The Bush administration hasn't used a distinctive shorthand phrase to signal its foreign policy goals. The Weekly Standard has described it as "morality-based," and Newsweek's Howard Fineman has called it "faith-based" foreign policy. Commerce Secretary Don Evans, Bush's closest friend, told CT, "It's love your neighbor like yourself. The neighbors happen to be everyone on the planet."

Whatever one calls it, it represents a distinctive change. In the past three years, President Bush has traveled a long way from the cautious foreign policies he spoke about as a presidential candidate. During the October 2000 debate, Bush said the United States was attempting too much abroad. "If we are an arrogant nation, they will resent us," he said. "If we're a humble nation but strong, they'll welcome us."

On March 19, as Bush added the words "God bless our troops" to the order launching Operation Iraqi Freedom to disarm Saddam Hussein, he was not just dressing up policy with pious language—he was summing up more than a year's intensive thinking about the relation of his Christian faith and American foreign affairs. And for some influential conservative Catholics, Jews, and evangelicals, the President's faith-based foreign policy brings to fruition a decade-long effort to link their vision for international human rights, religious freedom, democracy, free trade, and public health directly with the executive branch of the federal government.

Bush's new approach has roots in the 1980s, when a handful of President Ronald Reagan's supporters began to focus on international religious persecution. The movement did not spread far beyond Washington think tanks until 1995. Then Michael Horowitz, former general counsel in Reagan's Office of Management and Budget, published an essay in The Wall Street Journal titled "New Intolerance Between the Crescent and the Cross." Horowitz was a catalyst for alliances of Prison Fellowship's Chuck Colson, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), and conservative Jews. In January 1996, another key link formed when the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and Freedom House, a religious-freedom advocacy group, hosted a "Global Persecution of Christians" conference in Washington.

In the meantime, then-Governor Bush was testing the waters with his domestically oriented compassionate conservatism. Bush has never been a globetrotter—before he became President, he had traveled abroad three times in his adult life. As governor, Bush's foreign policy amounted mostly to advocating freer trade with Mexico.

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At his inauguration, Bush laid down themes that would blossom later. America, Bush said, is "the story of a power that went into the world to protect but not possess." He also reached back to the Declaration of Independence to talk about "our democratic faith" that "is the inborn hope of our humanity, an ideal we carry but do not own."

Richard Cizik, the NAE's vice president for governmental affairs, talked at length with two sympathetic Bush speechwriters about religious persecution in Sudan and China. Horowitz, Colson, and others lobbied Bush's political guru Karl Rove on the same issue. That spring, at the christening of the USS Ronald Reagan, Bush declared his concern for religious freedom abroad, but also declared his reluctance to criticize religious persecutors; he thought it immodest to "lecture the world."

White House staffers admit that both Bush's foreign policy initiatives and domestic agenda were stalling in early September 2001, before the devastating terrorist attacks of September 11. In response to 9/11, Bush's vision became coherent and deeply linked to his Christian convictions. He declared during the Washington National Cathedral's 9/11 memorial service, "Our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil." Bush no longer sounded like a balance-of-power realist, but like an abolitionist intent on ridding the world of vice. The service ended with a powerful rendition of the abolitionist war song, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

A few days later Bush told the nation that terrorists were trying to remake the world so that they could impose their beliefs on others. "They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other." Bush said God is not neutral in this conflict between "freedom and fear, justice and cruelty."

In the war against terrorism, Bush said in his 2002 State of the Union address, "History has called America and our allies to action."

According to former White House speechwriter David Frum, at the time Bush felt betrayed by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who had blatantly lied to Bush when he denied smuggling terrorist weapons on the freighter Karine-A. Bush began to see that the webs of terror had compromised some nations. He called terror-supporting nations an "axis of evil." He enunciated a policy of "extending American compassion throughout the world."

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Abolish evil, promote freedom

After the relatively quick and dramatic war in Afghanistan, Bush and his advisers worked out their international strategy, which has been outlined in presidential speeches during the past 16 months.

In his 2002 graduation speech at West Point, Bush announced a new policy of pre-emptive attacks against terrorists and "unbalanced dictators." The President declared, "Moral truth is the same in every culture, in every time, and in every place. America will call evil by its name."

Bush proposed that a democratic model based "on nonnegotiable demands of human dignity," including religious tolerance, be adopted by other societies. Yet, he warned, "America cannot impose this vision," so it would reward pro-democracy governments with developmental and educational aid and protection against enemies of freedom.

In September the Bush administration issued the National Security Strategy of the United States. Bush summarized his broad global vision and America's pre-eminent role: "People everywhere want to be able to speak freely; choose who will govern them; worship as they please; educate their children—male and female; own property; and enjoy the benefits of their labor. These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society."

The strategy statement addressed a wide spectrum of international concerns, from fighting the HIV/AIDS pandemic and religious persecution to promoting economic freedom and democracy. The President emphasized that his national security strategy would include "special efforts to promote freedom of religion and conscience and defend it from encroachment by repressive regimes." This is the first time that a President's national security statement has so explicitly mentioned defending religious liberty. Bush called his strategy "a distinctly American internationalism that reflects the union of our values and our national interests."

In January's State of the Union address and February's speech to the National Religious Broadcasters convention, Bush outlined the key "doctrines" underpinning his foreign policy:

  • America has a special responsibility to the world. "We must also remember our calling as a blessed country to make this world better," Bush declared in his State of the Union address, and the U.S. is being led "into the world to help the afflicted, and defend the peace, and confound the designs of evil men." He weighed in against moral relativism, saying of torture chambers in Iraq, "if this is not evil, then evil has no meaning."

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  • U.S. foreign policy is to extend and protect freedom to choose one's government and to "worship the Almighty God the way we see fit." Freedom, Bush told the religious broadcasters, is rooted in "people born to freedom in the image of God." America's advocacy of freedom is not just a special interest of America, he told the nation, because freedom is not "America's gift to the world. It is God's gift to humanity."

  • Foreign policy is to be based on a belief in God-given human dignity. Bush told the broadcasters, "Faith teaches that every person is equal in God's sight, and must be treated with equal dignity here on earth."

  • Compassion is a key motive of foreign policy. "The qualities of … compassion that we strive for in America also determine our conduct abroad," he reminded the nation.

  • Peacemaking remains an overarching priority, even if it means taking up arms from time to time. Bush told the religious broadcasters, "We are called … to lead the world to peace."

    Bush told Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, "I will seize the opportunity to achieve big goals. There is nothing bigger than to achieve world peace."

Can America be humble and right?

Many foreign-policy experts question this new approach, including Carol Hamrin, a recently retired State Department expert on China and a senior associate of the Institute for Global Engagement, a Christian think tank. "I agree that there is evil," Hamrin said. "But my point is practical: if we operate on the mindset that we are right and they are wrong, we lose the complexities. People need to sense you are willing to accept them if they don't accept your values or ideas. Have we communicated that to the Muslims?"

European critics are aghast at the very idea of any religious motivations in foreign policy. Some question how far the President has departed from his spirit of humility that he said would characterize his foreign policy. They wonder how one can humbly use the power of the Army's Third Infantry Division or attack helicopters.

Elliot Abrams, a key staff member of the National Security Council in the White House, told CT that humility is "a decent and God-fearing value; [it] will be shown when we give back Iraqis their freedom."

Various Christians, like Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine and Greg Smith of Britain, have sharply criticized the war with Iraq.

"I fear above all that the religion that is burgeoning in the U.S.A. in the context of the current crisis is not true Christianity," Smith said, "but a nationalistic heresy, a mirror image of some of the extreme forms of politicized Islam."

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Some critics on the Right are isolationists. Patrick Buchanan in his American Conservative magazine decries Bush's pro-war "cabal" that is "colluding with Israel."

Doug Bandow of the libertarian Cato Institute worries that Bush's sense of calling to better the whole world will lead to widespread conflict. "This 'our calling' statement is extremely dangerous. There are 40 wars we can intervene in," Bandow said. "Americans don't have patience for imperialism."

Some worry that Bush is confusing genuine faith with nationalist ideology. A Methodist pastor wrote to The Washington Post to charge that Bush had committed blasphemy in his State of the Union address when he changed a hymn's lyric from "There is power, power, wonder-working power in the blood of the lamb" to "in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people."

Because President Bush and American evangelicals share many of the same values, some evangelicals sense a stronger burden to address the President's willingness to use might for right. Regarding Bush's foreign policy, "I waver over whether this is good or bad," said Hamrin, who recently received a Center for Public Justice award for promoting religious freedom in China.

"My culture and education tells me this is bad. Hubris that 'God is on our side' is wrong." But Hamrin says that morality requires action, too. "I read in Isaiah about God using his people in foreign affairs to do justice. We have to be careful. If we don't listen to criticism, we could easily get the worst of both realism and idealism in foreign policy."

There is no answer to most of these concerns—yet. How Bush prosecutes the current war, and maintains the subsequent peace, is only part of what is clearly a larger vision for America's role in the world. Jay Lefkowitz, deputy assistant to the President, says Bush starts every policy discussion on action by asking, "What is the right thing to do?"—meaning, Lefkowitz says, "What is the morally correct thing to do?" Whether this question can guide U.S. foreign policy in the 21st century, only time will tell.

Tony Carnes is senior news writer for Christianity Today.

Related Elsewhere

Also appearing on our site today:

Free Speech for Politicians | God-talk in the public square is healthy.

Related Christianity Today articles include:

What George Bush's Favorite Devotional Writer Says About War | "War is the most damnably bad thing," wrote Oswald Chambers. (March 24, 2003)
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Texas Pastor James Robison on the Life-Changing Faith of George W. Bush | The president of Life Outreach International talks about his friend's faith, the moral need of America, and his own conversion. (March 11, 2003)
Scrutiny of Bush's Faith Continues with Newsweek Cover Story (March 3, 2003)
Christian Leaders Respond to Bush's National Security Strategy | The White House outlines foreign policy in a changing world. (September 25, 2002)
Bush's Defining Moment | The President, facing a grief-stricken nation under attack, finds his voice and his mission. (November 2, 2001)
The Minister of 'Good Success' | Meet Kirbyjon Caldwell—megachurch pastor, real-estate whiz, community developer, and the President's spiritual confidant. (October 5, 2001)
A Presidential Hopeful's Progress | The spiritual journey of George W. Bush starts in hardscrabble west Texas. Will the White House be his next stop? (September 5, 2000)

Other related coverage includes:

Bush puts God on his side—BBC (April 6, 2003)
The footsteps factor—Kevin Phillips, Los Angeles Times (April 6, 2003)
Bush mix of God and war grates on many Europeans—Reuters (April 4, 2003)
Bush and GodNewsweek (March 30, 2003)
The Gospel According To BushNewsday (Feb. 16, 2003)
Bush's religious allusions cause stir—The Times-Picayune (Feb. 15, 2003)
In one month, a presidency is transformedThe New York Times (Oct. 11, 2001)
The 2,988 words that changed a presidency: an etymologyThe New York Times Magazine (Oct. 7, 2001)
The gospel according to DubyaLondon Evening Standard (Oct. 3, 2001)
The week that redefined the Bush presidencyThe Washington Post (Sept. 23, 2001)

During his presidential campaign, Bush told 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 his campaign.

George W. Bush's book, A Charge to Keep, is available on

For more coverage on the current conflict, commentary and thought on just war, or Christian debate, see our CTWar in Iraq archive. For relevant articles on the war from news agencies around the globe, see CT's updated war links page.

A downloadable Bible study on the implications of war with Iraq is available at These unique Bible studies use articles from current issues of Christianity Today to prompt thought-provoking discussions in adult Sunday school classes or small groups.

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Recent Christianity Today articles and commentary on the current war with Iraq include:

Books & Culture's Book of the Week: Why We Are in Iraq | Michael Kelly, R.I.P. (April 7, 2003)
Faith and Fear on the Truman | How one Navy chaplain helps men and women face combat. (April 1, 2003)
Weblog: Freed Kenyans Thank God For Iraq Rescue | Plus: Franklin Graham defends Iraq ministry, and other stories from online sources around the world. (March 31, 2003)
CT Classic: War Cry | As 1991's Gulf War began, a Christianity Today editorial said the church's best weapon was tearful prayer. (March 24, 2003)
A Nation at War—And on its Knees | American Christians pray for peace, justice, and wisdom. (March 21, 2003)
Peacemakers Seek to Show War from Point of View of Iraqi Civilians | Six Christian Peacemaker Team members remain in Iraq as bombs drop. (March 21, 2003)
War Could Reduce Holy Land's Christian Presence | Palestinian bishop fears current hostilities could continue a trend that sees Christians forced out of the area altogether. (March 21, 2003)
Weblog: Will War Breed Hate Crimes Against Muslims, Christians, or Both? | Plus: PCUSA court criticizes leader but dismisses charges, and other stories from online sources around the world. (March 20, 2003)
Weapons of the Spirit | Regardless of their positions on Iraq, Christians have much they can do. (Feb. 25, 2003)

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