On gay marriage, I believe the Bush presidency will be viewed as a boon for gays because, while he supports banning gay marriage, he also said states should be able to perform civil unions, a major concession. Some were furious that the White House let Dick Cheney say that even the marriage issue should be decided by the states.
Yet while some evangelicals have soured on Bush, polls show the vast majority of evangelicals love him. Why?
It's often said that they like him because he's "one of them" and uses religious language, and that's true--but only scratches the surface. Two new books and a new film on Bush and faith help us to see the real roots of his appeal. All three are campaign-style hagiographies but give a window into the spiritual sources of the Bush-evangelical connection: persecution, transformation, calling, and clarity.
First, Christians feel persecuted. This idea is nearly unfathomable to people in New York City or non-evangelicals. How could they feel persecuted? The country is 83% Christian! They're always trying to impose their views on us. But many evangelical Christians believe they are despised, misunderstood and discriminated against by journalists, Hollywood, other elites, and almost anyone not in their pack.
And there is a grain of truth to their concerns. A recent poll showed that while most Americans say a candidate's religion would not affect their vote for presidency, there is one religious type that they would vote against just because of their beliefs: an evangelical Christian. (Actually there were three faith-based non-starters: evangelical, Muslim, and atheist--perhaps they should form a new coalition?) The film, called "George W. Bush: Faith in the White House" intersperses clips of Bush with photos of school kids who had been punished for praying in the cafeteria.
George Bush, the film and recent biographies argue, has been persecuted and/or misunderstood for his beliefs, too. "God and George W. Bush" by Paul Kengor devotes two sentences to Bush's comment in a campaign debate that Jesus Christ was his favorite philosopher--and four pages to the hostile reaction. The media "wrung its hands" and showed its "scorn" but Bush bravely stood his ground. "It's my foundation and if it costs me votes to have answered the question that way, so be it," Bush declared.
The film, which will be sent to thousands of churches around America, continuously overstates the opposition to his plans, declaring, for instance, that "opposition was thunderous" to his faith-based initiative, when in fact, even Al Gore supported the idea. But evangelicals viewed Bush as persevering over contemptuous opposition.
Feeling persecuted has special resonance for Christians for obvious reasons: it's Christ-like. The more liberals beat up on Bush's faith, the better for Bush.
Beyond that, every time Bush speaks of his faith, he is signaling to those Christians who feel marginalized that they have, in fact, arrived at the center of American society. They have a President who's just like them, so they need not feel ashamed or embattled. He is bearing their cross. "I don't think they feel they have to hide their Christian faith because the president doesn't hide it," one analyst says in the film.
This was doubly important because Bush was a child of privilege. America has elected such men but only after they had overcome adversity or challenges--FDR had polio, JFK and Bush, Sr. had their war heroism.
George W. Bush didn't have those kinds of obstacles, so he and his biographers have emphasized somewhat more pedestrian failings. He had dyslexia, for instance. "That Bush might be dyslexic makes his academic struggles and success all the more poignant," writes Stephen Mansfield in "The Faith of George W. Bush." He was a business failure, a wise-ass, and a drunk. His friend John Ellis sums it up: "To go through every stage of life and be found wanting and know that people find you wanting, that's a real grind."
(Amusingly, biographers want to portray Bush as bad, but not TOO bad. So the film says the temptation to drink arose from "a thirst that comes from a throat full of Texas dust.")
But in the context of a Christian transformation this is good stuff. Mansfield writes, "The burden might have crushed him. Men have commited suicide over less, ruined marriages and children in their attempt at self rescue. But before long something would change in Bush, and it would give him the direction his life had lacked. In Ellis's words, "he gathered it together." Though he was "going nowhere at forty....At the age of 52, he's the frontrunner for the Republican president nomination. That's a pretty incredible turnaround."
And the transformation happened, Bush says, because of faith: "There is only one reason that I am in the Oval Office and not in a bar. I found faith. I found God."
Interestingly, the film emphasizes that he turned away not only whiskey but hussies. It includes a dramatic re-enactment of the moment in the 2000 campaign that a "staffer was trying to get him to have an intimate relationship." The actor playing Bush angrily rebuffs her and you see the wave of disappointment flow over the face of the flirtatious blonde.
"She's just trying to get you to relax," an aide reportedly said. "You hurt her feelings."
"Good!" Bush responded. "I'm a married man and I'm glad she got the message!" The film is also chock-a-block full of stories about Bush's personal tenderness toward friends or soldiers who have suffered loss and even--Democrats should be seated for this--a gentleness and turn-the-other-cheek attitude he showed in political campaigns. Evangelist James Robison says, "The great change is not what he stopped doing but what he started doing--living for others."
When Beliefnet nominated Bush as a finalist in its 2001 Most Inspiring Person awards, it was because we were flooded with messages from users like "Pwicekearney" who wrote, "The manner in which he emerged over the last year from being one who did not even win the popular vote...to the man today is a remarkable metamorphosis! He is so real, so genuine. What you see is what you get! He's so human, willing to mention the name of God without fear or shame. Never has there been such a change in one man."
Third, Bush was called. Moses was reluctant to lead but God called him. Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh but God called him. Seldom do Biblical leaders lobby for their positions of leadership.
Both Kengor's and Mansfield's books make a big deal of Bush hearing the sermon of Rev. Mark Craig in which he discussed Moses's calling. Bush's mother turned to George after the sermon and said, "He was talking to you. Mansfield goes to say: "Not long after, Bush called James Robison (a prominent minister) and told him, 'I've heard the call. I believe God wants me to run for President.' Richard Land of the Southern Bapstist convention heard Bush say something similar: 'Among the things he said to us was: I believe that God wants me to be president.'"
After 9/11, the sense that God had chosen Bush certainly increased among his supporters and perhaps in Bush himself. "I think that God picked the right man at the right time for the right purpose," said popular Christian broadcaster Janet Parshall. General William "Jerry" Boykin got in trouble in part because of his comment that God must have put Bush in the White House since the voters didn't. "Why is this man in the White House? The majority of America did not vote for him. He's in the White House because God put him there for a time such as this."
Even former president George H.W. Bush speculated that perhaps he needed to be defeated so that his son could become president. "If I'd won that election in 1992, my oldest son would not be president of the United States of America...I think the Lord works in mysterious ways." This notion was strengthened after 9/11 when Bush so clearly rose to the challenge. That fed the evangelical view that his election was part of God's mysterious strategy.
Finally, there is the war on moral relativism. For many evangelicals, the root of all Baby Boomer evil is moral relativism, the sense that there is no absolute good or evil. So when Bush so clearly and frequently uses those terms, it has resonance well beyond foreign policy. When he says Al Qaeda is evil, he is, indirectly, talking to evangelicals about abortion, gay marriage, divorce, birth control, loud music, thongs, and anything else they might think resulted from moral relativism. Moral clarity is essential for fighting not only terror but American cultural rot.
There are other, more pedestrian reasons evangelicals love Bush. Evangelicals tend to be conservative so they like his policies. After all, they mostly voted for the very non-evangelical Gerry Ford over born again Christian Jimmy Carter. (And, to be sure, there are many evangelicals who dislike Bush altogether). But the connection between Bush and a great many evangelicals is deep and personal--indeed, it's grounded in their reading of how God transforms men and chooses leaders.