2016-07-27
George W. Bush Wednesday night officially ended his campaign with a call for prayer--"I ask you to pray for this great nation"--and began his transition the next day with a prayer service. This is a fitting way for him to start his presidency, for Bush is now the president-elect in part because he knew how to talk about religion.

Consider these numbers. Roughly 11.6 million Bush voters described themselves as part of the "religious right" (the unfortunate nomenclature chosen by the folks who do exit polls)--compared with 10.6 million who voted for 1996 Republican nominee Bob Dole, according to analysis done for Beliefnet by John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at University of Akron. (And this underestimates the evangelical vote, since many would reject the "religious right" label)

An increase in evangelical turnout enabled Bush to pull his upsets in Tennessee and Arkansas--without which Bush would not be president-elect--and provided the margin of victory in Florida. Had Bush merely done as well with evangelicals as Dole had, he would have lost Florida.

Yet at the same time that Bush was drawing a record number of evangelicals, he also won 44% of self-described moderate voters and 43% of women voters.

In other words, he drew a surge of votes from evangelicals without alienating moderate voters--a formula for victory and, potentially, for a new governing alliance.

How did he do this?

I got a clue not too long ago when I sat on a plane next to a young evangelical woman who was reading the most recent book from the "Left Behind" series (the wildly popular apocalyptic Christian books in which the anti-Christ masquerades as a United Nations official). She liked Bush, loved Billy Graham--and had never heard of Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. This would probably come as a surprise to most political reporters, who think of Falwell and Robertson as major religious leaders when they are actually political leaders. What's more, they're political leaders who now command little grassroots support.

Bush and his advisers--most of whom were intimately familiar with the politics of the religious right--understood that he could keep Falwell and Robertson at arm's length, thereby giving himself a chance with moderates without hurting his evangelical support. That's why neither men were given prominent roles at the Republican convention, and neither campaigned with him in the general election, though both continued to play behind-the-scenes roles.

Bush also realized that he could adopt a moderate tone on abortion and gay rights--as he did during the general election campaign--without undermining his appeal to evangelicals. Early on, the National Right to Life Committee made it clear to the Bush campaign that they'd back his moderate rhetoric, which emphasized changing public opinion on abortion rather than changing the Constitution. Amazingly, even after Bush said he wouldn't work to block RU-486, the abortion pill, pro-life leaders bit their tongue publicly and privately. Leaders of the religious right gave George W. Bush a lot of room.

But if Bush's moderate rhetoric and keep-Pat-and-Jerry-at-a-distance strategy explain why moderates didn't flee, it doesn't exactly explain why he still generated real enthusiasm among evangelicals.

The key is that Bush conveyed, through a brilliant deployment of evangelical phraseology, that he was spiritually and culturally one of them.

First, he used two words frequently: Jesus Christ. Even though every major party candidate until Joe Lieberman was Christian, none talked as openly about Christ, preferring instead more broadly inclusive terms like "God" and "the Almighty." Bush said Jesus was his favorite political philosopher, that Jesus "changed my heart," and that He "died for my sins and your sins."

In an earlier era, it would have been hard for a politician to utter these words without scaring members of minority religions into thinking he was going to impose Christianity on them. But the nation has become so diverse and pluralistic--whether it's watching "Touched by an Angel" or reading the Dalai Lama or nominating Joe Lieberman--that Bush could make such statements without causing fear. Ironically, the less dominant Christians become, the more a Christian candidate like Bush can act Christian.

Bush was able to break the Jesus taboo because he had, at other times, established his bona fides as a tolerant man. Indeed, Bush broke another religion barrier: He was the first national candidate to talk regularly about "mosques," as in, government should value the good work being done by "churches, synagogues and mosques." This was partly designed to appeal to Muslims--and early signs are it worked--but it also helped convince others he was a religious pluralist. Having done that, he could talk about Christ as much as he wanted.

From the beginning of the campaign until the end, Bush pushed the buttons that subtly appealed to evangelicals. In his interview with Beliefnet, he twice mentioned that he was a "lowly sinner." This is classic Southern Baptist lingo, and it telegraphed immediately that he had spent some time in evangelical pews.

His emphasis on funding faith-based charity was a politically perfect example of being a "compassionate conservative." Conservatives heard the part about helping religion; moderates heard the part about helping the poor.

His comments about abortion focused on "partial-birth" abortion--a position that could energize evangelicals without alienating moderates (many of whom are queasy about the procedure).

He even managed to stoke evangelical passions when talking about seemingly secular subjects like education reform. Ever notice he was oddly specific in saying he wanted "phonics-based" reading programs? The war between phonics and whole-language reading techniques has become a major, if little understood, front in the culture wars. Many conservatives view whole language (in which the teacher allows students to figure out meaning of words from context instead of sounding it out) as a classic example of liberal permissiveness messing up the country. Bush's casual insertion of the word "phonics" (the more traditional approach) showed how sophisticated he was is understanding that strain of cultural resentment.

He made early overtures to homeschooling advocates, realizing that they were a more potent force of voters than the Christian Coalition or the Morality Majority. The courtship was done quietly. "I don't think Bush wanted anything that was on a radar screen," says Beliefnet columnist Richard Land, a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention and a strong Bush supporter. "It was more informal. During the past two years, Mr. Bush met with a lot of evangelical pastors in small groups and they went back and said 'He's our kind of guy.'"

Time after time, he chose words that would appeal to evangelicals without alienating moderates. Note that despite all his Jesus-talk, he never described himself as "born again," a term that might distance him from those Americans who aren't.

And on the day before the election, he visited Billy Graham--the evangelical leader who was beloved by that woman on the plane and yet not frightening to moderates.

His religious rhetoric was valuable not just in attracting evangelicals but in conveying the sense that he was a person of character. It probably insulated him when it was revealed that he'd been arrested for driving under the influence. For many Christians, it may even have been a positive since he was a lowly sinner who had already been redeemed.

"His strategy [on evangelicals] was wise and brilliant," says Michael Cromartie, director of evangelical studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Institute, a conservative think tank. How'd Bush know to do this? In large part it's because he personally has spent a great deal of time with Texas evangelicals, in his own Bible study group and as a politician. His chief strategist, Karl Rove, was the one who pushed hard to develop rhetoric and issues that could simultaneously get the conservative faithful excited and appeal to moderates. And Bush's brilliant speechwriter, Michael Gerson, was educated at the evangelical Wheaton College and was a leader among "compassionate conservative" staffers when he worked as a Senate aide on Capitol Hill. Al Gore's advisers think there's a much simpler reason Bush did well with evangelicals and churchgoers: Monica Lewinsky. Those were the people, they believed, that really punished Gore for Clinton's character.

But I'm doubtful that this was the dominant factor. Gore didn't actually do any worse among religious right voters than Clinton had in 1996. Bush's increase in evangelical support came largely from the ranks of those who voted for Perot in 1996.

Bush's religiosity is not, of course, purely tactical. It is, by most accounts, heartfelt and sincere. It is part of who he is. But there are many ways he could have expressed this religiosity that would have cost him the election. He was smart enough to know, politically-speaking, the right way to do it.

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