With impeccable timing, PBS tonight presents a Frontline documentary that explores the roots of George W. Bush's religious beliefs and how those beliefs have influenced his policies, particularly his decision to wage war in Iraq.
Called The Jesus Factor, the program is an incisive report, solidly grounded in the expertise of religious leaders even as it serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of using God to justify the political policies of man.
Produced by Raney Aronson, the film is structured as a journey - the spiritual journey of Bush, from his alcoholic early adulthood to his life as an openly religious world leader.
The story begins during the mid-'80s in the harsh, dust-choked oil country of Midland, Texas, when many independent oilmen like Bush found themselves on the verge of bankruptcy.
Faced with financial failure, a severe drinking problem and the potential loss of his family, Bush joined the Midland Men's Community Bible Study group.
"Men were searching for help," Skip Hedgpeth, a founding member of the 120-member group, says in the film. "They were trying to support their families, trying to have an air of confidence for their families that things were going to be OK. Hard times have a way of making people draw closer to God."
That seemed to be true for Bush. "Faith can change lives. I know because it changed mine," Bush is shown saying in a soundbite from the 2000 presidential campaign. "There came a point in my life where I felt something was missing on the inside. I spent a weekend with the great Billy Graham."
Bush describes that weekend in the 1980s as a born-again experience. "It was the beginning of a new walk where I would recommit my heart to Jesus Christ," he said.
In the 1980s, Bush insisted in an interview that only those who had accepted Christ as their savior would be saved, according to Ken Herman, a reporter for the Austin American-Statesman. But as Herman acknowledges in the film, Bush stopped talking that way in public by the time he became Texas governor.
And Dr. Richard Lamb, a Bush adviser and leader within the Southern Baptist Convention, tells how Bush returned to the governor's mansion after being sworn in for his second term in Texas to tell him and other insiders: "I believe God wants me to be president." (Such things are not unheard of in American political life. While Jimmy Carter was usually more careful in what he revealed about his conversations with God, he left little doubt that he was having them.)
But with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Bush's theology and rhetoric seemed to change. Talk of a personal relationship with God was replaced by grand biblical imagery of Good and Evil and Armies of the Righteous.
"He had been a sort of self-help Methodist - meaning someone whose faith had made a difference in his personal life. It solved some drinking issues and some family issues - kind of a 12-step God," says Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners religious magazine. "Then September 11th came, and the self-help Methodist became now almost a Messianic American Calvinist, speaking of the mission of America."
Some religious experts in the film criticize Bush for the way he characterizes the fight against terrorism by saying, "We've never seen this kind of evil," while promising to "rid the world" of that evil.
"This language of righteous empire - of God being on our side and our having this divine mission - I think creates a framework for the misuse of religion," says Wallis. "The rest of the world hears this and it frightens them, particularly in the Arab world, because they are afraid that we see this as a clash of civilizations and that this is a religious war."
Others dismiss the criticism as left-wing. "I can understand that there are a lot of people who are uncomfortable with the concept that someone thinks they're doing God's will, or that they're on a divine mission," says Lamb. "But that says more about the Left than it does George W. Bush."
The film also explores how Bush's religious beliefs have blurred the traditional line between church and state in American life and influenced policy in such matters as stem cell research, the so-called partial birth abortions, same sex marriages and the selection of judges.
It overstates its case of Bush as the "most openly religious president in modern history." He is, indeed, but Aronson should not have ignored his closest competition, Carter. Being honest about how deeply religious Carter was and how he handled his born-again beliefs would have made Bush seem less extreme in that regard while giving viewers a better sense of how dramatic his post-9/11 shift in theology is.
"If we turn religion into a tool for advancing political strategy, we treat it as anything other than a sacred part of life from which we draw values and strength," the Rev. Dr. C. Weldon Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, says in the film. "Any time that religion has identified itself with a particular political movement or a particular government, religion has been harmed by that."
The Jesus Factor
When: Tonight at 9
Where: WETA (Channel 26)
In brief: Frontline traces the religious journey of George W. Bush.