He might earn this moniker not because of his connection to Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell--both of whom were barred from the Republican convention podium--but something different. It's been a long time since we've had a presidential candidate for whom religion has been so important--shaping both his personal life and his approach to policy and politics.
Start with the personal. George W. Bush has spoken openly about his relationship with Jesus Christ and how it has transformed him. He's told us he reads the Bible daily and believes in the "power of prayer;" that Christ "changed my heart," died "for my sins and your sins," and was his favorite "political philosopher." He's said that God has helped him to overcome a drinking problem and become a better father. The Rev. Tony Evans, a Dallas pastor and Promise Keepers leader who has been a Bush confidant, told the Dallas Morning News: "One of the impetuses for his considering running for president was the biblical teaching he's been hearing. He feels God is talking to him."
But there's an even more significant difference between Bush and other major party candidates in the religious realm. Bush's religiosity directly shapes his domestic policy, which advocates that government give more money to faith-based groups that address social problems.
"His faith convinced him that people who believe in God are more likely to succeed," explains Stephen Goldsmith, Bush's leading domestic policy adviser and the former mayor of Indianapolis. "To a great extent, his faith influences his conclusions."
Another close friend of Bush put it this way: "He thinks faith changed his life, that he literally wouldn't be standing here today if not for it, and he wants to bring that to others."
You could see this emphasis play out during the first two nights of the Republican convention in Philadelphia, which featured an unusual amount of God-talk for a political gathering.
While career politicians were mostly asked to speak during the day, when no one was watching, prime-time speaking slots on Monday were given to an African-American choir from Greater Exodus Baptist Community Revitalization Church, and an oration from their minister, the Rev. Herbert Lusk. On Tuesday, there was a prime-time speech from Jack Cowley, the founder of InnerChange, a faith-based prison program affiliated with Prison Fellowship, the group founded by leading evangelical Chuck Colson. Cowley extolled the "intensive, 24-hours-a-day program that immerses participating inmates in biblical principles." He concluded, "the good news is that God and faith-based programs are changing people's lives and hold promise for a more civil and compassionate society."
But the impact of his faith goes well beyond a generalized desire to help the poor. It shapes how he would help the poor. For decades, conservatives said the key to solving social problems was to get government out of the way. Starting in the 1980s, led initially by Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain, conservatives began to take a more proactive approach, advocating market-oriented reforms like school vouchers and tax breaks to help the poor. Bush takes the approach in a new direction, supplementing the free-market ideas with a dramatic new emphasis on faith.
Government, Bush said in his acceptance speech, "can feed the body, but it cannot reach the soul. Yet, government can take the side of these groups, helping the helper, encouraging the inspired."
Specifically, Bush has proposed a variety of ways to enable faith-based groups like Prison Fellowship to receive federal money for religion-based social efforts. He would set up a White House "Office of Faith-Based Action" and provide states money to set up comparable state offices. He took similar steps in Texas. (See Faith-Based Initiatives in Texas.)
But most important is a policy change known as "charitable choice." Groups like the YMCA or Catholic Charities have been getting federal money for years to run homeless shelters or soup kitchens, as long as they did it in a basically secular way. But the 1996 welfare reform included a significant change: It allowed religious groups to be upfront about, and continue to press, their religious mission.
The idea is to give government aid to groups like InnerChange without forcing them to cut out the spiritual components they view as crucial.