Cover Story

Bush the road warrior

Issue: "View from the Axis," March 9, 2002

George W. Bush may have been expecting a warm welcome in South Korea after his strong words against its communist neighbor to the north. South Koreans took to the streets in protest instead.

The president stuck to his guns, offering to talk with North Korea but not to back down from calling the regime part of an "axis of evil." Mr. Bush said, "My vision is clear: I see a peninsula that is one day united in commerce and cooperation, instead of divided by barbed wire and fear. Korean grandparents should be free to spend their final years with those they love. Korean children should never starve while a massive army is fed. No nation should be a prison for its own people. No Korean should be treated as a cog in the machinery of the state."

Every good traveler knows to expect some bumps in the road. For a U.S. president seized by a worldwide war against terrorism, Mr. Bush had no prospect of touring Asia on diplomatic cruise control last month.

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He might have expected smooth sailing in the first stop of his three-nation tour. Mr. Bush reaffirmed close ties with Japan in a speech to the parliament and said this will be the "Pacific Century" (but pointed out deftly that America, too, is in the Pacific).

He created a brief bump in the road when he used the word devaluation when he meant deflation-the misstatement sent Tokyo's stocks tumbling until the president and his aides issued swift corrections.

His biggest stumble in Japan was perhaps the least noticed by Bush travel monitors. In two days in Japan he made a prominent visit to Meiji Shrine, a major monument to Japan's state religion, Shintoism.

Newspapers in Japan reported that Mr. Bush asked to visit the memorial. Shintoism, centered on pagan emperor worship, is enjoying resurgent popularity after it faded along with the emperor after World War II. Japanese media were quick to label the Bush visit a sahnpai, or worship service. Front-page photos the next day showed the president making a slight bow before the shrine and stories depicted him paying homage to the dead emperor.

Christian believers, according to Murray Uomoto, found the public display "unnecessary and discouraging" after working for decades to remove state-required Shinto worship from churches. At one time Christian churches were required to display a Shinto shrine at their altars, and hymnbooks in Japan were required to carry the Shinto national anthem. "If the president had wanted a taste of traditional culture, there are tons of places he could have visited that do not have an idolatrous coloring," said Mr. Uomoto, who serves with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Sendai.

Mr. Bush overcame that misstep by speaking out for religious freedom in China. In a speech to students at Beijing's Tsinghua University, he began on a humble note. China does not always get a correct picture of America, he said, because "our movies and television shows often do not portray the values of the real America I know." Then he declared, "Ninety-five percent of Americans say they believe in God, and I'm one of them"-a statement striking in contrast to an assertion earlier in the day by Chinese leader Jiang Zemin: "I don't have religious faith."

Mr. Jiang also refused to answer questions by U.S. reporters about religious freedom. Mr. Bush called on Mr. Jiang to end religious persecution and said, "Freedom of religion is not something to be feared, but it's to be welcomed, because faith gives us a moral core and teaches us to hold ourselves to high standards, to love and to serve others and to live responsible lives."

For students, Mr. Bush seemed to connect. "I thought the speech was quite brilliant," Wang, a graduate student from Beijing University, told The New York Times. "He described how America is not just about wealth but also about values. He explained American religion in a way that Chinese can understand."

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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