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Faith-based White House

Religion | A former Bush speechwriter praises the president, but two ministry leaders say the Faith-Based Initiative is leaving their charities out

Issue: "Iraq: Fallujah's fallen," Nov. 27, 2004

Related story: Building a wall between heart and hand

Feb. 28, 2001, began as a typical day at the Seattle Hebrew Academy. Kids went to class; teachers assigned homework; administrators met in their offices. Suddenly, children were running for safety as the 90-year-old structure began to convulse.

The earthquake destroyed the academy and hundreds of other Seattle buildings. Within days, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was offering help. In Seattle 267 property owners applied to the federal government for disaster relief; 266 applications were granted. Only one was denied-the Seattle Hebrew Academy.

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Jay Lefkowitz, President Bush's domestic policy director, learned in April 2001 that FEMA had denied the Academy's application because it is a religious school. Soon afterwards, the Faith-Based Initiative came up for discussion at the daily policy briefing in the Oval Office. President Bush, urging his staff to do more than focus on passing new laws, asked, "What are we going to do about bad regulations that treat faith-based groups differently?" Seizing his opportunity, Mr. Lefkowitz told the president about the FEMA decision.

"So public schools got the funds from FEMA, but not the religious school?" the president asked, frustration flashing in his eyes. "Is that what you're telling me?" Incredulous, Mr. Bush gave an order to straighten out this matter. In Mr. Lefkowitz's summation, "The president believed everyone should be treated the same. Earthquakes don't discriminate on account of religion, and neither should the government."

After reviewing the issue for some months, the Justice Department determined that the longstanding FEMA policy was not required by the First Amendment. Nothing in the Constitution prevented a religious school from obtaining FEMA money. Later that year, the Seattle Hebrew Academy finally received federal disaster relief.

In the nearly four years since he was sworn in as the 43rd president of the United States, critics have often lambasted George W. Bush for purportedly being a "religious" president who won't be bothered with the facts and is bored by staff discussions. In this critique, President Bush sees himself as possessing special insights from God with which he can strike down the politically unrighteous.

Yet the people who know Mr. Bush best tell a story very different from this cartoonish view. WORLD interviewed Mr. Lefkowitz, former counselor to the president Karen Hughes, national campaign manager Ken Mehlman, Rep. Kay Granger, and others. They portray him as a man of faith who doesn't think he has all the answers, but who has learned to seek insights both from others and through prayerful consideration.

President Bush's decision on stem-cell research shows how he works. From March through August 2001, he painstakingly investigated the issue. The president began by asking Mr. Lefkowitz to bring in experts from all sides. Doug Melton, a scientist from Harvard, came and argued that embryonic cells were not human life. Leon Kass, the University of Chicago bioethicist, met with the president and argued that embryonic stem-cell research required the destruction of human life.

Many others from a variety of viewpoints and expertise met with the president. Mr. Lefkowitz, who attended every one of these meetings, recalls they usually were held in the Oval Office and almost always began with the president saying to his guests, "Tell me what your opinion is and why." As the discussion continued, the president would press the experts further. In these sessions, Mr. Bush always listened, often took notes, and never failed to ask questions.

Karen Hughes says the key moment in the decision-making process came in August during a private discussion at the Bush ranch. After months of meetings, the time for a decision was near. "I want your opinion," the president told her. The two close friends began a long conversation about the issue. "I'm increasingly uncomfortable with additional destruction," she concluded, urging him to only fund research on previously destroyed embryos. "Me, too," the president agreed.

He later announced his policy in a nationally television address: funding only for research on embryonic stem-cell lines previously established, where the life-and-death decision had already been made. Mr. Bush said that he had made his decision "with great care, and I pray it is the right one."

His approach to stem-cell research was different from that of John Edwards, who announced during his vice presidential campaign that research during a Kerry administration would enable people to "get up" out of their wheelchairs and walk. Few in the scientific community believe stem-cell research will lead to people walking again.

The president's critics mistake his faith for dogma, but Mr. Bush has never claimed to have a special insight from God on taxes or healthcare. On moral issues such as abortion he has spoken about the sanctity of human life, but has used language that goes beyond the choir: God didn't compel him to sign the ban on partial-birth abortion, "the compassion and humanity" of the American people did.

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