George W. Bush learns to 'testify'

George Bush never did learn to open up when anyone asked about his faith, salvation, family values and all those messy spiritual issues.

On one campaign stop, he was asked what he thought about as he floated alone in the Pacific Ocean after his plane was shot down during World War II. His response was chilly: "Mom and Dad, about our country, about God ... and about the separation of church and state."

Eventually, the Kennebunkport Episcopalian ran into a Little Rock Baptist who could preach, pray, weep, hug, sing and confess with the best of them.

Now, Bush's heir is poised to make a run at the White House. However, George W. Bush is a Bible Belt Methodist and appears to have learned a big lesson: it helps if a candidate can stand tall in a pulpit and, as born-again folks say, "give his testimony."

"Faith gives us purpose - to right wrongs, preserve our families and teach our children values," said the Texas governor, speaking to about 15,000 during a March 6-7 visit to Houston's Second Baptist Church. "Faith gives us a conscience - to keep us honest even when no one is watching. Faith changes lives. I know, because it has changed mine. I grew up in the church, but I didn't always walk the walk."

Bush then described a backslider vs. the preacher showdown he had in the mid-1980s with evangelist Billy Graham. Bush said their talks inspired him to "recommit my life to Jesus Christ" and to end what he has previously confessed was a rowdy era in his private life. Bush's testimony also included nods to Promise Keeper orator Tony Evans, Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson and other prominent evangelicals.

Yes, this Bush also pledged his allegiance to church-state separation.

"The church is not the state and the state is darn sure not the church," he said. "Any time the church enters the realm of politics the church runs the real risk of losing its mission. ... Politics is a world of give and take, of polls, of human vision. The church is built on the absolute principles of the Word of God, not the word of man."

Bush's sermon on religion and politics was quickly buried in news about an Associated Press interview about abortion. As he has throughout the 1990s, Bush called himself a "pro-life person," yet he said most Americans do not share his convictions.

"America is not ready to overturn Roe vs. Wade, because America's hearts are not right," he said. "So, in the meantime ... what we ought to do is promote policies that reduce abortions."

Speaking to the press through a telephone news conference, Focus on the Family leader James Dobson urged Bush to be specific. "Don't give us double-talk. Tell us if you'll support pro-life judges. Tell us if you'll oppose giving money to Planned Parenthood International." At this point in the Bush campaign, Dobson said, "we don't know what he believes."

Bush's approach does resemble the fervent, yet vague, approach used for years by Bill Clinton. Back in 1986, Clinton even said he agreed with the "stated purpose" of an Arkansas constitutional amendment to "promote the health, safety and welfare of every unborn child from conception until birth." Clinton has preached many sermons on faith's positive role in public life.

It's easy to offer positive words about faith. The problem is that so many people -- both progressives and traditionalists - - currently believe their religious beliefs are under attack.

Bush stressed the positive at Second Baptist, calling for church-state cooperation that would unleash "little armies of compassion" to transform "one heart, one soul and one conscience at a time." Still, this strategy will raise questions. Some critics insist that cooperative efforts using tax money, or even tax incentives, blur the line between church and state. Others want to know why Bush welcomes faith-based alternatives to costly government social programs, yet shies away from similar alternatives in education.

Bush's remarks in Houston will be dissected by one and all.

"We have learned that government programs cannot solve all the problems in our society," he said. "Government can hand out money, but it cannot put hope in our hearts or a sense of purpose in our lives. It cannot fill the spiritual well from which we draw strength day to day. Only faith can do that."