“The Jesus Factor,” a new Frontline documentary that premieres tonight on PBS stations across the country (check local listings for times and stations), helps to answer a question I’ve been asking since George W. Bush first took office. Not “Why, oh God, why?” (I reserve that one for my more private devotional moments), but, what does our president actually believe? Between his carefully scripted press conferences, his retinue of handlers, and his relatively short career in public service, George W. Bush has remained something of an ideological cipher, even as he executes policies that take our country further and further to the right. This one-hour program limits its scope to the president’s personal religious convictions, asking: How much of his vaunted Christian faith springs from genuine conviction, and how much is politically expedient lip service? And more important, how has W.’s belief system affected his administration’s policy decisions?
Much of this documentary was shot in Midland, Texas, tracing the younger Bush’s journey from AA-style “self-help Methodist” to born-again evangelical. Brought up in an observant but not devout Episcopalian WASP family, Bush converted to Methodism when he married Laura Welch in 1977 at age 31. But it wasn’t until shortly after his 40th birthday in 1986 that Bush had an epiphany. His oil business ventures had ended badly, and his heavy drinking was threatening his marriage. So Bush began attending a community Bible study group with 120 Midland men and was soon one of its most fervent members. Before long, he was working on his father’s 1988 presidential campaign (where he was assigned to consult with leaders from the religious right) and turning an eye toward the governorship of Texas.
Like a born-again Mr. Magoo, Bush seems to have blundered through his first gubernatorial campaign making naive mistakes that he somehow turned to his advantage. While giving an interview to Ken Herman of the Houston Post, Bush casually reflected on a family argument in which he and his mother had differed over a point of religious doctrine: Did a person need to accept Christ as his savior in order to go to heaven? To resolve this question, the Bushes decided to make a quick after-dinner phone call to the Rev. Billy Graham. (Do they call William Safire to settle their Scrabble disputes?) Graham sided with Barbara Bush: Since there was no way of knowing what happened in the afterworld, it was best just to live your life well here on earth and have faith in God. A moderate, fair-minded response—but, as Bush confided to Herman, he still believed that salvation must be a prerequisite for eternal life. Unable to believe his luck, Herman printed this scoop, to great public outcry: Apparently the Muslims, Jews, and nonbelievers of Bush’s constituency were perplexed to learn that their prospective governor had just condemned them to eternal damnation. Bush never apologized or recanted; he simply avoided the subject, and yet still managed to take the state in a landslide.
Herein lies one of the most illuminating lessons of The Jesus Factor: If you have the conservative Christian vote in an American election, you can dispense with almost everyone else. Doug Wead, a Bush family friend and political consultant on matters concerning the religious right, estimates that evangelical Christians make up 25 percent of the nation, and that of those who vote, a solid two-thirds are Republican. But wooing this demographic is a delicate business, as evidenced by the 1992 Republican convention in Houston, where hate-mongering speeches by right-wing commentator Pat Buchanan and televangelist Pat Robertson turned many moderate Republicans off the party. And the impression that George Bush the elder was pandering to the religious right helped pave the way to a Clinton victory. But in contrast to his father’s colder, more elitist public persona, George W. Bush melded a folksy populism with genuine religious fervor and found a way to parlay these attributes into a second term as governor. Southern Baptist leader Richard Land recalls the afternoon of Bush’s second gubernatorial inauguration, when Bush gathered a few trusted colleagues in his office to announce, “God wants me to be president.”
During a televised debate in the 1999 presidential primary in Iowa, the three Republican contenders, Steve Forbes, Alan Keyes, and George Bush, were asked what “political philosopher or thinker” had most influenced them and why. Forbes cited John Locke; Keyes, the Founding Fathers; and Bush, “Christ, because he changed my heart.” In the clip of this moment that appears in The Jesus Factor, Bush’s sincerity is evident; unfortunately, so is his intellectual poverty and lack of historical referents. We’re told that he reads the Bible every day (the way some of us might read, say, the newspaper) and that he once brandished a copy of it during a speech on federal funding for faith-based charities, saying, “This is the only handbook you need. This handbook is a good go-by.” As the Rev. Welton Gaddy, leader of a liberal Christian coalition, points out, in a nation founded on freedom of religious practice, promoting the Good Book as a manual for public policy is a disquieting choice. Especially since, of the $100 million so far dispensed to faith-based charities by the Bush administration, not one dollar has gone to a Jewish or Muslim organization.
At one hour, The Jesus Factor is far too short to allow for extended analyses. But the film’s talking heads (theologians, political consultants, family friends) offer a few compelling readings of the ways in which Bush’s rhetoric tends to collapse the religious and the political. One of the most striking of these comes from Jim Wallis, editor of the left-leaning Christian magazine Sojourners. In a speech to mark the first anniversary of Sept. 11, sharing the frame with the Statue of Liberty, Bush compared America’s mission to conquer terrorism to “the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it.” Cut to a shot of an open Bible—the line comes directly from the beginning of the Gospel of John, where, as Wallis points out, “the light that shines in darkness” is a prophetic reference to Christ’s mission on earth. If the campaign against terror is indistinguishable from the will of God, the rest of the world might be forgiven for feeling that Muslim extremists are not the only fundamentalists engaged in a potentially infinite religious war.