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.
"Instead of the usual prison rehabilitation programs, which have not worked very well, Texas has turned to the Bible," Bush said in a 1999 speech to a large Southern Baptist church in Houston.
Later he added: "The best way to change Texas is through faith."
Bush is careful to point out that government shouldn't favor one religion over another, that success should be measured in terms of concrete results, and that people should always have the option of a more secular service. But he clearly believes that the most intractable problems require something that only faith-based groups can provide.
"Many of these organizations share something else in common," Bush said in a 1999 speech, "a belief in the transforming power of faith. A belief that no one is finally a failure or a victim, because everyone is the child of a loving and merciful God--a God who counts our tears and lifts our head. The goal of these faith-based groups is not to just to provide services; it is to change lives."
Though he sometimes turns syrupy when he talks about his enthusiasm for these programs, he has also said his support for them is rooted in "logic"--because they work when other programs do not. (For a study on the effectiveness of faith-based drug rehab programs, click here.) But friends and associates of Bush say his thinking on this is still pretty basic. Right now it's a gut feeling that if faith helped him, it can help others.
So he has not necessarily wrestled with some of the more irksome questions about what it means to be both a Good Christian and a Good Politician. Opponents cite as evidence that he hasn't squared the two identities. In early 1999, he allowed Karla Faye Tucker, a murderer turned born-again Christian, to be executed in early 1999 despite pleas on her behalf by none other than Pat Robertson; that may be an indication that his belief in redemption through faith is still developing.
And there are difficult questions about faith-based organizations. No matter what safeguards government puts in place, his approach would provide government money to help groups spread a religious message. That is more palatable in the abstract than the specific.
How will, say, fundamentalist Christians react to the idea that government money is flowing to a Muslim group that teaches kids to love Allah, keep halal, and follow other principles of the Qur'an? From a fundamentalist perspective, taxpayer dollars would be going to support a religion that would, in the eyes of some Christians, doom their followers to eternal damnation. If they don't like taxpayer-subsidized paintings, how will they feel about taxpayer-subsidized prison reform that included Qur'anic studies? And, of course, Muslims or Jews or members of other religions might harbor the same fears in reverse, preferring that their tax dollars not go to promoting New Testament biblical principles.
Just as important, there are growing numbers of religious leaders concerned that entanglement with government will corrupt religion. (See Gregg Easterbrook's article on this topic.) Will they be able to criticize City Hall if City Hall is giving them money? Will regulations end up forcing them to secularize their activities? For instance, if they want to hire only, say, Protestants, will they be allowed to or forced to bring in others in order to abide by anti-discrimination laws?
There are other indications religion may play a greater-than-usual role in the campaign. The Republican platform, for instance, advocates "the return of voluntary school prayer to our schools and will strongly enforce the Republican legislation that guarantees equal access to school facilities by student religious groups." Bush can also expect scrutiny for having signed a few months ago a Texas proclamation that declared June 10 to be "Jesus Day" and urged Texans to "follow Christ's example by performing good works in their communities and neighborhoods." (Bush aides say he also signed proclamations celebrating other religious figures).
A Bush presidency would push for a greater role for faith in meeting public goals--and would inevitably place at the center of the national debate the role of religion in public life.