Does Bush believe he is God's man in the White House?
ST. PETERSBURG TIMES
WASHINGTON -- President Bush finds Jesus here, in the historic, pale yellow sanctuary where he often worships on Sundays, even though St. John's Episcopal Church doesn't share his views on gay unions, the death penalty or the war in Iraq.
The president finds Jesus here, too, in the marbled halls of the White House, where he reads daily devotionals and asks God's guidance, and where he has funneled billions of taxpayer dollars to religious charities.
His favorite thinker
And he invoked Jesus at a civic center in Iowa five years ago during his first presidential debate, when he was asked to name his favorite thinker. "Christ," he answered without hesitation, "because he changed my heart."
This week, on the west side of the U.S. Capitol, facing Texas, Bush placed his left hand on the family Bible he keeps at his bedside, then swore to uphold the Constitution. Millions of evangelical Christians praised God for again providing a man of faith to lead the nation.
But forget the snide T-shirts labeling the big red block of Bush-backing states as "Jesusland," and forget the complaints about the born-again righteousness that his critics say permeates his presidency. Forget the "Faith in the White House" ball caps bobbing among the crowd at Republican rallies.
Although Bush has given conservative Christians a voice in government like no other president in the modern age, his public comments on faith give voice to far less fire and brimstone than supporters and critics alike portray.
A wrong suggestion
Those who have prayed with and ministered to him say it is also wrong to suggest, as his critics often do, that Bush believes he is God's man in the White House.
On some matters, including abortion and stem cell research, the president does make decisions based on his interpretation of Christianity, but "he is very clear that he is commander-in-chief, not chaplain-in-chief," said the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, a Methodist minister in Houston who is one of the president's closest pastors.
"He is very clear about the fact that the American people put him in office. He is not confused about that at all," the Rev. Mr. Caldwell said. "Sometimes I read little statements that imply that God put him in office. He does not think that."
Critics on the left say that Bush appears to believe he is working God's will and that he has not only God's blessing, but also his endorsement.
Simply a man of faith
Friends and ministers, however, say he is simply a man of faith who asks God's help. Then, like most Christians, he does what he thinks is right.
Father Richard Neuhaus is a prominent Catholic priest who helped Bush articulate his policies against abortion, embryonic stem cell research and cloning and has visited the White House to discuss matters of faith. He said the president in no way believes his decisions necessarily reflect God's will, or that God acts through him.
"We pray for divine guidance in all the major decisions of our life, and sometimes we sense that the prayer has been answered with clarity," said Neuhaus, editor of First Things, a Catholic newsletter in New York. "But most of the time we act in the face of our uncertainty."
Ended a time of decline
Evangelical leaders and many conservative Christians happily proclaim that Bush has reversed a 12-year decline, beginning with his father, in Christian influence and values at the highest level of government.
Polls show white Protestants overwhelmingly chose Bush over Sen. John Kerry in November's election, and Christian activists say the president's public faith endears him to them.
It's not that Bush speaks more stridently than his predecessors. Many of his comments about the power of prayer and God's grace could have been uttered by Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter, who also identified himself as born again.
What's different is how Bush has expressed his faith, which has led to the perception that he believes he is closer to God. In describing how renewing his faith allowed him to give up alcohol 20 years ago, Bush offers a story of personal salvation central to the notion of being born again. He speaks of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ that resounds with evangelicals.
He also has given religious conservatives and their ideals leading roles in his administration. His first month in office, Bush suspended funding for international groups that offer abortions. He created the White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, which has given more than $3 billion to religious groups for social services, as long as they don't proselytize.
His administration has taken aim at abortion rights, and he limited federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. He recently named Claude Allen, a deputy secretary of health and human services with close ties to the religious right, as his chief domestic policy adviser. Recently, he promoted Jim Towey, a former Florida social services chief, from director of faith-based initiatives to senior assistant to the president, a job on par with chief political adviser Karl Rove.
Bush's supporters often exacerbate the left's impression that Bush is overly righteous, equating Bush's election with returning God to the White House.
Not very clear
But those close to him say it's not clear how the president believes God affects his decisions. It probably isn't clear to him, either.
"I think any of us that has a relationship with God recognizes that it is shrouded in mystery, full of doubts, and very rarely a burning line of certainty," Towey said.
"My sense is the president prays for strength and wisdom, then goes about being the best president he can be and makes decisions he thinks are in the best interest of America.
"I've never, ever heard him say, 'This is what God wants this country to do,' that somehow he has some kind of phone in the Oval Office to heaven."