c. 2000 Religion News Service

George W. Bush's acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention came closer to articulating a holistically Christian moral vision for public life than any major political address of recent memory.

What remains to be seen is how deeply held are the convictions the Republican nominee expressed, whether he has the capacity to grow into new areas of application for such convictions, and of course whether he will have the opportunity to translate his views into genuine policy gains.

A truly Christian public vision is grounded in a deep sense of respect for human life at every stage and in every condition. The most important role of law in a civilized society is to deter and punish the harm or destruction of human life and to find ways to help human life flourish within the limits of government's mandate.

What was compelling about Bush's speech was that he both articulated such respect for life and generally reflected it in his manner and tone.

Respect for human life begins at the beginning, with the protection of the unborn in the womb. Bush did not advocate the kind of rollback of legal abortion that is the fondest dream of many of us. But he did articulate the value of unborn life and indicate his opposition to "partial-birth" abortion and support for such speed bumps to abortion as parental notification.

The fact that he bucked considerable pressure and chose an anti-abortion running mate is also significant. It is not clear how energetic Bush will be on this issue if elected, but he said more about abortion than many had anticipated, perhaps at some political cost to himself.

Respect for life involves a real commitment to seeing that people of all colors, ethnicities and backgrounds are treated equally in American society and have a fair shot at success. The Republican Party in recent years has not had a proud history on this issue, and Bush's stance on many particular issues related to race are not fully satisfying.

Yet his treatment of race in the acceptance speech was sensitive and reflected a vision of inclusion and empowerment through education and opportunity.

Those holding a political vision based on respect for life can only be appalled at the continuing impoverishment of millions of Americans, as much as 15 percent to 20 percent of the population. Desperately depressed urban population centers and rural pockets characterized by intractable poverty are not an immutable law of modern life. But in recent years few political leaders of either party have demonstrated a sustained passion to empower the poor.

Yet Bush devoted considerable attention to the issue in his speech. He also seemed clear about the emptiness of an untrammeled pursuit of wealth that cares little about those left behind.

Our violence-drenched society is in and of itself a repudiation of respect for human life. Here Bush was less satisfying. He called for enforcing existing gun laws but did not say how laughably weak such laws really are.

He did not mention his uncritical and seemingly unfeeling support for capital punishment and his state's record of leading the nation in executions.

His call for a reduction of nuclear weapons was welcome, but the promise of a missile defense shield remains highly questionable.

The Republican nominee spoke the language of faith. How easy it is to abuse religious language, to use God's name merely to garner votes. Surely no politician's motives are unmixed. And yet the evidence is that Christian faith was for this late-blooming politician a source of personal liberation, purpose in life and motivation for service. He clearly believes religious faith and values can serve that role for others as well, undergirding his welcome support for the work of faith-based organizations in American society.

A truly Christian moral vision embraces all people as made in God's image and all human life as of incalculable value. Such a vision is not an inert thing but a dynamic source of inspiration and energy to search out and tackle problems that diminish and violate human dignity. Bush seems to have caught hold of that fundamental moral vision and to have seen its applicability to some, but not all, relevant policy arenas.

We can only hope that a man who has grown considerably in recent years will continue to do so in the days to come.

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