Cover Story

One president, under God

Issue: "One president, under God," Feb. 3, 2001

In interviews during his campaign, George W. Bush spoke of a spiritual transformation he'd experienced years earlier. He credited the turnaround largely to Billy Graham's counsel and a men's Bible study group in Midland, Texas. Insiders say the change influenced what was said and done during Mr. Bush's first days as president.

Inauguration Day began with a private service for the family and close aides of Mr. Bush at St. John's Episcopal Church across the park from the White House.

At the noontime inaugural ceremony at the Capitol, Franklin Graham led the invocation, filling in for his ailing father, Billy Graham. He extolled God's omnipotence, but confessed that as a nation "we have forgotten God," echoing a lament of Abraham Lincoln.

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The swearing-in ceremony took place on a gray, overcast day. Religious imagery and references were at the heart of Mr. Bush's 15-minute inaugural address as he challenged Americans to pursue compassionate ideals, helping one another and especially those in need. Example: "I can pledge our nation to a goal. When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side."

Commenting later, Southern Baptist ethicist Richard Land said it was the "most overtly religious speech in its tone of any inaugural address in living memory."

No wonder. Mr. Bush's chief speechwriter is Michael Gerson, a 1986 Wheaton College graduate who is an evangelical pro-life advocate. Mr. Gerson got his baptism in politics as a policy strategist for Indiana GOP congressman Dan Coats (a fellow Wheaton alumnus), then became a senior editor covering philanthropy and nonprofit organizations for U.S. News & World Report before signing on with Mr. Bush.

African-American pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell of Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston pronounced the benediction "in the name that's above all other names, Jesus the Christ." Mr. Caldwell's church, with programs in housing, education, and other social concerns, is a prime example of Mr. Bush's vision for faith-based social outreach alongside government programs.

One of Mr. Bush's very first official acts as president that Saturday afternoon was to issue a proclamation, declaring the next day, Jan. 21, as a National Day of Prayer and Thanksgiving. The proclamation was part of a long tradition, but it included what may have been a deft jab at liberals who like to cite Thomas Jefferson in their efforts to exclude faith from public life. He said the founding father "wrote 'The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time' and asked, 'Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are of God?'"

The next morning, more than 2,500 people gathered at the Gothic-style Washington National Cathedral for a by-invitation-only prayer service for the incoming administration and guests. President Bush sat in the first row with his wife; his parents sat directly behind them. The president at times donned reading glasses to follow hymns and Scripture readings. He smiled and nodded at Mr. Graham, the main preacher of the day, and at California pastor Jack Hayford, who led the benediction.

In his sermon, Mr. Graham drew lessons from the life of King David in the Old Testament. David "did not test the political winds of the day to see which direction he should go"; his "only concern was to find the will of God ... and then do it." He challenged those in power to lead the nation to repentance, faith, and moral renewal, and he invoked the prayer "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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