Abraham Lincoln, who was not particularly religious, said he was often driven to his knees because he had nowhere else to go. George Washington, who asked his mother to pray over him on the eve of his first inaugural, could have employed George W. Bush's speechwriters.
"It would be peculiarly improper to omit in this, my first official act," the father of our country said in his inaugural address, "my fervent supplication to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect."
That first George W. might be in serious trouble today. You could ask the current George W. His frequent allusions to his faith are, in the words of the Associated Press, making some people "uncomfortable." His consoling remarks to the nation in the wake of the Columbia tragedy could have been spoken in a cathedral, and that's what bothers some people.
"The president is using general references and beyond that, terminology and vocabulary that come straight out of a very particular religious tradition, which is evangelical Christianity," says the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, a Southern Baptist pastor in Monroe, La., and executive director of the Interfaith Alliance Foundation, a liberal interfaith group that includes priests, pastors, rabbis, Islamic imams and Buddhist clergy. "I think his rhetoric implies a lack of appreciation for the vast pluralism of religion in this nation."
The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, accuses the president of preaching. His speeches, says Mr. Lynn, "are sounding more and more like a sermon in a church. When presidents start to become theologians on a regular basis, they begin to exclude people from their audience."
But most Americans appear to appreciate the president's comforting words, drawn easily from his faith. They understand, as his critics do not, the difference, in the words of a famous country parson, between preachin' and meddlin'. They don't see evidence of meddlin'.
Americans, writes David Brooks in the new Atlantic magazine, are inspired by faith, and "instinctively feel, in ways that people from other places do not, that history is unfulfilled as long as there are nations that are not free. It is this instinctive belief that has led George W. Bush to respond so ambitiously to the events of Sept. 11, and that has led most Americans to support him."
Mr. Brooks calls himself "a recovering secularist," and that pretty much applies to me, too. Though I was brought up to embrace the ethical traditions of my Jewish heritage, religious faith has never been an important part of my life. I envy those who feel it, and not only does George W. Bush's faith, and his frequent public references to it, not offend me, but it reassures me. We live in a time of conflicting visions of historical destiny, as David Brooks puts it, and maybe we can't afford a president with no such vision of his own.
The president's faith no doubt disturbs the devout secularists, particularly in Europe, where the leaders put their faith in the bureaucracies of peacekeeping and nation-building - and in themselves. The pain the devout secularists feel might be assuaged by a dispassionate attempt to understand what it is that inspires the lives of the millions of Americans of faith. And not just evangelical Christians, though it is Christianity in its several forms that is in the midst of a worldwide boom.
Sen. Joe Lieberman's Jewish faith and practice endeared him to many Americans - some of them devout Christians - who had no intention of voting for him but who nevertheless were inspired by his unapologetic faith. Islam is thriving in America, and so are Hindu and Buddhist congregations, and in unlikely places.
President Bush, though a born-again Methodist, has been exceedingly careful, it seems to me, to play no favorites in his public invocations of faith.
"I welcome faith to help solve the nation's deepest problems," he told a convention of religious broadcasters the other day in Washington. "We carried our grief (over the events of Sept. 11) to the Lord Almighty in prayer." Last month, in his State of the Union message, he said: "The liberty we prize is not America's gift to the world, it is God's gift to humanity."
And he was never more eloquent than in invoking the Old Testament prophet Isaiah to give comfort to the nation in the hours after the loss of the seven astronauts of Columbia. "The same Creator who names the stars knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today. The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth, yet we can pray that all are safely home."
There was no proselytizing, no evangelizing, no attempt to "establish" religion. Just a man speaking plainly from the heart. Who but a churl could complain about that?