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the spirituality of george w. bush
He is, by most accounts, the most openly religious president in generations. What are the core elements of his faith? How has it affected his personal life and political career? And how has faith shaped the president's views on God and government and America's role in the world? Here are the thoughts of some people who have closely observed or interviewed Bush: Doug Wead, a Bush family friend; Wayne Slater, a reporter for The Dallas Morning News; John C. Green, author of Religion and the Culture Wars; Steve Waldman, editor-in-chief of Beliefnet; and Jim Wallis, editor-in-chief of Sojourners Magazine.

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doug wead
Bush family friend

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There's no question that the president's faith is real, that it's authentic, that it's genuine, and there's no question that it's calculated. I know that sounds like a contradiction. But that will always be the case for a public figure, regardless of their faith, whether they're Islamic, or Jewish, or Christian. …

Gandhi once said, "He who says that religion and politics don't mix understands neither one." I would say that I don't know when he's sincere and when he's calculated, and a reporter for FRONTLINE doesn't know. George Bush doesn't know when he's operating out of a genuine sense of his own faith, or when it's calculated, and there must be gray areas in between. I think he operates instinctively. …

But all of this discussion is presuming you know the roots of George Bush's faith and why he believes the way he believes, and why he believes so strongly. When one understands that, one is pretty tolerant to his faith and sees that George W.'s faith is the good guy in his life. It's the restraining influence in his life. It's not something to be afraid of. George W. Bush is someone to be afraid of without his faith. His faith has brought more of a sensitivity, a feminine side, to his personality that was needed. ...

If you talk about the origins of his faith, what is that?

… He loves his father and he loves his daughters. 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. The marriage was in trouble. The relationship within the marriage was in trouble. He's a handsome guy, and there were girls all over him during the campaign. He was faithful to Laura, but he's a handsome guy. That marriage was under stress, and he blamed himself. I know that he blamed himself.

He couldn't trust anybody. All through his life, his dad was a U.N. ambassador or was head of the CIA or head of the Republican Party, before he was vice president for eight years. So he couldn't talk; he couldn't go to a counselor. He couldn't talk to a friend about what's going on in his life. 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, and he knows he's got a drinking problem.

One summer, Billy Graham's invited up there. He's already had some literature that shows that people who are able to beat their drinking problem often do so by invoking a higher power. So he asked Billy Graham some questions. I've talked to Billy Graham about it. He was not impressed with George being unusually inquisitive, but it was apparently a big deal to George W., because he told me about it back in 1987 and 1988. It was important in his life.

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Then he had that birthday party, and he woke up one morning in Colorado Springs 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 I'm not saying that today his faith is based on the fact that he wants to have a normal relationship with Laura and keep his daughters. I'm just saying that sure got his attention. That brought him into the process. "Yes, I'll take God if that'll help me beat drinking. If beating drinking will help me save my marriage and keep my daughters, done deal. So where do you go to sign up? How do you believe? I'll believe." …

He wanted to save his marriage, and in the process, he came to discover that this was real. It's something that happened to him, that he'd had a spiritual experience. …

After 9/11, in particular, people have voiced concern that George Bush feels like he's doing God's will. Can you talk about that -- that he feels that God is almost on America's side, that divisions between president and being God's choice have been blurred?

Yes. I know that [in] France, and Germany, and in New York, Washington, Boston, in the corridor, that there's concern that Bush's faith is playing an unhealthy role in his war on terrorism, somehow, makes him emboldened in attacking an Islamic state, maybe, for example. That's nonsense. George Bush's faith is the good angel of his personality. Without that faith, he is so hard, he is so decisive, he is so quick, he is so brutal, he is so unapologetic, so self-righteous -- "I'm right, this is the right way to go, we're going."

I think the people could sense that in the war in Iraq, part of the problem was they sensed he was going, even before there was evidence, before the American people were ready. They could sense, no matter what he said, that soon after 9/11, this guy was going, and it made it somewhat suspect. Then, the logic for the war, when it came along a little bit later, it was somewhat suspect, because certainly outside of this country, they could sense it that he's going. Just a very decisive guy.

It's his faith that would make him stop and say, "Wait, is this it right thing to do?" It's not his faith that would say, "Go attack those people. Start a war. Do this." It's just the opposite. His faith has been a real tempering effect on who he is and his personality. "You may not know everything, bigshot. Slow down. Listen to the other side." People ought to be thankful that he has a faith; [it's] not something to fear.

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Wayne slater
Reporter, The Dallas Morning News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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john c. green
Author, Religion and the Culture Wars

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What is the president's religious background, and how would you describe his kind of religious belief?

President Bush is an interesting figure in terms of his religious background. He currently is a member of the United Methodist Church, the largest mainline Protestant church in the United States -- a very diverse church which has many different kinds of people.

But he also had a transforming personal experience, a conversion experience as a middle-aged man that helped him deal with some of his personal problems and changed his outlook on life. That's a common thing among Methodists. It's also a very common thing in other religious traditions, particularly among evangelical Protestants, where the term "born again" is often used to talk about these kinds of personal transformations.

So President Bush, in some sense, stands astride the major Protestant traditions in the United States. [But] …because President Bush has such strong religious beliefs and talks about his faith so explicitly, many people want to categorize him. They want to figure out what religious community or religious tradition he belongs to.

It's a difficult thing to do, because President Bush, in many respects, partakes of a number of different religious traditions. He's a member of the United Methodist Church. He's very closely connected to the Wesleyan tradition, and that leads him to lean a little bit towards mainline Protestantism. On the other hand, he's had a personally transforming experience.

He talks about how his faith changed his life and how he'd like faith to change other people's lives, and that puts him a little bit more in the evangelical camp. President Bush hasn't actually told us where he stands; perhaps because he isn't entirely sure himself, because he draws from a variety of different perspectives, but also because it may not be the best thing to do politically -- to identify with one or another religious tradition when, in fact, he can identify with several. In his political activity, he often strides across different religious boundaries and can, therefore, appeal to people from different religious backgrounds.

Evangelicals claim him as one of their own. They feel they have an ally in the White House.

There's no question that the evangelical community has an ally in President Bush on a number of different issues, and in terms of basic values. There is a great deal of commonality between President Bush and evangelicals. Technically speaking, though, President Bush is a mainline Protestant, from the more conservative or traditional, or, if you will, evangelical wing of mainline Protestantism, but not really part of the core of the evangelical community, as scholars tend to understand it.

So there is a sense in which evangelicals are claiming somebody who really isn't part of their religious community, but someone who shares many of their values, who certainly understands them well, and shares a number of their religious beliefs.

And while he walks in both worlds, he also differs from both.

Certainly, President Bush differs from his own denomination, from the United Methodist Church, in that he doesn't adopt a lot of its official positions. For instance, he is pro-life on abortion, whereas United Methodists tend to be pro-choice. He disagrees with many Methodists on social welfare issues, and Methodists have a long tradition of supporting the welfare state. President Bush [is] very critical of the welfare state. On foreign policy, President Bush has a somewhat more aggressive foreign policy than many Methodists would agree with.

But if you compare him to the evangelical community, he doesn't completely agree with them, either. For instance, when it comes to issues like how the government should relate to the gay population, President Bush is much more tolerant, unwilling to stigmatize people. When asked about the gay community, for instance, President Bush will often say, "Well, we have to recognize that we're all sinners and we shouldn't be critical of one another, and we need to be tolerant of each other."

On a number of other issues, even on abortion, President Bush is unwilling to commit himself to, say, a constitutional amendment to abolish abortions, which evangelicals would really like to see. He has a much more moderate position on abortion. So on a variety of issues, he contradicts both the mainline Protestant position and the evangelical Protestant position. …

Even though President Bush speaks very openly about religion and his language is religious in many of his speeches, we don't see him going to church. We don't see him sort of publicly announcing that he's a United Methodist or an evangelical or a Protestant…

President Bush talks about his faith in his own terms. He understands his faith as this personal experience that he had, and continues to have to this day. He's very open about that aspect of his faith. He does not feel compelled, however, to be seen going into churches holding Bibles, as some other presidents have felt was important. He doesn't tend to share his personal devotional life with other people.

In that sense, a lot of his religiosity is highly private. But it does inform his public utterances. At moments of great national tragedy, when presidents are expected to comfort the nation, a lot of Bush's religious convictions come out at that level.

I don't think that Bush is particularly concerned with identifying himself with a broader religious community. In fact, in many ways, I think he sees connections to a number of different religious communities. I think that's quite sincere. He sees commonalities between himself and evangelicals and Roman Catholics, and even sees a certain connection to religious people outside of the Christian tradition, too -- Muslims to Jews and so forth.

In fact, politically, that's probably a good thing, because that allows the president to appeal to the more traditional members of a great variety of religious groups. Given the diversity of American religion, that's a pretty good political strategy.

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steve waldman
Editor-in-chief, Beliefnet

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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. …

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Jim wallis
Editor-in-chief, Sojourners Magazine

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Let's talk about President Bush and his personal faith. You have said that it's not that you question his personal faith and his belief in Jesus. It's that you question how it affects our domestic and international policies. …

… I'm often asked what I think about the faith of the President George W. Bush. I think it is sincere. I think it's very real. I think it's deeply held. I met the president when he was president-elect at a meeting in Austin. He spoke of his faith; he spoke of his desire for a compassionate conservatism, for a faith-based initiative that would do something for poor people. Afterwards, [when] he was talking to us, George W. took me aside and said, "Jim, I don't understand poor people. I don't live, never lived around poor people. I don't know [how] poor people think. Frankly, I'm a white Republican guy who just doesn't get it. But I'd like to. How do I get it? How do I understand?"

I said, "You need to listen to poor people, and people who work and live with poor people." In the inaugural address, which talked more about poverty than any inaugural in years, he said, "We have to listen. Most of us don't understand poverty," he said. "We have to listen to those who do."

I take that seriously. But when I met the president and began talking with him, and listening to what he was saying, I felt that he was 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, and changed him. Gave him purpose. That's part of Methodism. Always has been. Kind of a 12-step God -- you know, changing my life.

My hope was that he'd make a pilgrimage from being a self-help Methodist to a social reform Methodist, like John Wesley was. John Wesley talked about your faith changing your life, solving drinking problems, saving your family and your marriage. But also he talked about the abolition of slavery.

I wanted to hear George Bush talk not just about how personal behaviors cause poverty, but how structures and social oppression, and hardness of heart of the rich, and laws and lack of just laws cause and perpetuate poverty. So that'd be a pilgrimage from self-help to a social reform Methodist.

That was my hope -- that in this process of his faith-based initiative, we'd see some movement in the president's theology; deepening of his theology, where he'd understand that poverty's not just rooted in individual choices, but in social policies, practices, and behaviors.

Then Sept. 11 came. I think his role changed dramatically, his notion of himself and his place in history, and he became commander in chief of the war on terrorism. The self-help Methodist became now almost a messianic American Calvinist, speaking of the mission of America, and even of his perhaps divine appointment to be president at a time such as this.

This raises some deep and unsettling theological questions, I think, whether there's a confusion now in the role of church and nation -- the body of Christ, the Christian community, what its role is versus the role of the nation.

Hymnology is often used in the president's speeches, and his 2003 State of the Union, there's "wonder working power" in the faith and values of the American people. Well, that's not what the song says. Those of us who are evangelical hear that song, "Wonder Working Power" -- it's a hymn. "There's wonder working power in the blood of the Lamb," the song says, which means the salvation in Christ, not in the values of the American people. It's not what the song says.

Or Ellis Island, on the first anniversary of Sept. 11. He talked about how America stands as a beacon of light to the world, and the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. Well, that's in the Gospel of John. But the light there is the word of God, and the light of Christ, not the beacon of American freedom. So hymns are being altered and put in a different context. I think what you see now is more an American civil religion than evangelical biblical faith.

… That's bad theology. It confuses American civil religion and biblical faith. It confuses church and nation. It confuses God's purposes with the best interests for American foreign policy, so there's a confusion here. It's bad theology and bad foreign policy at the same time.

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posted april 29, 2004

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