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.

While the 24-member crew of a U.S. Navy surveillance plane was being detained in China last month following a midair collision, Bush, according to senior advisers, inquired, "Have they got Bibles there?"

"My faith gives me focus and perspective … But I also recognize that faith can be misinterpreted in the political process," Bush wrote in his 1999 autobiography, A Charge to Keep. "I believe it is important to live my faith, not flaunt it."

But the Catholic League insists there is no reason why Bush should shy away from public displays of his Christian faith.

"Why people like Barry Lynn see the need to cleanse the public sector of any sort of religious expression or speech is beyond me," says Scully. "Everybody knows [Bush] is a man of great faith, strongly religious and they elected him."

Scully contends it is not the constitutional separation of church and state that is at issue, but rather the president's freedom of expression.

"His freedom of expression does not become second-class because it's of a religious nature," Scully says. "He has a right to be the person that he is."

Foxman, who chastised then-Democratic vice-presidential candidate Sen. Joseph Lieberman — the first Jew on a national ticket — for "appealing to voters along religious lines" during last year's presidential campaign, argues that Bush has a responsibility to recognize the fact that he is the elected leader of a secular state.

"One has to be cognizant of the fact that not everybody is religious," he cautions. "He doesn't have to divest himself of faith in God, but he has to be sensitive."

During his first week in office, Bush declared Jan. 21 a "National Day of Prayer." The following week, he created the White House Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives — part of his plan to funnel government funds to religious charities.

That effort led to this memorable exchange with veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas:

"Mr. President, why do you refuse to respect the wall between the church and state?" she asked Bush at a February news conference.

"I strongly respect the separation of church and state," the president insisted.

"Well, you wouldn't have a religious office in the White House if you did," said Thomas.

Ashcroft Under Fire

Attorney General John Ashcroft, a Pentecostal, has also come under criticism for holding daily Bible study sessions with employees at the Justice Department.

Father Robert Drinan, a Jesuit priest and a law ethics professor at Georgetown University, says the practice is improper and a violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of federal guidelines.

"It's just inappropriate," Drinan said Sunday on CNN's Late Edition. "I'm not saying it's unconstitutional, but I don't think that this [should be] done by the highest law authority in the country."

Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson defends Ashcroft.

"I'm just shocked that the liberals are making so much fuss about this because its John Ashcroft's absolute constitutional right to pray privately with a group of people," he told CNN.

In a study released earlier this year by the nonpartisan research group Public Agenda, 49 percent of those surveyed said if more politicians were religious, they would be more likely to be honest and have integrity. But 48 percent said they felt the nation does not need more politicians who are religious.

"A majority of Americans … have an almost instinctive wariness of injecting religion directly into politics," says Deborah Wadsworth, the president of Public Agenda. "On the other hand, they believe religion has enormous power to elevate people's behavior."

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