2016-07-27
This interview first ran in Fall 2000.

BELIEFNET: In what ways did your personal faith affect your notion of what it means to be a compassionate conservative?

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH: A lot. A genuine philosophy reflects the experiences of a person. And in my case, I was raised a Christian, recommitted myself to Christ. Got into the Bible. My life changed in many ways. An outward manifestation is I quit drinking. I was a more dedicated, more focused person. Not to say I wasn't a dedicated person beforehand, but it was a life-changing moment.

I also recognize that a walk is a walk, I mean, it's a never-ending journey. And I've got a lot of imperfections like anybody else. And the more I got into the Bible, the more that admonition "Don't try to take a speck out of your neighbor's eye when you've got a log in your own" becomes more and more true, particularly for those of us in public life. And so my style, my focus, and many of the issues that I talk about, you know, are reinforced by my religion.

You see, if you believe that we're all sinners, as opposed to you're a sinner and I'm not, then I think it helps you, at least for me. It's made me a better governor. It helps bring people together, and that's what is needed on some very practical issues that the country faces. A classic example is Medicare and prescription drugs.

BELIEFNET: Obviously, we both agree that it's certainly not impossible for a person who is very secular to lead a moral life, but do you think it's harder for a very secular person to lead a moral life?

BUSH: I think it is for me, it would be for me. It's hard for me to put myself in anybody else's shoes about their personal lives. All I can tell you is it's made my life better and easier to understand, and clearer. It's made my walk clearer. And I emphasize the walk because life's journey is, you know, there's pitfalls and there's challenges.

Heck, I'm going through one of the greatest challenges of all. And yet I'm sustained by my faith.

When people walk up to me, like they did here in Tennessee, east Tennessee, and the number of people on the rope lines said, "I'm praying for you," I know what that means, and I feel supported by the thousands of people who pray, because I understand prayer.

BELIEFNET: I've seen that in the past when you've been asked how people could pray for you, you've said to ask people to pray that God will protect your children because people are going to say ugly and hurtful things about their father during the campaign. What do you mean by that?

BUSH: I want them to understand, as best as they can, at the age of 18 years old, what the run for the presidency means, from their perspective. I guess, I hope that intercessory prayers will help ease their mind and calm their fears.

BELIEFNET: About what?

BUSH: Well it's about what they hear and, you know, about people saying ugly things about their daddy. We're a family of love, and I know what it means to have somebody criticize my dad. I didn't like it at all, and it's hurtful.

BELIEFNET: Have you ever felt like a specific prayer of yours was answered?

BUSH: Gosh, that's a very good question. I really don't pray for, you know, "Gosh, I hope I get 48% of the vote in the so-and-so primary." That's not a prayer I offer up.

I have [felt that my prayers were answered]. I have. There's some situations where I've prayed for inner calm, and I felt calm.

BELIEFNET: Around a particular event?

BUSH: Well, for example, big press conferences at times. You'll notice, for example, I will bow my head just quietly just before I walk up to the mike. There are a lot of situations in which I find myself where there is a lot of pressure and, you know, a lot of attention, and those are moments where you just need to be clear thinking and resolute and calm.

BELIEFNET: Do you think that all major religions are equally true?

BUSH: I think that we're all God's children, and far be it from me, as a lowly sinner, trying to decide who gets to go to heaven and who doesn't, for example. I mean at one time, in 1994, I said, "My faith says you must accept Christ to go to heaven." And there was a significant backlash because, as typical in politics, the full story wasn't told. And there was a typical backlash amongst, you know, some Jewish people in Texas that basically felt I had said that they can't go to heaven. I worked hard to make it clear to people, far be it from me to tell you I get to decide who goes. I'm working on myself. I'm focused on me.

And so to answer your question, there are great religions in the world, and it's important to recognize that there are great religions in the world. And there are many shared tenets of the great religions. "Love a neighbor like you'd like to be loved yourself." And there are some wonderful callings. I just happen to be a Christian.

BELIEFNET: If you believe that the way to the Kingdom of God for you is Jesus Christ, in a sense don't you have a moral obligation to try to urge other people to follow the same path?

BUSH: Not in my line of work I don't. My line of work is political. My line of work [my job] is to walk the walk, and respect others, and respect their religions. And secondly, I'm not so presumptuous as to play God. There are many great religions in the world.

God is all-powerful and all-knowing, and, you know, we'll never know until we get to heaven the ultimate answers to many of the religious questions. But the president of the United States' job is not to try to convert people to religion. The president of the United States' job is to set an example, to make sound decisions, to respect religion, and, if asked, to herald religion. But the key is not to hold out, you know, my religion is better than yours.

BELIEFNET: Under your proposals for helping faith-based organizations, money might go to something like a prison fellowship that teaches prisoners the Bible as part of the program to help people toward recovery.

BUSH: Yes, absolutely.

BELIEFNET: How would you feel if government money instead was, say, subsidizing the Muslim group that taught prisoners the Qur'an?

BUSH: The question I'd be asking is what are the recidivism rates? Is it working? And secondly, is there a secular alternative available? So the answer to your question is I wouldn't object at all if the program worked.

BELIEFNET: Even though, effectively, it would mean that taxpayer money would be going to help a group teach the Qur'an or the Bible?

BUSH: Right, that's right. But effectively, what I'm focusing on is the prisoner and the result of the program. I mean, I answered this question a lot in Texas. It can be any religion. And the question was, "Are you promoting religion by using people's, taxpayers' money?" And I said, "No, I'm promoting lower recidivism rates, and we will measure to make sure that that's the case."

A results-oriented world says "let's achieve some common objectives and some common goals," and if teaching Bible study or the Qur'an is a method that works, we should welcome it, so long as it's a voluntary program and people, of course, there is going to be a secular alternative that's called 'regular jail.' But so long as the prisoners can pick and choose.

BELIEFNET: There has been some criticism of these notions from more conservative and religious folks, fearful about the role of government regulation. When you get money, you also get audits and compliance reports.


BUSH: Absolutely, I would be worried about it, too. And one of the things we're going to do is to make sure that the bureaucracies do not hound faith-based programs that are attempting to change people's lives.

BELIEFNET: One of the provisions of the Charitable Choice Law allows taxpayer-subsidized religious providers to discriminate on the basis of religion in hiring. Do you agree with that?

BUSH: You know, all I agree with, again I'm not sure that provision, that's the first I've heard of that. But I will tell you I don't like the word "discriminate." But what I do care about is the end result. I'm not sure--that means they don't have to hire--if they're a Christian group, they don't have to hire a Jewish person?

BELIEFNET: Exactly, yes.

BUSH: Well, I wouldn't necessarily call that--I mean you can use whatever word you want--I think what matters is, will the program work?

BELIEFNET: "Discriminate," I think, is just the legal term in that case. But the gist of it is, if they believe that it's an important part of why the program is effective, if it's a Protestant or evangelical group, to have other people on the staff who are all of a similar mindset, if they believe that that's important to the effectiveness of--

BUSH: --of the program, that's what we ought to be asking. Well I think there's going to be plenty of ways to try to derail faith-based institutions to interface with government. My job is going to be to make it easier if they choose to do so.

I mean, during a debate I was asked about [my favorite political] philosopher. I answered, "Christ." They said, "Why?" I said, "Because it changed my heart." And the guy in front of him on TV said, "Well explain what that means." Well that's kind of hard to do in sound-bite fashion--when somebody becomes a religious person, why that causes somebody to be less likely to use drugs. [But] it's very difficult, at least it is for me, to explain it.

BELIEFNET: Do you think that Joe Lieberman's religion would make it harder or easier for a Gore-Lieberman administration to deal with Mideast peace negotiations?

BUSH: Well first, it's not going to happen.

BELIEFNET: I know you don't like hypotheticals but...

BUSH: Particularly that one. I think Joe Lieberman will make a good vice president, and I don't think his religion is going to affect the Middle East peace talks one way or the other because it's the president where the focus will be. But I happen to think that Dick Cheney will be a better vice president.

BELIEFNET: I've noticed in the past when you've talked about your own faith that you've never, yourself, used the term "born again." Other people may have ascribed it to you, but I haven't seen you use that. Why is that?

BUSH: I don't know. I guess because the way I like to put it is, I rededicated my life to Christ. Either way, what matters is my beliefs. To be frank with you, I am not all that comfortable describing my faith, because in the political world, there are a lot of people who say, "Vote for me, I'm more religious than my opponent." And those kind of folks make me a little nervous.

I think what matters is how you live your life, and as I talked at the very top of the interview, I do believe a person's religion will be reflected in frame of mind and attitude and outlook. And, you know, when you're running for president, people are always trying to get a glimpse into your soul and into your true being, and obviously religion is one way to describe who I am. But I don't spend a lot of time saying, "I'm the best candidate because I'm the most religious person."

I'm reminded of the Biblical verse, paraphrased, probably in Texas form, but, "If you got a speck in your eye, I'm not going to try to take a speck out of you when I've got a log in my own." I'm really mindful of that. I truly am. There is a reason why I sought redemption, and it's a reason that I will always keep in front of my mind, and that is that I'm--you know, I'm a lowly sinner, and to me that's the crux of the Christian religion. It's the great promise of Jesus Christ.

BELIEFNET: And that notion that you're a lowly sinner, how do you think that affects the way you approach government?

BUSH: Well, I treat people with respect. I don't feel like I'm better than anybody else. I feel like I have the ability to lead. I wouldn't be seeking the presidency if I wasn't confident that I could do the job.

BELIEFNET: So you're not that lowly?

BUSH: Each of us have different talents and--yeah, sinner, not lowly sinner. But you know, I respect other people, and that's what's needed in Washington, D.C., right now. This nation needs somebody to heal some wounds and bring people together. It's too bitter and too divided in Washington. And I think I'm the man to do that.

more from beliefnet and our partners