When the president takes the oath of office this week, he will, as 42 presidents before him have done, place his hand on the Bible. This upsets some who want no public acknowledgment that ours is a society of faith, freedom and family. Such dissent leads other Americans to think their faith is under attack by "secularists."
President Bush, who became particularly animated in discussing his own religious faith in a wide-ranging interview last week in the Oval Office, is not one of them. He is bemused by the furor, such as it is, not angry.
"I don't see how you can be president - at least from my perspective - without a relationship with the Lord," he said. "I think people attack me because they are fearful that I will then say that you're not equally as patriotic if you're not a religious person. I've never said that, I've never acted like that."
He becomes just as animated in defending the right to have no faith at all: "That's what distinguishes us from the Taliban."
Nevertheless, the president's remarks about his faith set off controversy. A columnist for The Washington Post scolded him for saying that "someone is not qualified to be president unless they are religious." The columnist should take a deep breath, sit down and read the transcript again. The president didn't say anything remotely like that.
Mr. Bush, however, insists that faith-based community organizations not be discriminated against if, for example, they can use government resources to help drug addicts or AIDS sufferers as long as they don't proselytize on behalf of their religion. He made that clear in our interview. He places his faith-based initiative in the tradition of civic and community groups as identified by Alexis de Tocqueville, the French aristocrat who toured American in the 1830s and saw such associations as "the great strength of America."
If faith itself is not under attack, the president's faith-based initiative is, from liberals and some conservatives. Liberals, who say it collapses the wall between church and state, prefer the paternalism of the New Deal and big government. The voluntary organizations that de Tocqueville saw as the bulwark against big government are, in this scheme, reduced to irrelevance.
Conservatives challenge the idea from a different direction. They don't want government money interfering with religion or influencing those who, as a religious duty, work for the underclass; they think it demeans the ethical spirit. They prefer faith-based voluntary organizations free of government money, free of the strings that such money always comes with.
We no longer live in de Tocqueville's America, and many civic groups without religious affiliations thrive on government money. The president thinks that's unfair, that religious folk shouldn't be excluded as long as they don't proselytize. Faith-based organizations augment the community spirit, making needed investment in social capital. The federal government has funneled about $1.2 billion to religious groups so far; the president is determined to increase this in his second term.
His rhetoric is charged with the zeal of a do-gooder as well as a man who values sound business principles. Government money, he says, helps those groups, whether religious or not, who choose to serve "something greater than yourself as an important part of life." He describes his approach to social service programs as "consumer-oriented" and "demand-driven" rather than "supply driven."
Skeptics mock. To many of them, faith is something hokey and unenlightened. The president reflects the vision of Ronald Reagan, who often spoke of America as "the shining city on a hill" that the devout John Winthrop described in founding the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1630.
The president uses similar language in describing his approach to foreign policy. "I am excited about helping spread freedom and helping say to reformers, 'We hear your call and you've got a friend,' and helping to say to the critics and the cynics, 'people from all walks of life, all religions, have got the capacity to self-govern.'"
He draws attention to a painting of a mountain, on the wall behind him. "Laura and I live on the east side of the mountain, the sunrise side, not the sunset side," he says. "The president must also be able to see the day that is gone."
He cites imperial Japan as an example from the day that is gone. "My dad fought them. (They were) mortal enemies. They killed a lot of people and attacked our country. But because we believe that freedom can change societies and convert enemies to allies . . . Japan is now a strong ally, and the world is more peaceful as a result of it. I know that free societies will be peaceful societies."
Amen to that, as a good deacon would say.