Columnists > Voices

Straight talk

Public Broadcasting explores the religious beliefs of President Bush-and finds honest faith

Issue: "Iraq: What went wrong?," May 15, 2004

PERHAPS NO SINGLE THEME HAS BEEN MORE central to Democratic candidate John Kerry and his supporters than the questions they have raised about George W. Bush's credibility. So it was noteworthy over the last couple of weeks to hear so much implicit support for the president's honesty coming from the unlikeliest of sources.

There were the positive comments, for example, from members of the 9/11 commission after they had grilled Mr. Bush and Vice President Richard Cheney for more than three hours. Even a couple of his Democratic inquisitors used words like "candid" and "forthcoming" to describe Mr. Bush's response.

There was Bob Woodward's book, Plan of Attack, initially ballyhooed by some as a devastating picture of the president and his team. The more folks looked at the Woodward account, however, the more they understood why the White House website itself recommended the book as a generally fair account. The Woodward picture of Mr. Bush wasn't universally flattering, but it included little support for those who have portrayed the president as dishonest.

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But two of the most fascinating accounts came from a PBS Frontline television documentary on April 29 and a related feature the same day by Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air. Neither PBS nor NPR has a reputation, of course, for being big Bush backers-or big backers, for that matter, of anything conservative or Christian. And as the two programs explored what they called "The Jesus Factor" in the life of George Bush, you could tell that they knew they were in unfamiliar territory, learning new lingo and being exposed to strange experiences.

Implicit in this exploration lurked the question: Were all these odd behaviors and all this slightly embarrassing vocabulary the real George W. Bush-or was it all just a political act, calculated to hoodwink evangelical Christian voters? After all, if the man would lie about something this sacred and this personal, what else would he lie about?

To their credit, both Frontline and Fresh Air listened to the evidence. That evidence included a few snide snipers, like C. Welton Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance, who suggested the president and his supporters are guilty of turning religion into a tool for advancing political strategy. And Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine, identified ambiguously but probably accurately as a "liberal evangelical," repeatedly accused Mr. Bush of "defective theology."

But the programs seemed to hinge most pointedly on insights from people like Wayne Slater, Austin bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News and a gracious Texan who repeatedly and gently explained to his sophisticated but unlearned hosts from the East just what was going on in all these Bible studies, this God-talk, and this fervent praying. "No, no, no," Mr. Slater seems to be saying again and again. "This isn't an act. This is really the way these people do these things."

Equally helpful in interpreting what was going on was Richard Land, an executive with the Southern Baptist Convention, whose understanding of both theology and politics helped the listener sense the authentic relationship between the two in Mr. Bush's life.

Nowhere were the tensions between theology and politics more painfully highlighted than in a story about a discussion between Mr. Bush and his mother, former first lady Barbara Bush. Mr. Bush (while still running for his first term as governor of Texas) was arguing that Jesus is the only way to heaven, while his mother reportedly held that such a view was too narrow and exclusivist.

The two put in a phone call to evangelist Billy Graham-who in the account reportedly tended to side with Mr. Bush's mother. Remarkably, the future president held his ground. Even if later political realities prompted him to adjust his language on such matters, the story nonetheless gives credence to a picture of a man at that point more interested in faithfulness than in popular acceptance.

These programs aren't about political savvy or competence or leadership qualities. What they do speak to, loudly and clearly, is the president's honesty. Because his opponents have made that such a central issue, no voter should head into this political season without spending an hour with one or the other (or better yet, with both) of these two remarkable documentaries. Both may well have proven even more than their producers intended.

-The programs are available online at www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/jesus/ and at freshair.npr.org/day_fa.jhtml?display=day&todayDate=04/29/2004.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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