God Not Chads

How George Bush used religious talk to woo evangelicals without alienating moderates.

Continued from page 2

Bush was able to break the Jesus taboo because he had, at other times, established his bona fides as a tolerant man. Indeed, Bush broke another religion barrier: He was the first national candidate to talk regularly about "mosques," as in, government should value the good work being done by "churches, synagogues and mosques." This was partly designed to appeal to Muslims--and early signs are

it worked

--but it also helped convince others he was a religious pluralist. Having done that, he could talk about Christ as much as he wanted.

From the beginning of the campaign until the end, Bush pushed the buttons that subtly appealed to evangelicals. In his interview with Beliefnet, he twice mentioned that he was a "lowly sinner." This is classic Southern Baptist lingo, and it telegraphed immediately that he had spent some time in evangelical pews.


His emphasis on funding faith-based charity was a politically perfect example of being a "compassionate conservative." Conservatives heard the part about helping religion; moderates heard the part about helping the poor.

His comments about abortion focused on "partial-birth" abortion--a position that could energize evangelicals without alienating moderates (many of whom are queasy about the procedure).

He even managed to stoke evangelical passions when talking about seemingly secular subjects like education reform. Ever notice he was oddly specific in saying he wanted "phonics-based" reading programs? The war between phonics and whole-language reading techniques has become a major, if little understood, front in the culture wars. Many conservatives view whole language (in which the teacher allows students to figure out meaning of words from context instead of sounding it out) as a classic example of liberal permissiveness messing up the country. Bush's casual insertion of the word "phonics" (the more traditional approach) showed how sophisticated he was is understanding that strain of cultural resentment.

He made early overtures to homeschooling advocates, realizing that they were a more potent force of voters than the Christian Coalition or the Morality Majority. The courtship was done quietly. "I don't think Bush wanted anything that was on a radar screen," says Beliefnet columnist

Richard Land
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Steven Waldman
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