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  2005-01-04-George W. Bush-Jesus 

Harrison Weblog

2005 blog


PBS Frontline documentary "The Jesus Factor"
depicts Bush's melding of religion and politics
,  Jan. 4, 2005

television file


KPBS-Television rebroadcast this evening a Public Broadcasting Service documentary that should give us Jews and members of other minority religions much to think about as U.S. President George W. Bush prepares to begin his second 4-year term. Part of the "Front Line" series, the documentary was entitled "The Jesus Factor."

It told of Bush, in the midst of business, drinking and marital troubles in the 1980s, taking the counsel of his family friend the Rev. Billy Graham and deciding to be "born again" as a Christian by accepting Jesus into his life.

Besides reforming himself, young Bush became a liaison between his father's struggling campaign in 1988 for the presidency and the evangelical community. In that campaign, the father lost the Jewish, Hispanic and Catholic vote, but was able to win the presidency by securing over 80 percent of the evangelical vote. The implications, according to former President Bush's advisor, Doug Wead, were staggering: "You can win the White House with nothing but the evangelical vote."

As true as that trend was in the United States, it was even more so in Texas. When George W. Bush toppled Democratic Gov. Ann Richards, his campaign theme song, "God Blessed Texas," reinforced for evangelicals that Bush was one of them.

As governor, the documentary reported, Bush wrote a memo to his staff describing his team as "circuit riders"—a reference to Methodist ministers who spread the Gospel. "This is us," he memoed. "We serve one greater than ourselves."

A program to rehabilitate teens with substance abuse problems stressed replacing their need for drugs by filling them up with Jesus. State regulators contended that such religious proselytizing ran afoul of Texas law. Bush sided with the group, Teen Challenge, announcing that he supported "faith-based programs. Conversion to religion supports sobriety."

He later approved a state report that said that changing the relationship between church and state is no threat to social welfare.

The day he was sworn in for a second term as governor in 1999, at a church service attended by three generations of the Bush family, a minister chose a passage from the Book of Exodus, in which Moses tried to refuse the assignment God had given to him—arguing that he stuttered and was otherwise unworthy—as a challenge to the governor. "This country is hungry for leadership," said the minister. That same afternoon, according to Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, Bush told friends, "I believe God wants me to be president."

In one of the presidential debates during the primary election campaign, candidates were asked what philosopher had influenced them most. "Christ—because he changed my heart," Bush responded. Asked to elaborate, he said, "when you turn your heart and life over to changes your heart, changes your life."

In that 2000 presidential campaign, he made many similar statements: "Faith can change lives; I know because it changed mine" was one. "My relationship with God through Christ gives me meaning and direction" was another.

On the issue of support to faith-based organizations, Bush once again drew on the Book of Exodus. By withholding such support, he argued, "we are asking the army of compassion to make bricks without straw."

Land said one demographic above all others stood out in the general election result between Republican Bush and Democrat Al Gore— two-thirds of the people who went to church, synagogues or mosques on a regular basis voted for Bush.

Bush's first executive order was to create an Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, charged with opening the doors for religious groups to receive government funds for social programs. Critics in Congress argued that such an initiative would tear down the constitutional barrier separating church and state. When Congress balked, Bush signed another executive order—mandating a number of federal agencies to encourage faith-based programs

Welton Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance described this as a policy fraught with danger for religious institutions, because those who may accept federal dollars may also have to accept federal regulations.

To such criticism, Bush said, the Bible, not federal regulations, "is a handbook."

By the time that the documentary was completed prior to Bush's reelection campaign, some $65 million had been distributed to faith-based charities—all Christian, none Jewish or Muslim or any other religion, according to the documentary.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States were a critical factor in Bush's religious development. During a national day of mourning service held at the National Cathedral, he declared: "Our responsibility to history is already clear—to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil."

On subsequent occasions he declared, "We will rid the world of evil-doers" and "Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists." With the Statue of Liberty as his backdrop on Sept. 11, 2002, the first anniversary of the attacks, he said that the ideal of America is the hope of all mankind. "Light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it"—words that he took from the Gospels about Jesus, only now Jesus and America seemed to be one and the same.

Although Bush has been more open about his faith than perhaps any predecessor in the White House, he does not attend church as often as some of them—perhaps a reflection of the evangelical belief that studying Bible every day is far more important than going to church once a week.

The evangelical constituency that Bush had helped to grow for his father, and which he harvested for himself, felt that their support had been well invested. Bush appointed John Ashcroft, a fellow evangelical, as attorney general; banned federal funding for new embryonic stem cell research; banned the procedure they called "partial-birth abortion" and supported a constitutional amendment to assure that "a marriage is between a man and a woman." 

Another promise that Bush made to the evangelicals was of critical importance: "We need common-sense judges who understand our rights are derived from God."  With Chief Justice William Rehnquist now ailing, President Bush will be closely watched to see what tests will determine how well a prospective judge understands his maxim.     Donald H. Harrison