President Bush’s critics accuse him of wearing his religious faith on his sleeve. But this last week, the president more often seemed to be keeping it under a bushel.
At town hall-style events from Niceville, Fla., to Albuquerque to Beaverton, Ore., many supporters posed the president with religiously themed questions and comments about faith, prayer and issues such as abortion and stem cell research.
And although the president does not usually shy away from discussing his personal faith, he sometimes found himself in an awkward position -- trying to validate his supporters’ views without endorsing them in a way that would alienate more-moderate swing voters.
Typical was an exchange at a packed high school gym in Beaverton, where a woman lamented, “I’ve heard through the grapevine that Oregon is one of the most unchurched states in the union. And I really feel like it shows up in every walk of our society.”
She asked Bush, “Could you take a moment to pray for Oregon, for us, right now?”
“I appreciate that,” the president replied, declining to take up her invitation.
Instead, to her apparent surprise, he offered a defense of the separation of church and state: “I think the thing about our country that you must understand is that one of the most valuable aspects of America is that people can choose church or not church, and they’re equally American. That is a vital part of our society.”
Bush strategists have long considered religious conservatives to be the president’s electoral base. Churchgoing Protestants, mainly evangelicals, accounted for 40% of the president’s voters in 2000.
All the same, Karl Rove, Bush’s chief political strategist, believes at least 4 million evangelical voters stayed home in the last presidential election. So in recent months, the campaign has worked hard to make sure they show up at the polls in November.
The campaign has been critizcized for going too far by encouraging Bush supporters to provide the campaign with church directories to help target likely supporters of the president. As tax-exempt organizations, churches are supposed to steer clear of directly supporting political candidates.
Bush campaign officials say it’s only natural that religious activists are showing up at the president’s rallies. Tickets to his campaign events are distributed through grass-roots organizations, largely with the goal of rallying his supporters.
When the president took unscripted questions from the audience last week, roughly a third to a half addressed faith and the social policies of concern to religious conservatives.
The challenge for Bush, analysts say, is that he is actually speaking to two audiences -- the one in the room and another watching campaign events on television at home, many of whom are not religious.
Doug Wead, who served as campaign liaison to evangelicals the first President Bush, said the rough rule of thumb then was that for every evangelical vote gained in a public appeal, two moderate votes were lost.
That calculus has shifted somewhat in recent years, as the number of evangelicals has grown to somewhere between 20% to 25% of the population and their beliefs have become increasingly mainstream. But the dynamic has not gone away.
Which is why the president deflected the comment with a joke when a 60-year-old man in Niceville, Fla., said Tuesday, “This is the very first time that I have felt that God was in the White House.”
“Thank you. Thank you all. Let me ask you a question: Do you like Jeb?” Bush asked, referring to his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. “Jeb plants him right here on the front row.”
Later at the same event, an audience member asked if he was a Christian.
“Yes, I am,” the president said, quickly turning the question into a lesson in religious tolerance.
“You have a right in this country to worship freely,” Bush said. “It is a fundamental right that must never change. And if you choose to worship the Almighty, you are equally American if you’re a Christian, Jew, Muslim or Hindu.
“That’s the precious nature of how we view religion in this country. That freedom to worship and not be condemned because of the choice you make ... must be jealously guarded by any of us, Republican or Democrat or independent, who are honored with a public office.”
Even when asked about gay marriage, which political strategists have made into an important wedge issue in the campaign, Bush reiterated his support for a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage. But he avoided strident language and used the question as an opportunity to promote tolerance.
“I just want everybody to take a step back from this issue. This is an issue where all of us need to treat people with different opinions with the utmost respect,” he told the crowd in Niceville. “This is a sensitive topic. The debate needs to be conducted in a civilized way. But it’s a serious debate.”
Wead said the president was doing the right thing by declining to appeal directly to his religious base in public.
“He’s not hurting himself a bit,” Wead said. “He’s got their votes. That woman [in Beaverton] is not going to go out and vote for John Kerry because the president didn’t pray with her.”
A Bush-Cheney campaign official who discussed the subject on condition of anonymity said the president had to walk a tightrope on the subject of religion.
“The president obviously is a man of faith. As you’ve seen him answer those questions, he feels it’s very important as an elected leader to answer those questions not in a way that maybe would be the best answer for the crowd but to ensure that people of all religious beliefs [are protected],” the official said.
Wead said Bush’s careful language was unlikely to turn off evangelical voters because they know their beliefs are not popular everywhere. They themselves have learned how to negotiate their language so as not to offend those who disagree with their views.
“They do it themselves to keep their jobs, to keep their way of life,” Wead said.
For Bush, the goal is simply to say enough to get them to the polls. In Niceville, when a member of a prayer group said she was praying for “righteous leaders,” the president responded by saying she should “convert” her religious enthusiasm into voter registration.
“Register people to vote. And then, right around election time, start saying to people, ‘We have a duty, we have a duty in a free society -- no matter what you believe -- we have a duty to vote,’ ” Bush said as he closed the event. “So I appreciate your enthusiasm and your drive. Convert it to getting people to the polls, too. Which I know you will.”