KEY WEST, Fla. - Hardly a day passes without Americans being reminded of the debt President George W. Bush owes religious conservatives for their role in his re-election. Evangelical Christians - about 26 million of them - turned out in droves and are ready for payback, we keep hearing.
The only problem is, Bush isn't the president of just one constituency, as he noted in his first press conference following the election. Nor is Bush the culture warrior some insist he is.
Bush didn't make abortion an issue in his campaign except in condemning partial-birth abortion - a position most Americans share. He would have preferred to avoid the same-sex marriage issue, but the Massachusetts Supreme Court forced his hand. And it was John Kerry, not Bush, who made stem-cell research a political issue.
It may be true that religious conservatives helped Bush win re-election. And while some evangelical leaders have expressed their expectation that Bush will act promptly on some of their pet issues, others have been more temperate.
Those who call for dramatic action, of course, make better copy and get more ink. You're more likely to read about evangelical leaders who talk colorfully about Satan than you are about cooler heads who call for patience and tolerance. Prison Fellowship leader Charles Colson, for example, wrote Bush after the election to say that Christians shouldn't be another political-pressure group. He told Bush that he voted for him not because of what he would do, but because of the kind of man he is.
The bland truth is that Bush is unlikely to deliver on religious conservatives' expectations in any dramatic or immediate way simply because it isn't his style. As Michael Gerson - Bush speechwriter and policy adviser - puts it, Bush is an "incrementalist." And as such is misunderstood by both his allies and enemies.
Gerson was in Key West this week to speak to a group of journalists about religion, politics and public life. In conversation following dinner one evening, he explained to me that while Bush is firm in his conviction that every human life should be welcome and legally protected, he is also firm in his belief that social consensus must precede change.
Neither Bush's personality nor his ideology meshes with the profile of dogmatic social engineer. On stem-cell research, for example, Bush basically split the baby down the middle, funding research on existing stem-cell lines, but withholding funding for new research that would destroy human embryos.
On same-sex marriage, Bush supports a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman, but supports some form of civil union to extend legal protections to same-sex couples.
Bush surely has been honest about his religious conversion, from hard-drinking frat boy to leader of the free world, but his message isn't quite on the level on glossolalia. Millions of Americans have changed the direction of their lives through spiritual growth, and other American presidents have been far more "religious" in their public conduct.
Jimmy Carter taught Sunday school while he was president. Bill Clinton toted his personal Bible to church. During the recent presidential campaign, John Kerry frequently affirmed his Catholicism.
Bush's invocations of God, meanwhile, are never gratuitous but are appropriate to context - a funeral, or prayer breakfast, or the finishing touch on a State of the Union address: "God bless America." Hardly the rantings of a theocrat.
One can find other references to God, most notably in Bush's articulation of what is surely the central narrative of his presidency: "Freedom is not America's gift to the world. Freedom is the almighty God's gift to every man and woman in the world." Again, this is not rain dancing. Such is the seed that grew the United States of America.
In other words, the notion that Bush is imposing his religious beliefs - or that he is going reshape America in the image of some fundamentalist fantasy - is a bum rap. Indeed, some close observers of the Bush-evangelical dynamic predict that Bush will have caused more consternation than consolation among his conservative Christian brethren before the first year of his second term is up.
Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, which is sponsoring the Key West seminar, says that religious conservatives insisting on immediate social change have misread Bush. "They are in a crisis of patience," he says, "and are likely to be disappointed."