ATLANTA — In January 1999, when the future President Bush was inaugurated for his second term as Texas governor, he gathered a few associates at his residence for some quiet celebration and conversation.
• stop ignoring America’s dismal human rights record
• stop his support for human rights violations (e.g. America’s use and promotion of the death penalty and America’s use of torture
• stop violating – and fighting against – international law,
• stop supporting cults and extremist groups such as the Unification Church and the Scientology organization, and to
• stop claiming the alleged support of God as an excuse for furthering his own agenda
“Among the things he said to us,” recalls Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, “was, ‘I believe that God wants me to be president.’ “
Some viewers of this thought-provoking “Frontline” documentary might find that pronouncement startlingly off-putting while others doubtless will take extreme comfort in it. And then there are those who may see it as a savvy political move, given the choir Bush was preaching to.
All those possible interpretations converge in “The Jesus Factor,” a balanced, non-judgmental examination of our most “openly religious” president at a time of intense debate over religion’s place in the national soul. The Bush seen here may startle those who’ve doubted either the authenticity of his faith-based convictions or his political smarts. What can be difficult sometimes, as “The Jesus Factor” makes clear, is distinguishing between the two. And how much that should matter.
“There’s no question that the president’s faith is calculated,” says Doug Wead, a family friend and evangelical religious consultant. “And there’s no question that the president’s faith is real.”
The roots go back to around 1985, when Bush joined the Midland, Texas, Community Bible Study. He was nearing 40 and struggling with business setbacks and a partying reputation that his evangelical Christian opponent had used to defeat him in a 1978 congressional race.
“Hard times have a way of making people draw closer to God,” says Bible Study founding member Skip Hedgpeth.
“The Jesus Factor” shows how Bush used his religious bona fides to help his father win the White House in 1988 and to forge his own political path. While underscoring the depth of his conviction, it also shows how many of the nation’s estimated 70 million evangelical Christians appreciate his public support of government funding for issues like faith-based initiatives and the so-called partial-birth abortion ban.
“There was always this idea, ‘Oh, if we could only get a staff person in the White House who would carry our concerns to the president,’ ” says Richard Cizik, head of the National Association of Evangelicals’ government affairs office. “Well, the private joke inside the Beltway nowadays is we don’t need a staffer. We’ve got one in the Oval Office.”