Bush turns increasingly to language of religion

While pleasant to right, expression of faith could alienate many, critics say

February 10, 2003|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Bush has hardly made a secret of his faith in the power of God. But recently, Bush has taken to sprinkling more religious language into his speeches, even drawing upon evangelical hymns and expressing his conviction that events are often driven by a divine force.

"We do not claim to know all the ways of Providence," he declared in his State of the Union address last month. "Yet we can trust in them, placing our confidence in the loving God behind all of life, and all of history. May he guide us now."

The day the space shuttle Columbia ripped apart in the sky, killing seven astronauts, Bush, quoting the prophet Isaiah, said of the victims: "Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing."

The sincerity of the president's religious commitment seems beyond doubt. Bush is a churchgoing Methodist who said he has not drunk alcohol since 1986, when he recommitted himself to Jesus Christ. In 1999, when asked in a campaign debate what political philosopher he most identified with, Bush named Christ, "because he changed my heart."

At the same time, Bush's increasing efforts to express his faith coincide with a White House drive to court religious conservatives in advance of the president's 2004 re-election campaign.

The president's top political adviser, Karl Rove, has concluded that as many as 4 million Christian conservatives who probably would have voted for Bush instead stayed home in the 2000 election. Rove declared a year ago that "we have to spend a lot of time and energy" drawing them back into politics.

Even 1 million extra votes could supply an enormous boost next year for Bush, who won the presidency by the tightest of margins. The president will talk directly to a religious group today, when he travels to Tennessee to speak, as did most of his recent predecessors, to the National Religious Broadcasters convention.

Message has risks

Bush's increasing use of religious language has drawn criticism from those who advocate a strict separation of church and state. They say his message is growing more exclusionary for Americans who do not share his beliefs.

Some foreign policy analysts say Bush also is taking a sizable risk in solidifying his image as a Christian believer when he is on the verge of launching a war against Iraq. Since America's war on terrorism began, radical Islamic leaders and terrorist groups have vilified the anti-terror drive as a holy war against people of Islamic faith.

In speaking of terrorism and of America's confrontation with Iraq, Bush typically goes out of his way to clarify that the enemies are terrorists and outlaw regimes, not Muslims.

Terrorists, he has declared, have taken hostage what Bush has described as a peaceful Islamic religion.

Yet some analysts say the president undercuts those efforts if, even in events unrelated to war, he uses language suggesting to the world that America's leader is a devout Christian.

"If the war is put too much in the context of, `The Christian faith is somehow burdened, so we have to assume the role of good Christians,' it sends a very negative signal," said Edward S. Walker Jr., president of the Middle East Institute and a State Department specialist during the Clinton years and the start of the Bush administration.

"The president has been very careful that no one misinterprets this as a fight between religions, but he has to be careful about quoting evangelical hymns," Walker said. "That kind of thing gets picked up immediately. There are people actually looking for it."

`A crusader's war'

On Friday, the founder of the Islamic militant group Hamas urged Muslims to "strike Western interests and hit them everywhere" if the United States leads an invasion of Iraq.

"It's a crusader's aggression, a crusader's war and an occupation," Sheik Ahmed Yassin said in a vitriolic letter.

Karen Hughes, a former top adviser to Bush who still helps draft major speeches, said that by meeting frequently with Muslim leaders, visiting a mosque and praising Islam, the president "has gone to great lengths to make it clear" that the war is not about religion.

"At moments of tragedy or great challenge, presidents have frequently called on faith for comfort and strength," Hughes noted.

The president is careful to recognize, she said, that "America is a nation of many faiths." But she added: "We were founded on the belief that we were given certain rights by a creator."

Bush was raised an Episcopalian but converted to Methodism after he married. Though he has not described himself as "born again," he underwent what he called a transforming experience in 1986, when he engaged in a long, probing conversation with the Rev. Billy Graham. Shortly afterward, Bush became a teetotaler and renewed his faith in Christ.

Since taking office, he has cultivated an atmosphere at the White House that is flecked with religious feeling. He often begins Cabinet meetings with a prayer.

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