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Bush & religion: How does he compare to past presidents?

WASHINGTON (BP)–Where does George W. Bush rank among past presidents in terms of public displays of religion? Right in the middle, says author David Aikman, a former senior correspondent for Time magazine who has written a book about Bush’s Christian faith.

“Virtually every American president in office has either been a person of faith or a supporter of the principle that faith was a good thing,” Aikman told Baptist Press. “I think this particular president — although he has been more outspoken than most recent people in office — is absolutely in the mainstream of an important American historical tradition.”

In terms of religiosity, Aikman compares Bush to Democrats Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter and Republicans Abraham Lincoln and William McKinley.

Even Thomas Jefferson — a deist — recognized the importance of religion, Aikman said.

“Although he wasn’t a Christian, Jefferson believed very much what this president believes — that America has a sort of moral contract with the Almighty which requires Americans to be very careful about the way they behave,” Aikman said.

Aikman’s 2004 book, “A Man of Faith: The Spiritual Journey of George W. Bush,” examines the Christian walk of America’s 43rd president.

Baptist Press recently talked to Aikman to get his thoughts on Bush’s faith. Following is a partial transcript:

Baptist Press: “How has the president’s faith impacted the way he has governed?”

David Aikman: “It’s made him remarkably focused. Even if you don’t like his policies, you have to begrudge the fact that he is like a bulldog when he gets certain things between his teeth. The way faith plays into that is that I think he prays very carefully — as any president does — about the decisions he should make and the direction he should go in. …

“He would never say, ‘I believe God has told me this and such, and this and such.’ But if he believes he has gotten wisdom or gotten insight to do a certain thing, he doesn’t second-guess himself. Some people may say that’s a fault, because you should correct your mistakes as they occur.

“But the virtue is that it makes you extraordinarily focused.”

Baptist Press: “What about the way he has responded to Sept. 11? How has his faith impacted the way he has responded to that tragedy?”

Aikman: “As I mention in my book, a number of people noticed that he seemed calmer, more focused and … not as jokey as he used to be before Sept. 11. He became much more serious. And I think Sept. 11 reinforced the idea that he had before becoming president, that maybe he was supposed to run for the job because there was going to be a peculiar challenge to the country … that he would be peculiarly well-equipped to handle….

Baptist Press: “Some have pointed to the fact that he is a Methodist and … not as confrontational [as some would like him to be] and would rather issues such as ‘gay marriage’ go away. Would you agree with that?”

Aikman: “I would. … The mainline [Methodist] denomination is actually very liberal — the leadership is. And even the churches that he has attended that have been theologically conservative have had a much broader approach to social issues like abortion and gays and so forth than a lot of other evangelical churches.

“The Methodists are indeed more comfortable with a variety of different viewpoints. … There are issues, which, although he thinks they may be important, he doesn’t think they are at the top of his own agenda. And he’s content to leave those be.”

Baptist Press: “Nevertheless, he is very popular among evangelicals. Why is that?”

Aikman: “Evangelicals say, ‘He’s one of us.’ Although he’s very careful in the White House not to use preachy language, he quotes the Bible and he has talked about prayer and reading the Word. People know his story — that he was converted from being a Texas partygoer to a rather good family man. They know he stopped drinking, that he espouses faith-based programs like Prison Fellowship, prison reform and so on.

“And all of these things are signals to evangelicals that he really belongs to them.”

Baptist Press: “In terms of conservative evangelicalism, where is he similar and where is different?”

Aikman: “I think he is similar in that he regards the Bible as the Word of God and he takes it very seriously. He reads it every day. He takes prayer seriously. He believes you must have an inner change — whether you call it born again or an inner conversion. He believes you should share your faith with others. All of these sort of landmark characteristics of evangelicalism, he clearly shares.

“Where he differs is on theology. He’s said things like, ‘The God of the Muslims is the same as the God of the Jews and the Christians.’ Well, that’s clearly not an evangelical position. Evangelicals don’t believe that for one moment.

“… I think, also, Bush has … learned to talk to Roman Catholics, who, after all, have a different language and a different system of talking about their own values. So, in that sense he is more ecumenical than many evangelicals would be comfortable being.”

Baptist Press: “Some critics have criticized President Bush’s faith, saying it’s purely political, trying to get evangelical votes. How would you respond to that?”

Aikman: “I think that’s nonsense. If the guy had found faith in the six-month period before he became a candidate for the highest office in the land, you might well argue that this guy is counting votes already.

“But his conversion experience goes back to 1984 — 15 years before anybody even talked about him running for office. He went to weekly Bible study in 1985. Nobody even considered him eligible for the highest office in the land [then]. So the notion that he conjured up this evangelicalism when he started to run for office is not borne out by the public record of who he is.”
“A Man of Faith: The Spiritual Journey of George W. Bush” is published by W Publishing Group and is available online at www.lifewaystores.com

    About the Author

  • Michael Foust