat Robertson.

Rev. PAT ROBERTSON, Presidential Candidate: Thank you very much! I must say that my campaign for the presidency has been given an enormous boost here in Iowa tonight.

NARRATOR: Robertson was the latest in a line of conservative evangelical leaders who had been having increasing success in getting religious voters to the polls. In his campaign, he had emphasized the moral issues that conservative evangelicals had been rallying around for years, such as school prayer and abortion.

Rev. PAT ROBERTSON: You and I know we must restore the greatness of America through moral strength!

NARRATOR: But George Bush, Sr., was not an evangelical Christian, and he was never comfortable discussing his religion in public. To craft a better message to religious conservatives, he had hired evangelical political adviser Doug Wead.

DOUG WEAD: I was writing a memorandum for George Bush, Sr. on how to build a relationship with the evangelical community-- how to define it, who they are, where they come from, what's their language.

NARRATOR: Soon it was clear someone other than Bush, Sr., was reading Wead's memos.

DOUG WEAD: I was churning out hundreds of pages of memorandum, and he was sending them back with little notations. And so someone was talking in his ear about this information I was feeding him. I suspected it was Billy Graham. It had to be someone sharp, who understood evangelical Christianity. But it turned out he was vetting them with his son.

Obviously, this was part of the equation. The vice president was receiving this memorandum from me that had data and facts and demographics and percentages, and then he was hearing verbally, at the same time, from his son, saying, "Mom, Dad, this is real America. This is-- this is out here. I've tasted it myself."

WAYNE SLATER: 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. George W. Bush reached out to some key evangelical ministers, reassuring them about the values of his father in a way his father, an Episcopalian, could not do.

DOUG WEAD: I remember one meeting where we thoroughly prepped the vice president. And he had been in many sessions already. He was very good. But we were with a group of evangelicals. They were really tough. And they started peeling the onion back so fast that I thought, "Uh-oh!" And finally, the vice president said, "Hey, fellas, you need to talk to my son. He's a real born-again Christian."

NARRATOR: Often, Wead and the younger Bush would talk to evangelical groups themselves.

DOUG WEAD: We in the Republican Party can humble ourselves and put down our golf clubs long enough to welcome in the new evangelicals--

NARRATOR: And the evangelicals liked what they heard.

GEORGE W. BUSH: No matter how busy George Bush has been in his past, he's never let us down as a father.

RICHARD CIZIK, Natl Association of Evangelicals: Bush indicated on multiple occasions that he understood us. He wasn't just a fixer who was trying to fix a political problem, he was somebody who understood us and had a heart that was akin to our own.

NARRATOR: Richard Cizik heads up the government affairs office of the National Association of Evangelicals. The group represents 45,000 churches.

RICHARD CIZIK: And he was saying, "I not only share your concerns but I'll do what I can." And that was all that was needed.

NARRATOR: With his son's help, George Bush, Sr., won by a landslide.

DOUG WEAD: We lost, as we always do, the Jewish vote and the Hispanic vote and all those votes. We lost the Catholic vote. We were the first modern presidency to win an election -- and it was a landslide -- and not win the Catholic vote-- just barely, but we lost the Catholic vote. And how did we do it? We carried 82 percent or 83 percent of the evangelical vote. While we were frightened by the fact that we lost all these votes and still won the White House, the message did come home. "My God, you can win the White House with nothing but evangelicals, if you can get enough of them, if you get them all."

NARRATOR: And George W. Bush had learned something, too.

DOUG WEAD: Sometimes, when we would prepare these memos for his father, we would prepare a memorandum on a region or a state. And I remember George W. reviewing the memorandum on the state of Texas, and he just lit up. "Ah!" You know, "I could do this in Texas." You know, "I can make this work in Texas." I think there was no secret he was talking about running for governor.

[ Read the interview with Doug Wead]

NARRATOR: Bush had already run for political office once before--

GEORGE W. BUSH: I'm George Bush, running for the Congress.

NARRATOR: --in 1978, in a failed bid for Congress.

DOUG WEAD: His opponent had played the evangelical culture card against him by saying everybody at George's house is going to go out and have a beer, before the election. You know, "We're different. Our people are different." And he got beat.

GEORGE W. BUSH: I welcome the relaxation and welcome the chance to be alone with Laura in the house, but it has been tough to unwind.

DOUG WEAD: Now, he had become an evangelical Christian himself. So he's reading this strategy, and he's thinking, "Whoa."

GEORGE W. BUSH: [1994 campaign commercial] I am running for governor to change this state. We can right the wrongs in Texas if guided by one basic principle: Individuals should be responsible and accountable for their actions.

WAYNE SLATER: It was a marvelous transformation from the outsider, rich wastrel, who would drink, to the inside Texan--

ANNOUNCER: [campaign commercial] --a family man active in civic and church programs to help the disadvantaged--

WAYNE SLATER: --a person who understood the values, the religious ethic, the social ethic, the cultural ethic that was so missing in his first campaign.

NARRATOR: But as Bush learned to blend his personal faith with public politics, he sometimes found himself in trouble.

KEN HERMAN, Reporter, Austin American-Statesman: He was very open about his religion. One of the theses of my first story of him was differences between him and his father. Obviously, the similarities were striking and obvious, but I found some of the differences to be also.

NARRATOR: Ken Herman was a reporter for The Houston Post. He interviewed Bush on the day he announced his intention to run for governor. As they talked, the new candidate offered Herman a surprising anecdote.

KEN HERMAN: Him and his mother were having a difference of opinion about whether you have to accept Christ to go to heaven, a perfectly legitimate thing for a family to discuss. His mother's belief was, as Bush told me, sort of, "Maybe you don't. But more importantly, maybe you shouldn't worry about it, just sort of take care of yourself. And you know, we'll see what happens when the time comes."

To make the point that this family operates different than others, through their long-time contact with Billy Graham, they decided, "Let's get Billy Graham on the phone"-- you know, kind of God's right-hand man right on the planet. As it turns out, Reverend Graham said, "Just don't worry about it. Live your life the way you're supposed to. Love everybody and move on." Bush, however, said he himself held the personal belief that you have to accept Christ to get to heaven.

DOUG WEAD: The political ramifications of that were huge. I mean, if I'm not a Christian, if I'm Jewish or some other faith, I'm damned? And so he doesn't talk about that anymore.

NARRATOR: But in Texas, it wasn't a problem. With overwhelming support from conservative evangelicals and other religious conservatives, Bush toppled Ann Richards, one of the most popular governors in Texas history. On election night, his supporters cheered to his victory song. It was called "God Blessed Texas."

SINGERS: God blessed Texas with his own hand. He brought down angels from the promised land. And I've been sent to spread the message. God blessed Texas.

NARRATOR: But it was a more traditional religious melody that Bush invoked early on as governor. In this memo to his staff, Bush wrote about a painting that he had hung in his governor's office. The painting was titled "A Charge to Keep" and was based on one of Bush's favorite Methodist hymns.

WAYNE SLATER: "A Charge to Keep" was about these Methodist circuit riders, who would go to one church and preach and then go to another community and preach. And in that way, the charge to keep was a charge to spread the Gospel as broadly as possible.

NARRATOR: The word "evangel" means good news and spreading the Gospel, or good news, is an important part of being evangelical. In his memo, Bush wrote of the circuit riders, "This is us," and ended with a message, "We serve one greater than ourselves."

[ Read the full memo]

WAYNE SLATER: That was the message that George Bush was saying in that memo, that this was an administration that was going to express values-- fundamental values, Christian values, Methodist-Protestant values.

NARRATOR: Just six months into his term, Bush was given an opportunity to put his faith into action. Marvin Olasky, the editor of the conservative evangelical magazine "World," had written a cover story alerting his readers to a Christian drug treatment group that had come under fire from the state government.

MARVIN OLASKY, Editor-In-Chief, World Magazine: There was an anti-drug group in San Antonio called Teen Challenge of South Texas that was helping people out of addiction, but it did it its own way. It did it by saying that the reason people get into drugs or alcohol is because they have a hole in their soul, and we can fill that hole in your soul, or God can fill that hole in your soul, and fill it with Jesus.

NARRATOR: When a state agency threatened to take away Teen Challenge's operating license for failure to follow regulations, the group had gone public.

MARVIN OLASKY: The Teen Challenge people organized a rally, with great Texas symbolism, in front of the Alamo. There were 200, 300 people there holding up signs that said things like, you know, "Thank you, Jesus, for changing my life."

NARRATOR: Bush was reminded of the change in his own life, and he asked to see Olasky.

MARVIN OLASKY:   His whole thing was, "Hey, this program works. Let's find a way to essentially call off the dogs, let it work."

WAYNE SLATER: It's a fundamental understanding that he had that in order to make people's lives better, you don't just institutionally give them jobs to a bureaucracy, but you fundamentally change their heart. And 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. Bush believed that people who had been transformed in their own life, much the way that George Bush had, were the perfect kind of teachers.

NARRATOR: "I support faith-based programs," Governor Bush said at the time. "I believe that a conversion to religion, by its very nature, promotes sobriety." Bush made it known that he supported Teen Challenge, and his state agency backed down. Ultimately, his interest in faith-based programs would lead to this report published by his office, "Faith in Action: A New Vision for Church-State Cooperation in Texas."

"We each bear a responsibility to do justice and love our neighbors," the report concluded, "a responsibility that comes from God. We see no threat to promoting the general welfare when government contracts with faith-based social service organizations."

This desire to change the relationship between churches and government was an idea that Bush would carry towards his future presidency.

On Tuesday, January 19th, 1999, Bush and his family attended a private church service in Austin, Texas. The service was a Texan tradition. Later that day, Bush would be sworn in for his second term as governor. He had won the election in a landslide and was now one of the most popular governors in the country.

George Bush's political promise suddenly seemed boundless and talk had begun of a possible run for the presidency. The invited guests crowded into the small Austin church that morning.

RENA PEDERSON, Editor-at-Large, Dallas Morning News: It was former President George Bush and Barbara Bush, the Bush daughters, their very closest friends and closest party supporters. I attended because I go to the same church that the Bushes attend, Highland Park Methodist in Dallas, and I wanted to see what the minister would have to say on this special occasion.

NARRATOR: The minister's sermon was taken from the book of Exodus. He talked to his audience about how God had called on Moses to lead his people. He said that Moses had been unsure of himself, uncertain he was the right man for the task.

RENA PEDERSON: He said that Moses tried to beg off and said, "Oh, not me. You want somebody else." You know, "I'm busy. I've got a family. I've got this speech impediment."   But he followed that by saying, "The country's hungry for leadership."

And you have to remember the context of the times. This was 1999. George W. Bush was about 52-- you know, just about time for a mid-life reckoning. "What do I do with the rest of my life? How do I do what's meaningful?" The minister counted off the number of seconds and minutes in a year and said, "This is how many seconds in your year in your life. What are you going to do with it?" He was looking right at the president. You could just feel a currency in the air. I think everyone knew something happened.

NARRATOR: Late that afternoon, Bush gathered together with some close colleagues at his residence. In the group was Richard Land, one of the directors of the conservative evangelical Southern Baptist Convention.

RICHARD LAND: The day he was inaugurated, there were several of us who met with him at the governor's mansion. And among the things he said to us was, "I believe that God wants me to be president."

NARRATOR: Twelve years after his father had finished behind Pat Robertson in the Iowa caucus, George W. Bush landed at Des Moines International Airport. He was in Iowa as one of six candidates battling for the Republican nomination for president. They had all gathered for the third Republican debate.

During the debate, the moderator asked the candidates what political philosopher or thinker they most identified with. Steve Forbes answered John Locke. Alan Keyes named the Founding Fathers.

[December, 1999]

MODERATOR: Governor Bush, a philosopher/thinker. And why.

Gov. GEORGE W. BUSH (R), Texas:   Christ, because he changed my heart.

DOUG WEAD: I think that was instinctive and genuine. The media elite and non-evangelicals see that statement and they think it's calculated. The evangelicals know it's not calculated. They know it didn't help him. So they tend to believe it's true.

JOHN C. GREEN, Ph.D., Author, Religion and the Culture Wars: It may very well be that that was just the real Bush speaking. But it did have a very important political effect. Evangelical Christians and other conservative Protestants immediately understood what he was talking about, and they began to identify with President Bush.

MODERATOR: I think the viewer would like to know more on how he's changed your heart.

Gov. GEORGE W. BUSH: Well, if they don't know, it's going to be hard to explain. When you turn your heart and life over to Christ, when you accept Christ as a savior, it changes your heart and changes your life. And that's what happened to me.

E.J. DIONNE, Jr., Author, Sacred Places, Civic Purposes: When he was asked to explain this, he basically said, "If you haven't had this experience, you don't know what it is." I was offended by that because I thought, in a tolerant democracy, a politician has an obligation to explain things to people who don't necessarily accept their religious terms. I had an assistant at the time who was a Democrat, no friend of Bush's but an evangelical Christian. And she was actually upset with me because she said, "That's how we talk. You should understand that." And I think it's those moments when Bush speaks like that that evangelicals know in their heart that he's one of them.

Gov. GEORGE W. BUSH: Faith gives us conscious to keep us honest even when no one else is watching. And faith can change lives. I know because it changed mine.

NARRATOR: Bush spoke openly about his faith throughout the 2000 campaign.

Gov. GEORGE W. BUSH: There came a point in my life when I felt something was missing on the inside. By chance -- maybe it was more than chance -- one day, I spent a weekend with the great Billy Graham.

NARRATOR: The Bush campaign knew their candidate's ability to reach out to evangelicals as one of them was key to winning the White House.

Gov. GEORGE W. BUSH: --and decided then and there to recommit my life--

NARRATOR: By 2000, over 40 percent of Americans described themselves as evangelical or born again. Of those who vote, at least 70 percent are were considered politically conservative.

Gov. GEORGE W. BUSH: And my relationship with God through Christ gives me meaning and direction.

NARRATOR: But as he worked to appeal to religious conservatives, Bush was aware of the political danger of appearing too close to them, a lesson he had learned from his father's campaign eight years earlier. By 1992, his father's '88 rival, Pat Robertson, was now the president of a powerful organization that mobilized conservative Christian voters. It was headed by a young Southerner named Ralph Reed, and it was called the Christian Coalition.

JOHN C. GREEN: Christian right organizations like the Christian Coalition were absolutely critical to moving evangelical Protestants into the Republican Party.

MINISTER: There is a voter guide on the back of this insert today--

JOHN C. GREEN: One of the things they did right was to engage in grass roots mobilization to actually get information out to people in the pews that showed that voting for a Republican candidate was superior to voting for a Democratic candidate.

NARRATOR: But not just any Republican candidate. Although conservative evangelicals had given George Bush, Sr., their support in 1988, his moderate record as president had angered them. At the '92 Republican convention, in a last ditch effort to shore up support among religious voters, the party gave center stage to a number of conservative religious leaders, including Pat Robertson.

Rev. PAT ROBERTSON: To me and to most Republicans, traditional values start with faith in almighty God!

DOUG WEAD: That convention was not in the best interests of the candidate. I mean, Pat Robertson offered to speak at the national convention. Well, he wasn't even a candidate for president. Why should he be speaking?

PAT BUCHANAN: Yes, we disagreed with President Bush, but--

NARRATOR: After Robertson, conservative commentator Pat Buchanan addressed the convention.

PAT BUCHANAN: --and we stand with him against the amoral idea that gay and lesbian couples should have the same standing in law as married men and women. We stand with President Bush--

DOUG WEAD: You have to be careful how you appeal to the evangelical constituency. I'd have had Bush, Sr. go ride horses with Pat Robertson on his private estates and say all kinds of things, and kiss in secret, but not in public. And he didn't have that kind of a calculated campaign, and the result was there was backlash.

PAT BUCHANAN: There is a religious war going on in this country!

NARRATOR: The convention alienated moderate voters, and in the end, evangelicals divided their votes between Bush, Sr., Ross Perot and even Bill Clinton--

PAT BUCHANAN: And George Bush is on our side!

NARRATOR: And Clinton won the White House.

Eight years later, George W. Bush and his advisers crafted a message that would appeal across the Republican political spectrum. They called it "compassionate conservatism."

Gov. GEORGE W. BUSH: Without support, more support and resources, both private and public, we are asking the armies of compassion to make bricks without straw.

WAYNE SLATER: 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."

NARRATOR: And religious voters liked Bush's plan, too. The compassion that he spoke of would come not from government-run programs but from the faith that he believed could change people's lives.

Gov. GEORGE W. BUSH: Governments cannot make people love one another. It's been the great false hope of the past. All you got to do is pass a law, and people will love one another. But love comes from a higher calling, a higher authority. The great strength of America lies in the hearts and souls of citizens who've heard that call, not in the halls of government--

NARRATOR: In the end, Bush won the closest presidential contest in history. And religion, it turned out, was key.

RICHARD LAND, Southern Baptist Convention: The single most reliable predictor of how a person voted in the 2000 election was whether they went to church or synagogue or mosque at least once a week. If they went to church or synagogue or mosque at least once a week, two thirds of them voted for George W. Bush.

WILLIAM REHNQUIST, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court: --preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: --preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

Chief Justice WILLIAM REHNQUIST: So help me God.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: So help me God.

NARRATOR: As he took office, Bush put his campaign promise of compassionate conservatism immediately to work. In his first executive order, he established the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives inside the White House.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: When we see social needs in America, my administration will look first to faith-based programs and community groups.

NARRATOR: In the early days of his presidency, Bush's faith-based initiative was called his signature program. Bush asked Congress to expand on something called "charitable choice," a provision that had been passed as part of the 1996 Welfare reform bill. Championed by then senator John Ashcroft, a Pentecostal Christian and a member of the conservative Assemblies of God church, charitable choice had opened the door to allow smaller and more overtly religious groups to receive government money for providing social services. Now Bush wanted the principles from Ashcroft's provision to be applied to most of his government agencies.

RICHARD CIZIK, Natl Association of Evangelicals: We believe there has to be equality of treatment towards religious social service providers so that they're treated the same as secular service providers, equal competitors for federal dollars to be able to dispense services.

E.J. DIONNE, Jr., Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution: I had an argument about this with a conservative evangelical friend, who said, "Look, their method is Freud, our method is Jesus. Why should Freud get the money and Jesus not get the money?" And I thought that was an interesting argument. But we still do have the 1st Amendment, and it raises a real question.

Rep. ZOE LOFGREN (D), California: Consider the plain language of the 1st Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." I think that's clear.

NARRATOR: Interpreting the 1st Amendment was at the heart of the debates in Congress, with critics charging the president's initiative threatened the separation of church and state.

Rep. ZOE LOFGREN: Will the Sikhs or Hindus receive the day care contract? Will the Muslims or Jews run the nursing home where your mother will live? Pity the local government who must decide.

NARRATOR: Proponents of the president's bill also invoked the 1st Amendment, arguing that they were trying to reverse years of discrimination against religious groups.

Rep. CLIFF STEARNS (R), Florida: The 1st Amendment provides that the government cannot establish one religion, or religion over a non-religion. But it also, my colleagues, provides that the government shall not prohibit the free exercise of religion.

NARRATOR: Ultimately, Congress failed to move. But the faith-based initiative did not die.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: I asked Congress to join me and pass what I called the faith-based initiative, which would help change the culture of Washington and the behavior of bureaucracies. They've stalled. So I just signed an executive order.

NARRATOR: Bush's orders set up faith-based offices inside seven of his own executive agencies, such as the Department of Agriculture, Department of Health and Human Services, the Labor Department and the Department of Justice. As he had done in Texas, he ordered these agencies to actively encourage faith-based groups to apply for money.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: My attitude is the government should not fear faith-based programs. We ought to welcome faith-based programs, and we ought to fund faith-based programs.

NARRATOR: And as he has pushed for access to more funds, Bush has also defended the right of these groups to maintain their religious character, including their right to hire only members of their own faith.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: Government oftentimes will say, "Yeah, you can participate, but you've got to change your board of directors to meet our qualifications." You know, "You got to conform to our rules." The problem is, faith-based programs only conform to one set of rules, and it's bigger than government rules.

NARRATOR: But critics of the faith-based initiative, including some evangelical Christians, have warned that this kind of rhetoric will lead to the entanglement of the church and the state, hurting both.

Welton Gaddy is a Baptist minister and heads up the Interfaith Alliance, an organization of liberal religious leaders.

Rev. Dr. C. WELTON GADDY, President, The Interfaith Alliance: Religious institutions, wanting federal funds, jeopardize the integrity of their freedom as and identity as religious institutions because with those federal tax dollars come federal regulations. President Bush made a speech, and in the course of his speech, he held up the Bible and said, "This is the guidebook, not federal regulations."

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: The handbook of this particular child care is a universal handbook. It's been around for a long time. It doesn't need to be invented. It's a-- let me see your handbook there. This handbook is a good book. It's a good go-by.

Rev. C. WELTON GADDY: The Bible, guidebook for public policy? Now, President Bush is the chief executive officer of this nation, pledged to defend the Constitution. He was speaking as a religious leader, not worried about the constitutional implications of that rhetoric.

NARRATOR: Despite constitutional concerns, Bush's executive agencies have already gone ahead and started funding faith-based groups. The White House acknowledges $1.1 billion spent so far, but admits it could be millions more. And determining just how much has been spent and where this money has gone is difficult.

The only program that specifically records funding to faith-based groups is called the Compassion Capital Fund run by the Department of Health and Human Services. This fund has given out $65 million dollars to what they call 'faith-friendly' organizations.

So far, only Christian groups and a handful of interfaith organizations have received direct federal funding. Jewish, Muslim and other religious charities have not, but a few of them have been supported by those who did receive the federal money.

[ More on the faith-based initiative]

RICHARD CIZIK, Natl Association of Evangelicals: The secularist believes that we're undoing the American experiment, that we are trampling upon the separation of church and state. The secularist, you see, wants to relegate religious belief to the margins of public life, and the evangelical, with his pietistic influence, says, "Absolutely not. I'm going to bring those religious values right into the center of all of life."

NARRATOR: On September 14th, 2001, Bush gathered with spiritual and political leaders from around the nation at the National Cathedral. The president had declared a national day of prayer and remembrance for the victims of the September 11th terrorist attacks. In the wake of those attacks, as he brought the nation into the war on terror, Bush's public expression of religion took on a new tone, no longer speaking merely about personal salvation but of biblical themes of good and evil.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: We are here in the middle hour of our grief. Americans do not yet have the distance of history, but our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.

JIM WALLIS, Editor-in-Chief, Sojourners Magazine: After September 11th, Bush's role changed dramatically, his notion of himself, and his place in history.

NARRATOR: Jim Wallis is the editor of the liberal evangelical magazine Sojourners and has written extensively on the president's use of religion since 9/11.

JIM WALLIS: He had been sort of a self-help Methodist, meaning someone whose faith had made a difference in his personal life-- solved some drinking issues, and some family issues, kind of a 12-step God. Then September 11th came, and the self-help Methodist became now almost a Messianic American Calvinist speaking of "the mission of America."

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: In every generation, the world has produced enemies of human freedom. They have attacked America because we are freedom's home and defender, and the commitment of our fathers is now the calling of our time.

RICHARD LAND, Southern Baptist Convention: As an evangelical Christian, I was completely in sync with the way the president put this in context for the nation. Romans 13 says God instituted civil government to punish those who do evil and to reward those who do that which is right.

NARRATOR: But in the weeks and months to come, the president's religious language of absolutes made others uncomfortable.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: We will rid the world of the evildoers. We've never seen this kind of evil before. But the evildoers have never seen the American people in action before, either, and they're about to find out. Thank you all very much.

JIM WALLIS: To not acknowledge, see, name evil in the world is bad theology. And yet Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew, "Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, your adversary's eye, your enemy's eye, and not see the log in your own eye? Why do you see the evil in them but not in yourself?"

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: Every nation in every region now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.

JIM WALLIS: To say that they are evil and we are good, and that if you're not with us, you're with the terrorists-- that's also bad theology.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty have always been at war. And we know that God is not neutral between them.

RICHARD LAND: The problem with the left is that some of them don't think God has a side. George Bush and most of George Bush's supporters believe God has a side. And we believe that side is freedom. We believe that side is democracy. We believe that side is respect for basic human rights.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: Ours is the cause of human dignity.

NARRATOR: A year after 9/11, Bush again drew his message from the Bible.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: This idea of America is the hope of all mankind. That hope drew millions to this harbor. That hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.

JIM WALLIS: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." Well, that's from the Gospel of John. But it's about the light of Christ and the word of God, which is the light that shines in the darkness and has never been overcome. Now, all of a sudden, it's meant to be America as a beacon of light to the world. He changed the meaning of the text. It's no longer about the word of God, the light of Christ, it's about us. It's about we being the hope of the world. That's, again, bad theology.

RICHARD LAND: I can understand that there are a lot of people on the left who think that-- who are uncomfortable with the concept that someone thinks they're doing God's will or that they're on a divine mission. That says more about the left than it does about George W. Bush. George W. Bush is standing squarely in the middle of American history and American tradition in believing in American exceptionalism. Does that mean that America's God's chosen people? No. No. Does it mean that we believe that an angel still rides in this storm, as they did at the founding? Yes. Yes.

JIM WALLIS: This language of righteous empire, of God being on our side and our having this divine mission-- I think this creates a framework for the misuse of religion. And I think the rest of the world hears this and it frightens them, particularly in the Arab world because they are afraid that we see this as a clash of civilizations and that this is a religious war.

NARRATOR: Despite his being the most openly religious president in recent times, George Bush has kept his devotional life private. While he tells his supporters that he reads the Bible daily, unlike most other presidents, he is rarely seen even going to church.

The president has stated that while his faith is central to his life, it does not affect his policy decisions. Yet as his critics have pointed out, over the last three years, many of those decisions have mirrored the agenda of conservative evangelicals, still his most important voting block.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: John Ashcroft will perform his duties guided by principle.

NARRATOR: He earned their praise when he nominated John Ashcroft, a hero to many conservative Christians, as his attorney general.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: Embryonic stem cell research is at the leading edge of a series--

NARRATOR: He pleased the pro-life movement when he talked about an embryo as a life in his decision on embryonic stem cell research.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: I worry about a culture that devalues life, and believe, as your president, I have an important obligation to foster and encourage respect for life in America and throughout the world.

NARRATOR: And again, when he signed the so-called partial birth abortion ban, the first federal legislation banning any type of abortion since Roe v. Wade had made abortions legal.

RICHARD LAND: George Bush is pro-life. And let me tell you the difference between George Bush and Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan was pro-life by gut instinct-- traditional value, American value, Western civilization kind of gut instinct with him. With George W. Bush, it is a settled faith conviction. And I'll take settled faith convictions over gut instincts anytime.

[ Read the interview with Richard Land]

NARRATOR: Bush has also satisfied his religious base with the kind of judges he has appointed.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: We need commonsense judges who understand that our rights were derived from God. And those are the kind of judges I intend to put on the bench.

NARRATOR: In the last year, in recess appointments, Bush has pushed through two federal judges, Charles Pickering and William Pryor, both outspoken religious conservatives.

And on the debate over same-sex marriage, an issue that has become the new rallying cry of conservative Christians, the president appeared to support their position when he spoke about the issue publicly for the first time.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: I believe a marriage is between a man and a woman, and I think we ought to codify that one way or the other. And we've got lawyers looking at the best way to do that.

NARRATOR: But for conservative Christians, he hadn't gone far enough. And they were dissatisfied until seven months later, when he met their demands.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: Our nation must enact a constitutional amendment to protect marriage in America.

RICHARD CIZIK: There was always this idea, "Oh, if we could only get a staff person in the White House who would carry our concerns to the president"-- well, you know, the 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.

NARRATOR: As the 2004 campaign has begun, Bush has once again moved to rally this crucial voting bloc. In the Southeast, Ralph Reed is his campaign chairman, hoping to appeal to the same Christian voters he used to mobilize as the head of the Christian Coalition.

DOUG WEAD, Bush Family Friend: There's no question that the president's faith is calculated, and there's no question that the president's faith is real, that it's authentic, that it's genuine. I would say that I don't know, and George Bush doesn't know, when he's operating out of a genuine sense of his own faith or when it's calculated.

WAYNE SLATER, Dallas Morning News: In an odd way, what the Bush campaign is involved in is a political proselytizing effort, where they go out and express to those people, 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 about bringing in a community, people who share not just a few political ideas but something more fundamental. And to do that, they will tell and retell the story of Bush as a man who has had a religious conversion in his life, has taken Jesus into his heart and it informs everything he does.

NARRATOR: What began 20 years ago as a personal religious experience has for George W. Bush become a factor inextricably linked with his career as a politician and now with the life of the country as president.



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Next time on FRONTLINE:

EXPERT: There is a cyber-jihad going on right now.

ANNOUNCER: Without a single bomb--

EXPERT: The right people could take out huge sections of American infrastructure.

ANNOUNCER: --terrorists could use the Internet to cripple the United States.

RICHARD CLARKE, Former Director, Cyber Security, White House: We have created a new nervous system for the country, and we've done nothing to protect it.

ANNOUNCER: How real is the threat?

RICHARD CLARKE: America is at risk.



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