Washington, Jan 30--President Bush's State of the Union address underscored a striking element of his presidency: the extent to which he is influenced by his Christian faith. In policy proposals and word choices, he showed the public face of his private beliefs.

Many Americans welcome Bush's spiritual approach and find it reassuring. But some civil libertarians are gearing up to halt what they see as the most threatening part of Bush's agenda: his drive to funnel federal money to religious groups. They see it as an assault on the constitutional wall between church and state. "It's unheard of in American history," says Barry Lynn, a United Church of Christ minister and head of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. Lynn says it will take years in courts and Congress to sort out the argument.

It goes like this: Bush and his allies say the government, in awarding money to organizations for social service programs, shouldn't leave out religious groups. "God does miracles in people's lives," he said in the speech Tuesday. Opponents say it's unconstitutional for taxpayers to subsidize programs that involve religious practices and attempts to win converts, and that won't hire people who don't follow their religion. Supporters say the First Amendment's freedom-of-religion guarantee gives them the right to hire whomever they want.

Last year, Bush signed an executive order requiring that federal agencies not discriminate against religious groups in awarding money. At the time, he said government "has no business endorsing a religious creed or directly funding religious worship or religious teaching." But he also said "faith-based programs should not be forced to change their character or compromise their mission" as a result of receiving federal support.

Bush, who turned away from drinking and toward religion in midlife, was raised Episcopalian and became Methodist when he married. Asked in a presidential campaign debate to name his favorite philosopher, he answered, "Christ. Because he changed my heart." His descriptions of himself as a "compassionate conservative" and Saddam Hussein and terrorists as "evildoers" reflect moral convictions rooted in his faith.

Bush made a clear statement of faith Tuesday night after reciting the dangers posed by Iraq and the likelihood of confrontation. "We do not claim to know all the ways of Providence," the president said, "yet we can trust in them, placing our confidence in the loving God behind all of life, and all of history. May he guide us now."

The speech also had indirect religious allusions. When Bush said fighting AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean would be "a work of mercy," it echoed the "seven corporal works of mercy" taught to Catholic children. When he said "there is power -- wonder-working power" in Americans to do good, he was quoting a Baptist hymn.

Evangelical Christians say Bush is the most overtly religious president since Jimmy Carter. Carter was a liberal; Bush is conservative.

Ken Connor, president of the conservative Family Research Council, says Bush is an effective spokesman for his conservative policies. "The president isn't given to polemical rhetoric. He isn't judgmental in tone," Connor says. "So he's not scary, not like some members of the religious right who condemn and castigate. And because of his faith, he feels a responsibility for people in need."

Bush has worked since taking office to make more federal money available to religious groups that provide social services. When his "faith-based initiative" stalled in Congress, he put much of it into effect through his executive order.

This month, the administration published a proposed rule to let religious organizations build or renovate facilities with federal housing money, as long as the buildings house social services along with religious activities.

In his speech Tuesday night, Bush proposed more than $1 billion for drug treatment and mentoring programs, some of it for religious groups providing those services. Bush also called for bans on human cloning and on "partial-birth abortion," a term opponents use for certain late-term abortions. And he pressed Congress to pass his original faith-based initiative.

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