God Not Chads

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

BY: Steven Waldman


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First, he used two words frequently: Jesus Christ. Even though every major party candidate until Joe Lieberman was Christian, none talked as openly about Christ, preferring instead more broadly inclusive terms like "God" and "the Almighty." Bush said Jesus was his favorite political philosopher, that Jesus "changed my heart," and that He "died for my sins and your sins."

In an earlier era, it would have been hard for a politician to utter these words without scaring members of minority religions into thinking he was going to impose Christianity on them. But the nation has become so diverse and pluralistic--whether it's watching "Touched by an Angel" or reading the Dalai Lama or nominating Joe Lieberman--that Bush could make such statements without causing fear. Ironically, the less dominant Christians become, the more a Christian candidate like Bush can act Christian.

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).

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