'The Jesus Factor' and George W. Bush

The Seattle Times/April 30, 2004

Five days after 9-11, President George W. Bush announced the United States' mission to seek and destroy its foes.

One part of the globally televised speech drew particular attention. "This crusade, this war on terrorism," he said, "is going to take awhile."

Nowadays, the latter part of that statement might bear examination. But in 2001, the word "crusade," evoking Christian knights slaying infidels, raised alarm bells throughout the Muslim world and beyond.

The White House sought to calm jangled nerves. It issued a statement explaining away the so-called hyperbole.

Yet as persuasively documented in tonight's 9 p.m. "Frontline" feature, "The Jesus Factor," there's every reason to believe the president was being his most self-expressive.

Bush is not the nation's first born-again Christian president. That was Jimmy Carter. Nor is he unique in using religious references to rally Americans, a tactic favored since our Founding Fathers.

The major distinction, proposes "The Jesus Factor," is the degree to which Bush's mindset was influenced by his 1987 conversion. Faced with a drinking problem, business failure and the potential loss of his family, he rediscovered Christ through the Midland, Texas, branch of a Community Bible Study group.

In the process, Bush moved to a belief system more absolute than that of his Episcopalian family or wife Laura's Methodist upbringing. He embraced evangelical Christianity, which considers the Bible to be the unblemished word of God and heaven barred to nonbelievers in Christ's divinity.

The concrete result is a president who is the leading proponent of applying the evangelical movement's values to domestic government, from opposing abortion and gay marriage to federally funding social programs run by religious institutions.

That's where "The Jesus Factor" takes us, which is thought-provoking enough. But it's really too bad this show is only an hour long.

Although Bush's habit of framing foreign relations in terms of good versus evil is cited, "The Jesus Factor" stops short of probing precisely how the president's outlook has shaped the war in Iraq. That's a rather big omission.

Nonetheless, producer Raney Aronson weaves together many fascinating tidbits through interviews with the president's friends, foes and observers. Viewers may form their own conclusions.

Most compelling is evidence that Bush's habit of entwining spiritual and political mission long preceded the cataclysm of 9-11.

One Bush ally, Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, remembers the then-governor of Texas telling religious leaders in 1999, "I believe that God wants me to be president."

Such fervent language still draws eye-rolling in cool secular circles. The East and West Coast-oriented news media continue to neglect coverage of evangelical Christianity, despite the latter's growing impact on cultural and civic life.

Democratic strategists haven't done better. They dismissed the Christian Coalition in its formative years. During the 1976 presidential campaign, Democrats were lukewarm even toward their own man, Carter, because of his frequent references to God.

That ignorance eventually cost them and benefited the GOP. The terrific 1996 documentary "With God On Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right" outlines the movement's half-century history and, more presciently, its growing contribution to Republican causes.

The single most sobering example offered in that production and again in "The Jesus Factor" is George H.W. Bush's 1988 elevation to commander-in-chief.

He became the first modern president elected in a landslide without securing the previously indispensable Catholic vote or the financially powerful Jewish vote.

His son helped - not Jeb Bush, the star, but George Bush, the underachiever, whose field work persuaded 83 percent of evangelical Christian voters to support dad.

As a Bush supporter recalls, this was a seminal moment: "My God, you can win the White House with nothing but evangelicals if you can get enough of them - if you can get 'em all."

Republicans failed to capitalize on that discovery in 1992, partly because Southerner Bill Clinton spoke the parlance of faith more persuasively than did the elder Bush and partly because a panicky GOP allowed dogmatic conservatives to take over the Republican convention floor. That year, Clinton, Bush and Ross Perot split the evangelical vote.

All the while, George W. Bush was waiting on the sidelines. He had aspirations: In 1978, he had run for Congress but lost to an opponent backed by evangelical Christians.

Although "The Jesus Factor" repeatedly treats Bush's evangelical conversion as sincere, audiences may in fact ponder the practical underpinnings to his religious principles.

At any rate, Bush secured the Texas governorship in 1994 with evangelical support. He immediately supported public money for a drug treatment program run by a private religious group, a position that continued into the presidency. He also co-crafted the message of "compassionate conservatism," with its pleasing religious echoes.

Although it ends rather abruptly, "The Jesus Factor" is a solid case study of twinned fortunes. George W. Bush and the evangelical movement together have risen to a level of power that may or may not be reaching its apex. As demonstrated by Sunday's broad-based pro-choice rally in Washington and the growing number of First Amendment lawsuits, a backlash is forming.

Nor does opposition come just from traditional liberals. The swelling ranks of evangelical Americans - now 70 million strong - have their differences. Not all support entering the political arena, or the president's application of Scripture.

Other Christian groups are even more divided over George W. Bush.

Wednesday, the National Council of Churches took out a full-page advertisement in The New York Times urging the president to oppose legislation rolling back the Clean Air Act.

The text was filled with Old and New Testament references to the Earth's creation and care and a headline that pointedly urged, "Mr. President: Christian to Christian, we ask you to protect God's gift of clean air."

Well put. When it comes to politics, no one has a corner on the Bible.

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