President Bush heralded Southern Baptists as champions of the faith and said that Baptists "believe as America's founders did: that religious faith is the moral anchor of American life." Bush delivered his remarks June 11 via satellite to messengers gathered at the America's Center for the 2002 annual meeting of the SBC in St. Louis.
The president's address contained references to his personal faith in God, his commitment to preserving the traditional family, and social issues important to evangelicals.
Bush, who garnered widespread support from evangelical Christians in the 2000 presidential elections, reminded Southern Baptists that he shares what he called common commitments with the SBC.
"We believe in fostering a culture of life, and that marriage and family are sacred institutions that should be preserved and strengthened," Bush told messengers as they interrupted his speech with applause. "We believe that a life is a creation, not a commodity, and that our children are gifts to be loved and protected, not products to be designed and manufactured by human cloning."
Bush also thanked SBC President James Merritt for his spiritual support in the days following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.
Merritt, in his introductory remarks, told messengers that President Bush "reminds us that a great people must spend time on bended knee in humility searching for wisdom in the presence of the Almighty."
Merritt was one of a handful of national ministers invited to pray and offer spiritual counsel to the president.
"Mr. President," Merritt said, "We want you to know that Southern Baptists love you and appreciate all you are doing to lead our country. We fully stand behind you and are praying for you on a daily basis."
Bush expressed his gratefulness to Southern Baptists for their prayers since the Sept. 11 attacks.
"We have felt sustained and uplifted by your prayers," Bush said. "Laura and I are incredibly grateful to you for those prayers. We consider your prayers to be a most precious gift.
"I want to thank all of you for your good works," he said. "You're believers, and you're patriots, faithful followers of God and good citizens of America. And one day, I believe that it will be said of you, 'Well done, good and faithful servants.'"
The president told Southern Baptists to remember and renew old and honorable commitments, noting that three centuries ago there were fewer than 500 Baptists in America. Today, there are more than 16 million Southern Baptists.
"From your denomination have come presidents like Harry Truman and preachers like Roger Williams and Billy Graham, a man who has played such an important role in nurturing my faith," Bush said.
Bush also said Baptists have had an "extraordinary influence in American history," noting the convention's role as a "champion of religious tolerance and freedom."
"What I found interesting is the Baptist form of church government was a model of democracy even before the founding of America," he said. "And Baptists understood the deep truth of what Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said: 'The church is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.'
"Since the earliest days of our republic, Baptists have been guardians of the separation of church and state, preserving the integrity of both," Bush said. "Yet, you have never believed in separating religious faith from political life. Baptists believe as America's founders did that religious faith is the moral anchor of American life."
Bush also addressed messengers concerning his personal faith in God, noting that throughout history people of faith have been "our nation's voice of conscience."
"We all know that men and women can be good without faith," he said. "And we also know that faith is an incredibly important source of goodness in our country.
"True faith is never isolated from the rest of life, and faith without works is dead," he added. "Our democratic government is one way to promote social justice and the common good, which is why the Southern Baptist Convention has become a powerful voice for some of the great issues of our time."
Southern Baptists enthusiastically applauded and shouted words of approval as Bush affirmed his belief in fostering a culture of life; that marriage and family are sacred institutions that should be preserved and strengthened; that protecting human dignity and promoting human rights should be at the center of America's foreign policy; that government should view the good people who work in faith-based charities as partners, not rivals; and that the days of discriminating against religious institutions simply because they are religious must come to an end.
Following Bush's address, Merritt noted that even though Bush may be a Methodist, "He's the closest thing we've had to a Southern Baptist [president] in a long time."