NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–President Bush’s faith — scrutinized for an hour on PBS April 29 — is genuine and deep, several key evangelicals said in interviews for the public network’s “Frontline” series, in an installment titled “The Jesus Factor.”
“There’s no question that the president’s faith is real, that it’s authentic, that it’s genuine,” Doug Wead, an evangelical adviser to Bush’s father in the 1988 presidential campaign, said in an interview for the program archived on the PBS website.
Wead continued: “… and there’s no question that it’s calculated. I know that sounds like a contradiction. But that will always be the case for a public figure, regardless of their faith, whether they’re Islamic, or Jewish or Christian. … Gandhi once said, ‘He who says that religion and politics don’t mix understands neither one.'”
Two other evangelical leaders were featured on the program: Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, and Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs with the National Association of Evangelicals.
Land, comparing former President Reagan’s opposition to abortion with Bush’s, said Reagan “was pro-life by gut instinct. It just horrified him. The whole process horrified him. He just couldn’t conceive of people arguing that people ought to be able to routinely kill unborn babies. But it was more of a traditional value, American value, Western civilization kind of gut instinct with him. With George W. Bush, it is a settled faith conviction, and I’ll take settled faith convictions over gut instincts anytime.”
In the war on terrorism and U.S. military deployment to topple Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, Cizik told the PBS show, “I sleep better at night knowing he is a man who isn’t afraid to say he prays, just like George Washington and many other presidents,” according to the interview transcript. “Yes, it’s a comfort. I think he is a man who has a proper humility, who doesn’t let his faith or his religious beliefs improperly influence his role as commander in chief. But he’s got a healthy balance, and I sleep better knowing it. Sure. No doubt about it.”
Wead, Land and Cizik’s comments were interspersed with those from two religious critics of the Bush administration, C. Welton Gaddy, head of The Interfaith Alliance, and Jim Wallis, founder and editor of Sojourners magazine, along with several analysts and journalists.
The documentary also included video clips of Bush reflective of his faith.
Among the media assessments of the PBS Frontline documentary:
A San Diego Union-Tribune writer described it as “an evenhanded, even cautious, examination” of Bush’s faith, while a New York Daily News writer credited the effort as “impressively open-minded and objective.”
A Seattle Times writer noted that interviews with “the president’s friends, foes and observers” leave viewers with an ability to “form their own conclusions.”
A New York Times writer likened the program to “those illustrated anatomy books where transparent plastic pages can be flipped to reveal the muscle, bone and organs beneath the skin. Stripping off the layers of patrician pedigree, Yale and his Texas business pursuits, the documentary lays bare Mr. Bush’s spiritual conversion and its consequences.”
The full PBS program can be viewed online at www.pbs.org beginning Saturday, May 1. The full transcript should be available “in about a week following the initial broadcast,” according to the website. VHS and DVD copies also can be ordered there.
The broadcast recounts that a men’s Bible study in Midland, Texas, and a visit with Billy Graham helped a struggling George W. Bush find faith in the 1980s. Bush was in danger of losing his marriage and his two young daughters from a drinking problem, Wead recounted. He woke up one morning with a decisive, “Eureka, that’s it,” as Wead put it, according to the PBS transcript. “‘I’ll take God. I’ll beat drinking. I keep Laura and the girls; [it’s] that simple. I will never take a drink again the rest of my life. Done. … So where do you go to sign up? How do you believe? I’ll believe.'”
During the 1988 presidential campaign, after his father finished behind TV evangelist Pat Robertson in the Iowa caucuses, the elder son helped bridge the gap between evangelical community and his Episcopalian father. In the end, George H.W. Bush became the first modern president to achieve a landslide victory without a strong Catholic or Jewish vote.
Bush continued to build on his relationships with evangelicals in winning the Texas gubernatorial race in 1994, unseating touted Democratic Gov. Ann Richards.
Bush’s support for faith-based initiatives was birthed in the Texas capital when he gave support to public funds for a drug treatment program operated by a religious organization, Teen Challenge.
Cizik, explaining the rationale for President Bush’s emphasis on faith-based initiatives, told Frontline, “We believe there has to be equality of treatment toward religious social service providers in America … so that they’re treated the same as secular service providers — equal competitors for federal dollars to be able to dispense services to the needy. That’s what the faith-based initiative of this president is about….
“For decades, religious service providers have been told, ‘You’re religious. You don’t qualify. You can’t even compete,'” Cizik continued, “in spite of the fact that our institutions, our social service providers, have done the best job, according to many social scientists, in helping people. Helping the inmate who’s back on the street. Helping the drunk or the derelict. Helping the unwed mother who needs help. Our social service providers have done the best job, the most effectively, at the least cost. Yet for decades, we’ve been told, ‘You don’t qualify.’ That’s simply not the American way.”
Gaddy, of The Interfaith Alliance, listed several objections to faith-based initiatives, according to the transcript of his interview. Amid such programs, “evangelists, proselytizers … can move among the people” who are receiving services, “and they can proselytize all they want,” Gaddy said.
Gaddy also reminded that anti-discrimination regulations, for example, will accompany federal funds and thus thwart faith-based organizations in using “doctrinal conformity and ecclesiastical polity” in their hiring practices. “[I]f they want to be conduits of federal funds, if they want to be a part-employee of the federal government, then they have to live with the same regulations and civil rights that everyone else lives with,” Gaddy said.
Land also expressed such reservations about faith-based initiatives, but told Frontline, “I don’t think there’s any question that this president’s heartbeat is close to the heartbeat of Southern Baptists when it comes to serious and important public policy issues to Southern Baptists. The first one unquestionably, undeniably is the question of the sanctity of human life. This issue is as important to Southern Baptists as the slavery issue was to the abolitionists.”
Land noted that Bush, in the 2000 election, “carried every state in which there was a significant Southern Baptist presence.” He also stated, “The single most reliable predictor of how a person voted in the 2000 election was whether they went to church or synagogue or mosque at least once a week.” If they did, Land said, “two-thirds of them voted for George W. Bush.”
Wead predicted that President Bush’s signing of the ban on partial-birth abortion last November “will be a big statement to evangelicals,” most of whom he described as pro-life. “… [T]hey’ve never had anything on the right-to-life abortion front ever, from Reagan or anybody,” Wead said. “So in that sense, it’ll be significant, even to evangelicals who are pro-choice. I think at least they will stop and think, ‘You know, I’m pro-choice. But he had the guts to buck the whole media to sign that, and it’s meant as a gesture towards me, even though I’m pro-choice.'”
Today at the White House, Cizik said, “This president somehow — and I think his staff — have the heartbeat of evangelicals. So we don’t need to be constantly calling up the White House, or whatever, lobbying them on behalf of our agenda. I think that we see eye to eye. They understand how we think.” In previous administrations, he said, “There was all this idea — ‘Oh, if we can only get a staff person in the White House who would carry our concerns to the president.’ Well, a private joke inside the Beltway nowadays is, ‘We don’t need a staff person. We’ve got one in the Oval Office.’ What do you want, a staff person, or do you want the president who understands you? I’ll take the president.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: A LEADER’S FAITH and AMONG FRIENDS.