News Analysis: In God he trusts - how George Bush infused the White House with a religious spirit

Cabinet meetings start with prayers while speeches demonstrate the President's faith, but is all this adding to divisions with Europe?

By Rupert Cornwell in Washington

21 February 2003

But for Christ, George Bush likes to tell churchy visitors, he might be found today in a bar rather than the Oval Office. As it is, the man who may soon take the world to war over Iraq heads the most overtly religious US administration in memory, where cabinet meetings start with prayers and where no presidential speech is complete without some statement of Christian faith.

The tale of Bush's transformation is well known, but no less remarkable for that: the feckless near-alcoholic who rediscovered his Christianity after a long conversation with the evangelist Billy Graham in 1986, and went on to become a teetotaller , the Governor of Texas, and finally one of the most relentlessly disciplined presidents in history.

At one level, Bush's conversion should not surprise. America is far and away the most religious country in the developed world. More than 90 per cent of Americans believe in God, according to recent polls and 80 per cent believe in miracles - indeed four out of 10 say they "personally experienced or witnessed" one.

Almost half of the population attend church on a weekly basis - a higher proportion than before the Second World War - and 53 per cent say religion is very important in their lives, compared with just 16 per cent in Britain, 14 per cent in France and 13 per cent in Germany. The reasons are many, stretching back to the pilgrim origins of the country. America is still relatively young and still steeped in idealism. Yes, the US has experienced calamities: 11 September; Pearl Harbor; and a civil war that took 600,000 lives. But it has not suffered the catastrophes that test national faith: mass famine; plague; sustained wartime bombardment; or occupation of its territory by a foreign foe. Indeed, America's very success, its emergence as unchallenged master of the planet, only heightens a sense that the Almighty has singled it out for special favours.

Every recent president has been a practising Christian. Good East Coast gentleman that he was, the elder Bush was an Episcopalian. Bill Clinton was raised a southern Baptist, though as President he attended his wife's Methodist church in Washington.

None was more devout than Jimmy Carter. His victorious 1976 campaign had a strong evangelical strain and to this day Carter remains a church deacon and Sunday school teacher - even though he left the southern Baptist denomination three years ago because of its conservative stance. But once in office, he rarely advertised his Christianity.

Not so Bush and the men around him. In The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W Bush, the former Bush speechwriter David Frum tells of how virtually the first words he heard were: "Missed you at Bible study." The remark, it should be said, was not addressed to Frum, who is Jewish, but to the chief speechwriter Michael Gerson.

Gerson, who comes from a modest Midwestern background, is by any standards a marvellous wordsmith, responsible for a host of eloquent setpiece speeches by a notably ineloquent President. He is also a theology graduate, comfortable with religious imagery and allusion - which suits Bush perfectly.

Tracing the origin of the phrase that stole the show in the 2002 State of the Union, Frum claims he lumped together Iraq, North Korea and Iran in an "axis of hatred". It was Gerson who altered this to the more biblical "axis of evil", picking up on the President's description of al-Qa'ida and the 9/11 hijackers as "evildoers" - a word that incidentally appears in Psalm 27, of which Bush is particularly fond.

These days, as threat and disaster crowd in, Bush's turn of phrase is growing, if anything, more religious. In this year's address to Congress, he spoke of "the loving hand of God behind all of life". The shuttle disaster drew a quotation from Isaiah. If war does come, Bush's speech to the nation will invoke the protecting hand of God.

But there are less obvious references, which suggest that Bush has more earthly, political motives for wearing his faith on his sleeve. The State of the Union, for instance, also spoke of the "wonder-working powers" of the "goodness and idealism and faith of the American people". For the uninitiated, "wonder-working powers" sounds like a speech-writer has gone over the top. But a Christian activist would understand at once the borrowing from the evangelical hymn, "There Is Power in the Blood", and its resounding refrain, "There is power, power, wonder-working power in the precious blood of the Lamb..." And to appeal to the Christian right, one of Bush's key political constituencies, makes perfect electoral sense.

Karl Rove, the key adviser plotting Bush's re-election campaign next year, argues that in 2000, four million evangelical Christians, all natural Bush supporters, did not bother to go to the polls. Energising this base and persuading even one million of them to do so could make all the difference for a President who lost the popular vote last time.

But that's only part of it. Bush's born-again Christianity cannot be questioned. Indeed, it dovetails with his widely attested lack of intellectual curiosity, his seemingly utter certainty of his convictions and with the difficulty of persuading him to change a mind already made up. Few mortals can compete with God for his ear. But the approach carries dangers. At home, many worry that Bush is chipping at the wall - not too strong at the best of times - between Church and State. At the very least it creates unease among Americans who do not share his faith. Abroad, where America's popularity is falling by the day, the risks are greater still. Church leaders in Britain have spoken out against the war, but their views are unlikely to influence policy.

Mr Bush's Christian fervour only confirms suspicions that the looming war with Iraq is indeed a "crusade" against Muslims, exactly as Osama bin Laden suggests. For world-weary Europe the presidential language evokes mirth and queasiness in equal measure. A European leader who spoke in such terms would be laughed off the stage. An American one who speaks this way only increases the fear that simplicities of faith, and a habit of seeing a hideously complicated world in a black-and-white, good or evil fashion, are a recipe for disaster.

Chapter and Verse: Bush and the Bible

"Our prayer tonight is that God will see us through and keep us worthy. Hope still lights our way, and the light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it."

Speech on the anniversary of the terrorist attacks, 11 September 2002

"We do not claim to know all the ways of Providence. Yet we can trust in them, placing our confidence in the loving God behind all of life, and all of history. May he guide us now."

State of the Union address, 28 January 2003

"In the words of the prophet Isaiah, 'Lift your eyes and look to the heavens.'"

Address to the nation after the shuttle 'Columbia' disaster, 1 February 2003

"It is the greatest gift you can give anybody, to pray on their behalf."

At National Prayer Breakfast, 7 February 2003

"I welcome faith to solve the nation's deepest problems ... We're being challenged. We're meeting those challenges because of our faith ... We carried our grief to the Lord Almighty in prayer."

Speech to National Convention of Religious Broadcasters, 10 February 2003, referring to the 11 September terrorist attacks

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