President Bush

Posted: Jan 29, 2004 12:00 AM

"Join the club." That's what President-elect George W. Bush said in December 2000, when I told him I was journalist first, Bush supporter second, and would probably be criticizing some of his decisions early and often.

That's the way it has worked out, and it's easy to enumerate complaints. No vetoes of pork-barrel spending. No nationwide vouchers or tax credits to begin creating parental choice in education. Missed opportunities during the first year of the faith-based initiative. Et cetera.

Nevertheless, my plea to Christian conservatives is this: remember that we're better off now than we were four years ago (when Bill Clinton was in office) or than we will be a year from now, if millions of us stay home in November and John Kerry or someone else takes over.

Much could be said about our war against terrorism, but I'll concentrate here on President Bush's continued commitment to compassionate conservatism. He keeps asking Congress to act "so people of faith can know that the law will never discriminate against them again." The faith-based initiative's emphasis on grants has been frustrating -- tax credits and vouchers would work better both practically and politically -- but as long as we have big government, the president is right to fight against red-lining religion.

I wish the naysayers could have heard President Bush's remarks at Union Bethel AME Church in New Orleans on Jan. 15. There he laid out a bottom-up political philosophy that is the opposite of the top-down approach demanded by Democrats and relished by liberal Republicans. Sometimes reaching for words, he spoke of problems beyond the ability of government: "Intractable problems, problems that seem impossible to solve can be solved. ... Miracles are possible in our society, one person at a time. But it requires a willingness to understand the origin of miracles. Miracles happen as a result of the love of the Almighty."

He stated well the problem for religious groups: "Government policy says, on the one hand, perhaps you can help; on the other hand, you can't practice your faith. Faith-based programs are only effective because they do practice faith. It's important for our government to understand that. Government oftentimes will say, yes, you can participate, but you've got to ... conform to our rules. The problem is, faith-based programs only conform to one set of rules, and it's bigger than government rules."

Why does President Bush persist in talking this way? How about because he's the first president since, maybe, Grover Cleveland to have turned around his life as an adult in conjunction with a coming to biblical faith? He still speaks about this haltingly: "Addiction is the problem of a heart -- of the heart. I know -- I told this story before. I was a drinker. I quit drinking because I changed my heart. I guess I was a one-man faith-based program. I'm comfortable in pushing the change, because I know the nature of the work that is taking place."

The president can say, as he did in New Orleans, "Many of the problems that are facing our society are problems of the heart," because he knows his own heart and knows that he needed and needs God. That realization leaves him attuned to the goals of life-changing groups in a way unlikely for someone who knows only theoretically the importance of transformation.

Liberal journalists don't worry that President Bush is a hypocrite: They see that he's not one, and that makes some frantic. But how should conservative Christians react? The price of veto-less government spending? Billions. The price of not pushing for school vouchers? Many miseducated kids. Those prices are high, and we need to keep pushing for change -- but does anyone see Democrats as the party of frugality?

And, what is it worth to have not only an adult in the Oval Office, but an adult who knows deep down that he was dying and was born again, an adult who hopes to help millions of others change their lives as well? Priceless.