What has been George W. Bush's impact on America's conservative evangelical Christians? Here are the views of John C. Green, author of Religion and the Culture Wars; Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals; Doug Wead, Bush family friend; Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention; and Steve Waldman, editor-in-chief of Beliefnet.
Southern Baptist Convention
…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. … 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.
I don't think there's any question that this president's heartbeat is close to the heartbeat of Southern Baptists when it comes to very serious and important public policy issues to Southern Baptists. The first one unquestionably, undeniably is the question of the sanctity of human life.
This issue is as important to Southern Baptists as the slavery issue was to the abolitionists. …
One of my biggest applause lines-- You have to understand that it doesn't happen very often that people stand up and applaud in the middle of a Baptist church service. But it has happened, and I get a lot of applause from this line -- and that is, "Let me be very clear about this. We need to vote our values, our beliefs and our convictions. We shouldn't be endorsing candidates. We should be looking for candidates who endorse us."...
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 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. …
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.
author of Religion and the Culture Wars
When President Bush made his famous comment that his favorite political philosopher was Jesus Christ because he changes your heart, I was a little bit surprised by that. Surprised, because presidential candidates usually do not make specific sectarian references to their beliefs. …
… But it did have a very important political effect. Evangelical Christians and other conservative Protestants immediately understand what he was talking about, and they began to identify with President Bush. Remember, in the 2000 primaries, then-Governor Bush was locked in a tight contest with people like Gary Bauer and Steve Forbes, who had a claim on the evangelical vote and the votes of conservative Christians, perhaps superior to Bush's own. By using that personal reference and that personal rhetoric, Bush in effect undercut the campaigns of his rivals, and brought many millions of conservative Christians into his camp. …
One of the political problems that all presidents face when they first come into office is how can they reward the people who helped elect them. … So all presidents look for symbolic things, perhaps even things that go beyond symbolism that can reward their followers. President Bush in this regard is no exception.
When he came into office, he immediately found three ways to reward his religious supporters, evangelicals and other conservative Christians. One of them was the establishment of the National Day of Prayer, which is symbolic, but, of course, to evangelicals who believe in the power of prayer, a very important thing. Another was he reinstated the gag rule with regard to the abortion services in American foreign aid.
Then he established the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives in the White House. That's one of the few examples in our history of an element of the White House being explicitly connected to religion. Now, it's not connected to a particular religion. But nonetheless, it highlights faith, and it highlights religious institutions in one of the most powerful symbols of American government, the White House.
This is an unusual thing. If you take these three things together, this allowed President Bush to appear to reward his evangelical supporters, from the very beginning of his administration.
Bush family friend
I think the signing of that partial birth abortion bill will be a big statement to evangelicals, because they've never had anything on the right-to-life abortion front ever, from Reagan or anybody. So in that sense, it'll be significant, even to evangelicals who are pro-choice. I think at least they will stop and think, "You know, I'm pro-choice. But he had the guts to buck the whole media to sign that, and it's meant as a gesture towards me, even though I'm pro-choice." Therefore it will be meaningful to them. And most Evangelicals are pro-life. ...
National Association of Evangelicals.
,…We do have an ally. I mean, we don't overstate that. George Bush and evangelicals probably agree on 75 percent of our issues -- not all. A majority, probably. It doesn't mean we're going to get everything we want, by any stretch of the imagination. It does mean, however, that we have a president who, I think, as an evangelical Methodist, understands the way we think. In the Oval Office at the signing ceremonies for the Sudan Peace Act, he said, "I know if I don't follow up on this, I'll hear from you," which is to say we had to prod him and he has heard us and done what he could. …
Is it a comfort to your association and to you, having someone like George Bush in the White House?
Yes. I slept better at night during the recent war in Iraq, knowing that George Bush is in the White House.
I sleep better at night knowing he is a man who isn't afraid to say he prays, just like George Washington and many other presidents. Yes, it's a comfort. I think he is a man who has a proper humility, who doesn't let his faith or his religious beliefs improperly influence his role as commander in chief. But he's got a healthy balance, and I sleep better knowing it. Sure. No doubt about it.
home · introduction · president and his faith · america's evangelicals · interviews
discussion · producer's chat · links & readings · press reaction · tapes & transcripts
FRONTLINE home · wgbh · pbsi
posted april 29, 2004
FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
photo copyright © brooks kraft/corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014
WGBH educational foundation