After the September 11 attack, Bush displayed great skill at expressing his spiritual and moral convictions. His development as a political leader took enormous strides forward as he spoke at the National Cathedral, at Ground Zero of the collapsed World Trade Center, at the White House, at a joint session of Congress, and on national television.
As revealing as those public moments were, the President has been more open about his Christian convictions in private. Christianity Today interviewed several religious leaders who have visited with Bush since September 11.
A few hours before his address to Congress on September 20, President Bush met at the White House with a broad spectrum of religion leaders. Bush had asked Goeglein, deputy directory of White House public liaison, to organize a meeting of religious leaders before the speech. Goeglein and his staff started calling.
Twenty-seven leaders, including 13 evangelicals, attended. The group included evangelists Luis Palau and Franklin Graham, pastors Max Lucado, Bill Hybels, T.D. Jakes, and Charles Blake, and Edward Cardinal Egan of New York. Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, and Mormon leaders also attended the meeting.
These leaders were scattered across the nation at the time of the terrorist attacks. Lucado had just flown back to his home in San Antonio, Texas, when the White House called. He changed shirts and hopped back on a plane.
Palau, based in Portland, Oregon, was conducting an evangelistic festival in Santa Cruz, California. He took the first flight to Washington on a nearly empty Boeing 757. Arriving at his hotel, he noticed that "the only people roaming around were the military," he recalls. "The security people all had gas masks." The contrast of the beaches of Santa Cruz and the armed camp that was Washington couldn't have been starker for him.
Once inside the White House, the leaders were ushered into the Roosevelt Room. A circle of chairs was set up. Bush's chair was vacant and no one took chairs nearby. When the President entered and sat down, he looked around and said, "Hey, I feel lonely, somebody come and sit next to me!" Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston and Greek Orthodox Archbishop Demetrios Trakatellis of New York scooted over.
Bush crossed his legs, putting himself at ease. "I am not Pollyannaish, imagining things are great," the President declared. "I feel at peace, but a lot of that is due to the prayers of the American people. This is a major wake-up call for America. … Now, I need your help as spiritual leaders to be truthful with the American people without creating panic."
Bush then outlined what his speech to Congress and the nation would cover. He told the group that only religious leaders could give the comfort and handle the spiritual questions.
"Government will do some things, but you need to be praying and be prepared for questions," Bush told them.
Palau, who took notes at the meeting, said Bush drew a comparison between himself and the country. Bush told the gathering, "I was a sinner in a need of redemption and I found it." The President was referring to the difficult time earlier in life when he was a heavy drinker and lacked a sense of purpose. But the gospel became clear to him through a conversation with evangelist Billy Graham.
Bush told the group that the nation was staggering and needed to get back on its feet. He said the devastation in New York challenged the nation to look deep into its heart. "I think this is part of a spiritual awakening in America," the President said.
Others who have talked with Bush recently and asked not to be named said Bush's disciplines of Bible reading and prayer sustain him.
Bush's faith is a vital part of his politics. "I don't think the President would consider himself an evangelical leader," says a prominent evangelical who knows Bush well. "He sees himself as a political leader and a man of faith."
Says another friend of Bush's, "He sees himself as the President of a nation made up of Jews, Muslims, evangelicals, Roman Catholics."
At the White House prayer session, Bush referred to his Christian faith indirectly. It was "a candid, natural way of talking about the Lord and his faith," one participant said. "He was very cautious and respectful in talking with the Muslims present, and he let them talk."
One purpose of the September 20 meeting was to "get Christian leaders around non-Christian ones so that [non-Christians] would feel welcomed," says Pastor Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.
The embrace was welcomed. Bush managed to be true to his personal evangelical testimony, while also creating a tolerant and inclusive meeting.
Gerald Kieschnick, president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, said Bush has a divine calling in this crisis, and he read aloud from Romans 13.
"Mr. President, I have just come from the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan. I stood where you stood. I saw what you saw. I smelled what you smelled," Kieschnick said. "You not only have a civil calling, but a divine calling. … You are not just a civil servant; you are a servant of God called for such a time like this."
"I accept the responsibility," Bush said, nodding.
The President came close to tears only when he described his first thoughts after hearing that the fourth hijacked airliner may have been headed for the White House. "The White House is an old building made of plaster and brick," Bush said. "If it had been struck, it would have collapsed and many people would have been killed, including my wife."
The President paused for a long moment, squinching the side of his face as he does when he wants to hold back his emotions. One observer said the President reminded him of a baseball pitcher before throwing—tension, restraint, and then the delivery.
"Those fellows who gave their lives—they gave their lives for freedom," Bush said.
After squinching a bit more, the President said, "We need to keep people praying."
Franklin Graham and four other religious leaders were invited into the Oval Office to pray with the President. Bush pointed out a portrait of Abraham Lincoln and said it was a reminder of his own calling to extend freedom and bring the nation together.
The fusion of personal piety and civic responsibility comes from Bush's deep sense of vocation. Bush says he sensed a higher call during his second inauguration as governor of Texas. He called a friend in Fort Worth, telling him, "I believe God wants me to run for President." The President now tells friends he understands God's call with greater clarity.
"Bush believes that the Lord prepares you for whatever he gives us," says one friend who visits the White House regularly. "The President really feels that this is his mission."
By meeting with top religious leaders and addressing Congress in the span of a few hours on September 20, Bush sharply focused the nation's attention against global terrorism as the country's greatest threat. "In our grief and anger," the President told the nation, "we have found our mission and our moment."
'God is Back'
Since the terrorist attacks and the subsequent military action in Afghanistan, the change in national mood is unmistakable.
Relativism seems obsolete, or at least on the decline. A culture columnist at the Chicago Tribune recently declared that postmodernism, which rejects objective truth and traditional morality, has expired. "What lies in the mess in lower Manhattan and in the black gash in the Pentagon and in a field in southern Pennsylvania may be this," Julia Keller wrote, "the end of postmodernism and its chokehold on the late twentieth century cultural imagination." Praying and going to a religious service seems a natural, normal thing to do. As Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan put it, "God is back."
But for many American Christians, pulling faith and politics together poses grave risks. If one political perspective is identified as divinely guided, opposition may be branded as godless and immoral. Some fear that the fusion of the Stars and Stripes and the cross may again make civil religion a threat to biblical Christianity. American civil religion usually has downplayed denominational differences in order to exploit citizens' patriotism, essentially putting faith in the service of the nation. That, critics say, is idolatry.
But most analysts don't think this is a current danger.
"[Bush] simply didn't establish a new civil religion," Peter Berger, a sociologist of religion at Boston University, told ct. "But the scope of religions that are recognized—that range was widened to include Islam, and to some extent the religions of South and East Asia."
Berger added, "I think Bush has been remarkable in promoting pluralism, especially when you compare this to what happened after Pearl Harbor with Japanese Americans. It went from the President on down. They all said that it is absolutely unacceptable to hold all Arabs or Muslims accountable."
The U.S. response in Afghanistan is not immoral, Berger said. "Unless you are a complete pacifist, the U.S. is responding to an attack of horrendous dimensions and that fits any category of just war."
Bush's example of coping has been a powerful tonic to the national mood. Political observers say the President seems genuine, not calculated or manipulative. Ari Fleischer, press spokesman for Bush, watched the President interact with grieving families of the missing New York firefighters and police officers three days after the attack.
"He spent time listening and talking with everybody, just one on one, hearing their individual stories of their family members. It was gut-wrenching," Fleischer says. "Just having watched the President throughout all of this, there was a real transformation. It was almost cathartic. I just watched him change in the course of that meeting."
At the National Cathedral service, the President revealed how carefully he selected his words to fit the nation's mood. "We are here in the middle hour of our grief," he began. "We come before God to pray for the missing and the dead, and for those who loved them."
Bush said the providence of God may not be what we expect, but we can count on the grace of God. "God's signs are not always the ones we look for," he told the congregation. "We learn in tragedy that his purposes are not always our own."
From Berger's perspective, the President has every right to speak more openly of religious matters while attending a church service (as opposed to addressing Congress). "If I had to put myself in that role, and I am a practicing Christian, if I am asked to make a speech at my own church, I would use different language than if I was speaking to my class."
Since September 11, Bush's speeches have married his informal, choppy syntax with his newly forceful vision for the country. Presidential historian Wayne Fields points out that Michael Gerson, Bush's chief speechwriter and a graduate of Wheaton College, shares similar religious convictions with Bush.
Gerson crafted this elegant sentence in Bush's September 20 national address: "Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them."
The Bush speech was widely praised. One political columnist wrote a favorable comparison of Bush and President Lincoln. "The yardstick on how to judge a President will always be Lincoln," says Allen Guelzo, a Lincoln scholar at Eastern College near Philadelphia.
Bush has "projected an image as a determined, farsighted leader," Guelzo says, but his pieties "are still bland and conventional" compared to those of Lincoln, who was tried by the fires of the American Civil War. "Whether Bush's growth and impact lasts will depend on his resolve" as he meets further tragedies.
Guelzo says Bush's "gift for malapropisms stimulated contempt in the communication classes. But when he has really had to do so, he has shown a real capacity to communicate to the American people at large. He will not ever be the Great Communicator, but he has surprised many." Like Lincoln, Bush seems to have a "third ear" for public opinion, Guelzo says, meaning Bush knows how to pick his words to fit the national occasion.
As Bush has spoken about his faith, he has expanded his role as a national spiritual leader, especially for evangelicals who have been his strongest political supporters. For some Americans, Bush is refreshingly different from Bill Clinton. "Clinton's religious gestures were such that people were immediately skeptical of them," Guelzo says. "He shows up at Foundry Methodist with a pulpit Bible under his arm. [He] thinks he can mimic the gesture and do the trick."
Bush used the power of the presidential bully pulpit when the nation's mood of grief and unity was disrupted by Jerry Falwell. Speaking as a guest on Pat Robertson's 700 Club, the religious broadcaster and chancellor of Liberty University said the terrorist attack was the fault of the ACLU, abortionists, feminists, homosexuals, and others, who provoked God's wrath. A Bush representative immediately contacted Falwell and Robertson to express his displeasure, and both withdrew their remarks.
Now that the U.S. military is engaged in Afghanistan, the American campaign against terrorism enters its next lethal chapter. In the coming months, the content of the President's and the nation's character will be tested in part by the Bush administration's progress in the war against terrorism.
During White House meetings, Bush frequently shows visitors a painting inspired by the hymn "A Charge to Keep." His autobiography, released during the 2000 campaign, bears the same title as the hymn. "I still have a charge to keep," Bush tells his visitors.
Indeed, a verse from the hymn seems to fit Bush's convictions: "To serve the present age, my calling to fulfill. / Oh may it all my powers engage, to do my Master's will."
Tony Carnes is senior news writer for Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Whitehouse.gov gives information on the President and America's Response to Terrorism. The site lists President Bush's speeches (including his Oct. 7 address and National Day of Prayer remarks) by month (Sept., Oct.).
Media coverage focusing on Bush since the attacks includes:
Victory is an article of faith for Bush — The Sunday Times (Oct. 28, 2001)
Bush use of term "the evil one" raises eyebrows — Reuters (Oct. 24, 2001)
President soothes, warns in remarks — USA Today (Oct. 12, 2001)
Post-attack Bush a different president — CBC Radio (Oct. 11, 2001)
In one month, a presidency is transformed — The New York Times (Oct. 11, 2001)
The 2,988 words that changed a presidency: an etymology — The New York Times Magazine (Oct. 7, 2001)
Meeting for prayer with President Bush was no photo-op — The Dallas Morning News (Oct. 6, 2001)
The gospel according to Dubya — London Evening Standard (Oct. 3, 2001)
A war president shouldn't ask what Jesus would do — The Washington Post (Sept. 30, 2001)
The week that redefined the Bush presidency — The Washington Post (Sept. 23, 2001)
Bush speech wins critics, wins praise — The Washington Post (Sept. 21, 2001)
Tony Carnes also wrote on Bush's faith during the presidential campaign. Close associates of Bush painted a "complex spiritual portrait."
Julia Keller's column, "After the attack, postmodernism loses its glib grip" is available at the Chicago Tribune site.
Peggy Noonan's "God is Back" column is posted on The Wall Street Journal's OpinionJournal.
In Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, Kim Lawton focused on George W. Bush's spirituality.
During his campaign, Bush told Crosswalk.com that "My faith is an integral part of my whole being, that's what faith is. … I find great comfort in the Bible and in prayer."
A Library of Quotations on Religion and Politics by George W. Bush was compiled by Beliefnet during the campaign.
George W. Bush's A Charge to Keep is available on Amazon.com.
In our October 1 issue, Christianity Today profiled the President's spiritual confidant, Kirbyjon Caldwell.
Attack on America: Taking Care of Our Own from the American Forces Information Service gives information on the U.S. armed forces response and the strikes on Afghanistan. For more information, see Yahoo full coverage.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
More from this Issue
Read These Next
- TrendingJunia, the Female Apostle Imprisoned for the GospelWhat Scripture tells us about the story of this “outstanding” Jewish woman in chains.Português
- From the MagazineWhy Does Creation Groan?Scripture and science suggest that animal suffering fits into a divine artistic story.
- RelatedKnowing the Future Doesn’t Cure AnxietyOur true comfort comes in trusting in the one who holds tomorrow.Português
- Editor's PickResisting the Impulse of Self-OptimizationIn Lent, we realign our identity in Christ and recover our sense of being loved into existence by our Creator.