Religion Plays Big Role in Bush Presidency

— President Bush reads the Bible every day, prays in the Oval Office and frequently inserts religious references into his speeches.

The prominent role Bush's Christian faith plays in his public life is renewing debate about the proper role of religion in government in general and the presidency in particular.

'A Very Thin Line,' Say Critics

The White House does not dispute the USA Today's recent account of Bush inviting Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski to join him in prayer in the Oval Office as the two leaders met earlier this month.

Critics say such conduct is inappropriate to the secular office that Bush holds.

"When he [prays] as a private person practicing his own faith, God bless, but when it becomes part of the official function of the president, then that's something that is inappropriate," says Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

"There's a very thin line between having a private prayer session and communicating to [foreign] leaders that you the president are the president of a Christian nation," adds Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "He's treading dangerously close to breaching the idea that this is a secular country."

But Bush's supporters say such criticism is unwarranted and amounts to discrimination against politicians with strong religious beliefs.

"If these men are both men of faith — and coincidentally the same faith — why shouldn't they be able to share that commonality?" asks Patrick Scully, a spokesman for the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Liberties. "If they were both Baltimore Orioles fans, they would be able to talk about that without anybody freaking out."

Deputy White House press secretary Scott McClellan refused to comment directly on the incident, saying Bush believes that religion is something "personal and private."

'Tell Them God Loves Them'

Bush does, however, often include religious references in his public remarks that go far beyond the usual "May God bless America" — a phrase that has concluded countless presidential speeches.

"The great strength of America is the fact that America is full of … God-fearing and decent souls," Bush said in his remarks to students and faculty at North Dakota State University in March.

"If you see somebody in need, put your arm around them [and] tell them God loves them," Bush urged members of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce a week later in a speech on his administration's budget priorities.

Lynn says this kind of language coming from a sitting president is unsettling to many Americans, and with good reason.

"People in the United States get uncomfortable when a president wears his faith on his sleeve every day," he argues. "And I do think that's the direction toward which Bush is moving … [He] has been the most overt user of these religious references of any modern president."

"The president believes we ought to welcome people of all faiths in politics," responds McClellan. "His personal faith is something he tries to live, but he doesn't wear it on his sleeve."

'My Faith Gives Me Focus'

Bush is, by his own account, a deeply religious man.

When Bush was asked in a December 1999 presidential debate to name the philosopher who had most influenced his life, Bush answered, "Christ — because he changed my heart.

"When you accept Christ as your savior, it changes your heart, it changes your life," he explained.

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