Religion Plays Big Role in Bush Presidency

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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