Speaking to the National Religious Broadcasters convention in Nashville, Tenn., Bush urged support for his stalled "faith-based initiative" that would help religious charities access government funds. "I ask our religious broadcasters, those who reach into every corner of America, to rally the armies of compassion so that we can change America one heart, one soul at a time," Bush said.
Two years after Bush introduced his plan to help private groups gain access to federal dollars, Congress has failed to pass the measure. Last week, a scaled-back compromise crafted by Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., passed the Senate Finance Committee.
A stronger bill, which would allow religious groups to discriminate in hiring and directly receive government dollars, passed the House in 2001 but died when Senate Democrats blocked the bill last year. Bush, frustrated by the delay, has implemented many elements of his plan by executive order.
With a Republican-controlled Congress, Bush has tried to revive the measure. He told the broadcasters that "government must not and will not endorse a religious creed or directly fund religious worship," but said "the days of discriminating against religious groups just because they are religious are coming to an end."
Bush, using deeply religious language, noted that "11 a.m. on Sunday has been called the most segregated hour in America," and called for urban and suburban churches to partner in helping the disadvantaged and overcoming racism. "The poor and suffering are the responsibility of the whole church, even when they are not members of any church," Bush said.
Bush also turned his sights toward Iraq, saying Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has scorned the international community and remains a threat that must be disarmed, with or without United Nations approval. "Saddam Hussein is a threat. He's a threat to the United States of America, he's a threat to some of our closest friends and allies. We don't accept this threat," Bush said to loud applause.
Indeed, Bush's war rhetoric met a friendlier audience in the 1,550-member NRB than most other church groups, especially more liberal mainline Protestants, who have strongly denounced the prospect of war. Bishops from Bush's own United Methodist Church have publicly rebuked him. Members of the National Council of Churches met last week with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and this week will meet with French officials.
Bush blasted Hussein for using civilians as military shields, saying they are "entirely expendable when their suffering serves his purposes. America views the Iraqi people as human beings who have suffered long enough under this tyrant."
Glenn Plummer, chairman and CEO of the broadcasters group, said Bush "electrified" the audience but the president's remarks on Iraq were not meant for a friendly audience alone. "He understood the platform he was speaking to," Plummer said. "He wasn't just talking to a room full of evangelicals. ... When he was speaking, he was speaking to the nation, and even the world."