Christianity Today's profiles of this year's election candidates will continue today with an article on George W. Bush. Yesterday, we profiled John Kerry.
"Let me give a big introduction to our brother," said an ebullient Herb Lusk as President George W. Bush walked into a room of Christian leaders in Philadelphia. Lusk, a leading evangelical in Pennsylvania, was welcoming Bush to People for People, a faith-based community service organization, at a midsummer rally.
"Let's not hold back anything in our welcome!" said the man known as the "praying tailback" in his NFL days. Bush's eyes responded, looking bright with the pleasure of friendship. In turn, he saluted Lusk as "a general in the army of compassion." Bush was clearly reaching out to his faith-based supporters.
As well he should. Bush's re-election strategy rests on a high turnout of pro-Bush churchgoers. Christian radio talk-show host Kevin McCullough says, "The church community is more strongly supportive of this President than any other I can remember in my lifetime."
Matthew Dowd, a Bush campaign strategist, told CT that their polling in July indicated 91 percent support from evangelicals.
But top GOP leaders believe that not all evangelicals share equal fervor for the President. They agree with research from presidential adviser Karl Rove, who said nearly 4 million evangelicals did not cast ballots in the 2000 election. That may have cost Bush the popular vote victory.
Dowd, who did that original analysis, told CT that evangelicals as a voting bloc underperformed by 15 percent to 20 percent of what the GOP anticipated in 2000. "There will be a concerted effort to make sure Bush partisans turn out," he said.
The "concerted effort" turned into a highly controversial plan in July: GOP campaign officials e-mailed church supporters asking them to identify 1,600 "friendly congregations" in Pennsylvania, a key swing state. Critics complained that the GOP was crossing a line in church-state relations.
Bush has also made it a point to visit many centers of his faith-based initiatives. Dowd told CT that Bush's visits, like his stopoff at People for People, offer something for nearly everyone. They reinforce existing support among moderate suburban Republicans, and these visits seed the African American community with Bush's ideas about faith-based interaction between churches and the federal government.
Afterward, church leaders buzzed about the visit. Many evangelicals like Bush personally and his core values, but others remain skeptical of the President's agenda. That fault line runs right through Lusk's own congregation (Greater Exodus Baptist) and his family.
Lusk himself left no doubt on where he stood: "I would not hesitate to speak for [Bush]. Once again, he is delivering a blow against poverty and dependency." However, Lusk carefully shifted gears when talking about the mixed views of his congregation and his family. Lusk's adult daughter Leah laughingly admitted, "My father and I argue about Bush all the time."
Leah steers an educational program for the church's nonprofit corporation. She was headed into the military through ROTC until the Iraq war broke out. She was not convinced the war was necessary. But Bush's visit nudged her a bit. "I am still deciding" was how she put it.
That's good news for the Bush campaign. Christianity Today also informally surveyed about 40 other influential evangelicals across the nation. Many of them spoke warmly about the President but also expressed clear disappointments with the administration, specifically his handling of foreign affairs, his inability to push the faith-based agenda through Congress, and the way he expresses his faith in public.
Foreign Policy Problems
Nearly 10 years ago, Michael Horowitz, a Washington, D.C.-based political strategist, figured out a way to draw evangelicals and traditional human-rights liberals into a new alliance. For evangelicals and Jews, he pitched religious freedom and a renewed peace process with the Palestinians. For evangelicals and feminists, he pitched a new abolitionism against human trafficking.
The strategy worked and evangelicals have become crucial in developing many foreign policy priorities in the Bush White House. According to the Religion & Ethics Newsweekly survey in April, evangelicals put a higher priority than the general population on keeping America's military strong, fighting global terrorism, controlling weapons of mass destruction, supporting Israel, and promoting religious freedom abroad.
After 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Bush backed democracy as a means to transform authoritarian Middle East states. Yet nearly all of Bush's foreign policy efforts in that region are works in progress. One clear breakthrough (the capture of Saddam Hussein) has not yet translated into stability or democracy in Iraq.
Bush has also bet heavily on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and many evangelicals are enthusiastic about that. "President Bush appears to be a great friend to Israel, and he has endured a lot of pressure to back down from that," declared Mitch Glaser, president of the messianic Jewish ministry Chosen People.
Robert Seiple, head of the evangelical Institute for Global Engagement and a Bush supporter, gives the President "high marks" for a visionary grand strategy. But Seiple gives "low marks" for use of intelligence and nuance in complex situations, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict. "I don't think this President has advanced the ball in that regard."
The most tangible foreign policy problems for the administration have been the scandal at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison and abusive treatment of suspected Al Qaeda terrorists in detention at Cuba's Guantanamo Bay naval base. After the pictures of Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse and torture were released, CT spoke with evangelical professionals in intelligence agencies, the State and Defense departments, and Congress.
What emerged was troubling. Beyond setting Bush administration priorities, evangelicals were significantly involved in drafting policy memos that created the permissive climate in which the abuse of prisoners occurred. Asking not to be named, Christians who serve in federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies told CT that aggressive interrogation of suspected terrorists was no-holds-barred. Bob Woodward, the author of a definitive book on Bush's war effort, told CT, "It was very clear from my interviews that [Bush] felt the gloves were off for the CIA."
In a February 7, 2002, executive order, the President wrote that he wanted prisoners in the war on terror treated "humanely" but also "consistent with military necessity." He also explicitly argued that the Geneva Convention's guidelines for treatment of prisoners of war did not apply to terrorists. Evangelical legal scholar John Yoo contributed to several of the legal memos for Attorney General John Ashcroft justifying much harsher interrogation techniques in the war against terrorism. Yoo declared, "Terrorists have no Geneva rights." (The Geneva Conventions do not address how nations in wartime should handle persons who are agents of hostile, clandestine organizations rather than members of the military arm of a recognized government.)
A well-known evangelical, Army Lt. Gen. William G. "Jerry" Boykin, deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence, heads what some label a worldwide find-and-hit squad against terrorists. And one top Pentagon-related expert who taught officers how to interrogate Muslims is an evangelical.
But there were also evangelicals within the Bush administration who opposed aggressive interrogation of suspected terrorists. An evangelical scholar with high-level ties to the Defense intelligence policymakers told CT about personal disillusionment with the Bush administration. "We have got a global inquisition and this is not Monty Python," the specialist declared, referring to the abusive questioning of terror suspects.
The internal debate transcended the traditional "hawk" or "dove" division. Evangelicals sought to link faith and policy in setting moral boundaries in the war against terrorism. Evangelicals have been especially concerned with appropriate methods to question terrorists who claim fervent religious motivation. One source told CT that religion has become a "critical dimension" in 21st-century warfare.
Torture is illegal under federal law and banned in the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. But drawing boundaries between illegal torture and aggressive interrogation is difficult. Few evangelicals, inside or outside government, have debated torture with the same focus as they debated just-war theory in 2003. One academic working in defense intelligence told CT, "Torture does not produce truth. I searched the Scriptures to get an answer—the principle." The frustrated source said there is little authoritative information on when circumstances permit extreme interrogation.
According to a PIPA/Knowledge Networks opinion poll in July, 66 percent of surveyed adults say the government should never use physical torture. But 63 percent agreed that "military necessity may call for making exceptions" to torture prohibitions.
Other polls indicate that the public does not blame Bush himself for the abuse scandal. Some fault Bush's critics for exploiting the scandal. "I am not an apologist for Bush, but [critics] attack him any way they can. Any stick will do to beat him," Walter Russell Mead, senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, told CT.
Even evangelical Democrats like Mark Pryor, a U.S. senator from Arkansas, are willing to give Bush a pass on the torture issue so far. "Apparently it has been corrected," he said.
Back in Philadelphia, the skeptical Leah Lusk is reluctant to tie the President to the scandal. "I don't think [Bush] is to blame for it. He can't control people's minds." According to a Gallup poll in May, 39 percent of adults surveyed said Bush was "not at all" to blame. However, the PIPA/KN survey found 51 percent of adults surveyed believed Bush administration memos, which said international laws against torture and abuse were not fully applicable, "filtered down" and contributed to Abu Ghraib abuses.
The bottom line is that, for some evangelicals, Bush and his advisers, many of whom are conservative Christians, have lost a measure of trust and support because of this scandal.
At the Philadelphia rally, participants in faith-based community organizations, regardless of their politics, were moved by Bush's support of their work. Bush announced to that audience the release of hundreds of millions in funds to help HIV/linkIDS sufferers overseas. "We have people here," Bush said, "who have heard the call to save."
But in interviews around the country, CT found many evangelicals were not so enthusiastic about government money going to faith-based organizations. They worry about government-church entanglement. One Christian bookseller in Texas told CT, "You get the government in the church and soon they will be telling us what to do. The liberals would love to get a hold of this."
Not to worry. Bush's main domestic faith-based legislative agenda failed to pass even a Republican-controlled Congress, leaving observers to wonder whether Bush really was prepared to put much political capital behind it. In midsummer, the Bush campaign floated trial balloons about their agenda for the next four years. Conspicuously absent were any new proposals for the faith-based initiatives.
Thus Bush finds himself in a Catch-22 on this issue. He has not succeeded in moving his faith-based initiatives as far forward as many evangelicals would like. But if he did, others would become anxious about government entanglement.
Culture War Priorities
Bush's strong pro-life stance has gone down well with evangelicals and other conservative voters in pivotal swing states. But it's still unclear how passionate evangelicals are about another hot culture-war issue: gay marriage.
Bush has committed himself to banning gay marriage. The President's support for a constitutional amendment to codify heterosexual marriage rests on the strong opposition to gay marriage in nearly every major group in American society. African Americans are more strongly against gay marriage than any other major group.
One reason Bush visited Philadelphia was because black churches strongly supported the successful passage of the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. Calling the marriage of a man and woman "the most fundamental institution of civilization," Bush pushed Congress to pass the Federal Marriage Amendment.
Pro-family leaders like Focus on the Family's James Dobson succeeded in getting similar amendments on the ballot in several key swing states, including Ohio and Oregon. In early August, swing state Missouri gave a resounding 70 percent-plus endorsement to a traditional-marriage amendment.
At this point, however, it's difficult to assess how important the Federal Marriage Amendment is to most evangelicals. While some are claiming that the future of America rests on this issue, others think the cultural battle to define marriage has already been lost, and that evangelicals are not wise to spend much political capital on this issue. Still others think banning gay marriage should be left up to the states.
The Religion & Ethics Newsweekly poll found that white evangelicals surveyed strongly opposed gay marriage; 42 percent favored a constitutional ban; 52 percent said it would be sufficient to prohibit gay marriage by law.
On the campaign trail, Bush is more open about his faith and at ease in using Christian language than ever. The American public is comfortable with that. One national poll found that 59 percent of people who responded said it's important to have a President who is religiously devout.
In Philadelphia, Bush announced his topic was "brotherly love," and he restated his belief in "the power of faith" and that everyone is "a child of God." He closed with an injunction that linked his foreign and domestic agendas: "It's patriotic to love a neighbor like you'd like to be loved yourself."
But the President's upfront spirituality, his prayers at cabinet meetings, and his admission that he prays for divine guidance have set some voters' teeth on edge. Some evangelicals worry about an anti-Christian backlash. One leader in Lusk's organization observed, "It is a tightrope walk. Many people are nervous that the President's faith position will influence too much his political decisions."
Journalist Woodward's detailed account of Bush's faith during war decision-making caused consternation among liberals and secularists. However, Woodward told CT he didn't think that Bush's actions fell outside the normal boundaries of faith's role. "A lot of people will say that seeking strength from God is standard Christian doctrine," Woodward said.
Like many other evangelical Democrats, Pryor questions the way Bush implicitly ties faith to the conservative agenda. He said, "President Bush seems to equate his faith with conservatism, [but] many of us find appeal in Tony Campolo's book Is Jesus a Republican or Democrat?" Still he feels comfortable with the way Bush represents his faith in public: "When you are the President, you wear different hats. You are a moral leader. … We shouldn't be ashamed to talk about our faith."
Others wonder if Bush's faith in human potential for goodness and desire for freedom has made him too idealistic and unaware of the pitfalls. Jim Wallis, an evangelical and head of Call to Renewal, told CT, "His personal faith is very real and sincere." But Wallis said that when the President declares that terrorists are "evil," he implies that Americans are good. "Now [terrorists] are evil, but to say that we are good is very bad theology. [Bush] sees the mote in his adversary's eyes and not the mote in his own."
Indeed, many besides evangelicals wonder why a man of faith has such a hard time acknowledging any mistakes he has recently made. A Los Angeles Times poll in June found that a majority of the registered voters surveyed believe Bush does not "admit his mistakes and is inflexible in changing his mind when policies don't seem to be working."
Foreign-policy specialist Mead also cautioned, "My faith says God intends freedom, but people misuse freedom." Evangelical leaders wonder if Bush's lofty goals are just as doomed as those of another openly Christian President, Woodrow Wilson, who believed that war could be eliminated through the League of Nations.
Across living room couches and church pews, rank-and-file evangelicals like the Lusk family continue to debate Bush, his faith, policies, and zeal for righteousness.
Herb Lusk ticked off the underlying rationale for his continued support for Bush:
"I want to feel comfortable that the commander in chief has a relationship with God. That is important to me and I think a lot of Americans feel that way. I think the President is getting things under control."
His daughter cautiously replied, "I hope so."
Tony Carnes is a senior news writer for Christianity Today. Additional reporting by Mark Stricherz.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Other Christianity Today articles on George W. Bush and the Republican Party from our Election 2004 page include:
Bush Calls for 'Culture Change' | In interview, President says new era of responsibility should replace 'feel-good.' (May 28, 2004)
Weblog: Bush Wants Church Support, Opponents Cry Foul | Plus: Taliban kills Christian in Afghanistan, court rejects judge's ruling in lesbian custody case, and more articles from online sources around the world. (July 02, 2004)
Weblog: Bush Campaign Seeks 'Friendly Congregations' | Plus: Canadian Anglicans put off vote on gay marriages, George Beverly Shea leaves hospital after heart attack, Eisenhower's 'crusade' omitted, and other stories from online sources around the world. (June 03, 2004)
Weblog: Can a Government Love Its Neighbor as Itself? | The Weekly Standard examines Bush's Golden Rule (Feb. 23, 2004)
Religious Conservative Leaders Savage Bush | Religious conservative leaders to Bush: Back FMA or lose election (Feb. 20, 2004)
The Bush Doctrine | The moral vision that launched the Iraq war has been quietly growing in the president's inner circle. (Apr. 25, 2003)
Free Speech for Politicians | God-talk in the public square is healthy. A Christianity Today Editorial (Apr. 25, 2003)
What George Bush's Favorite Devotional Writer Says About War | "War is the most damnably bad thing," wrote Oswald Chambers. (March 24, 2003)
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)
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