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'The Jesus Factor'

Producer Raney Aronson is the producer, writer and director of the new PBS Frontline documentary, The Jesus Factor (April 29, at 9 p.m. on many stations). It examines President Bush's evangelical Christian faith, how he became a born-again Christian and the impact it has on his politics. Also, Wayne Slater, Austin bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News. He's followed Bush's political career, and appears in the documentary. He is also the author of the book, Bush's Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush President.


Other segments from the episode on April 29, 2004

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 29, 2004: Interview with Raney Aronson and Wayne Slater; Interview with Richard Land.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Raney Aronson and Wayne Slater discuss President Bush's
religious beliefs

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Tonight on most PBS stations, the investigative series "Frontline" presents an
edition called "The Jesus Factor." It's about how President Bush became a
born-again Christian and what impact his faith has had on his political career
and on America. The president has spoken in public about how his faith has
transformed him. Here's an example included in the "Frontline" documentary
from a debate in the year 2000 among the Republican presidential candidates
seeking their party's nomination. The moderator had asked the candidates what
political philosopher or thinker they most identified with. Steve Forbes had
answered John Locke, Alan Keyes named the Founding Fathers.

(Beginning of excerpt)

Unidentified Narrator: Governor Bush, the philosopher/thinker and why?

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Christ because he changed my heart.

Unidentified Narrator: I think the viewer would like to know more on how he
has changed your heart.

Pres. BUSH: Well, if they don't know, it's gonna be hard to explain. When
you turn your heart and your life over to Christ, when you accept Christ as
the Savior, it changes your heart and changes your life. And that's what
happened to me.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

(End of excerpt)

GROSS: I have two guests. Raney Aronson is the "Frontline" producer who
wrote, directed and produced tonight's edition. Wayne Slater is one of the
people who was interviewed for the program. He's senior political writer for
the Dallas Morning News and is the paper's former Austin bureau chief. He's
covered George W. Bush's political career and co-authored the book "Bush's
Brain" about his adviser Karl Rove.

Wayne Slater, you've been covering the Bush family since before the time that
President George W. Bush was born again. What is his family's religious
background? What kind of religious background was he born into?

Mr. WAYNE SLATER (Dallas Morning News): You know, he was born into a family
that was really high church among Protestants, that's an Episcopalian family.
When he was a little kid in Midland, Texas, they were members of the
Episcopalian church, and that was the early church for George Bush. As he got
older, he found his faith in a more comfortable church for him; that was a
Methodist tradition in Midland, a little more practical, a little less ritual.
And for him, it was the church of his wife and, really, the church of his
faith and molded, I think, the way he thought and reflected the ways that he
thinks, which is not so many rococo edges around the religion, more practical,
more direct. Methodism was really the religion that, I think, defined Bush
and that reflects exactly who he is.

GROSS: President Bush was born again in the mid-'80s just before he turned
40. To your knowledge, Raney, what precipitated this change in his life?

Ms. RANEY ARONSON ("Frontline"): Well, we know, for example, that President
Bush has spoken about a conversation that he had with the Reverend Billy
Graham. We know that that conversation was very important in sort of planting
what he called the mustard seed in his soul. He started at that point to
really think about his role in his life, where his life was going. And we
also know, at the same time, he was having very serious problems with
drinking. It was starting to cause problems in his family with his wife, with
his children. So it was just sort of a very ripe period for him to sort of
re-examine his life. And then he ended up, as he tells it, having a
born-again experience.

GROSS: And what have you learned about that experience?

Ms. ARONSON: Well, it's interesting. Of course, the president speaks about a
walk with Jesus Christ, beginning his walk with Jesus Christ, and that, of
course, started with Billy Graham. What we now know is, from people in
Midland, Texas, who have told me about it, that after he had this conversation
with Billy Graham, he went on this birthday party. The birthday party was in
Colorado Springs and included people like Don Evans. A bunch of these guys
were having their 40th-year birthday party. The next day when he woke up
after a very heavy night of drinking, he woke up and he made a decision that
he would not take a drink again in his life. And, as far as we know, that's

Now as soon as the birthday party was over and he went back to Midland, Texas,
we do know that he enrolled in a very rigorous Bible study, and that Bible
study was a yearlong program.

GROSS: Well, he joined the Midland, Texas, chapter of Community Bible Study.

And, Wayne Slater, is this a group that you've been familiar with over the

Mr. SLATER: Absolutely, and it's a classic, conservative, in the classic
sense, group of people. You've got to understand what Midland was in the
mid-'80s. It was a place in the late '70s, early '80s that was part of the
American oil boom. People were making money, prosperity. And what you had in
Midland--basically, this giant, flat place, flat as a skillet--were two
institutions. One was the church and the other one was the oil business; sort
of God and mammon. When times are good, it's God's grace; when times are bad,
it's God's test.

And by the mid-'80s, at exactly the time when this Bible study really began to
take hold and George Bush joined it in earnest, the economy was tanking. And
so you saw in this not only a social network, you saw this group of people who
were looking economically at hard times, relatively speaking, a very
conservative place that was isolated in many ways. So it wasn't simply a
Bible study. It became a very important network for families and the
communities at a time when maybe their faith wasn't being tested, but the
economy of their life was being changed drastically. And for him, this Bible
study, these men who would gather and talk about big things, big ideas and the
certainty of God and God in their life and the role that God is with them was
very important.

GROSS: Was George W. Bush's personal economy being tested in the mid-'80s,

Mr. SLATER: You bet you it was. I mean, he essentially tried to go to
Midland and start a firm. He did. He worked for a while as an oilman--I
mean, as a grant man, and then he started a firm that didn't do very well. It
was bought out. Started another one; it didn't do very well. As an
oilman--and Bush has said this to me when Donny Evans--they laughed--they made
the absolute wrong decision. It was the worst time in the world for someone
to go into the oil business in the mid-'80s in Texas. Ultimately, he came out
OK for a variety of reasons, but it was not a place to make a lot of money at
that moment.

GROSS: Now you keep referring to these men, and the Bible study group that
George W. Bush was in was a group of men. Why is it a men's group?

Mr. SLATER: I think part of it was these men felt familiar and comfortable.
It didn't have to be. Not all of these Bible studies--some were coed. I
think, though, they felt comfortable in this kind of community. You see
in--especially the evangelical tradition can, on the one hand, be manly, you
know; on the other hand, can recognize their vulnerability under God. And it
was an acceptable way of being both the steward, be both the head of a family,
being both the breadwinner and the person of strength and, at the same time,
recognizing, I think, psychologically inside that they were still children of
God. And this offered the kind of intellectual framework as well as an
emotional framework.

And so these men, I think, could talk comfortably with one another about God
and religion. They could look at Scriptures about faith, the place of Christ
in their heart, the future, the role of family. It was then reinforced at the
church when they would go to church socials and so forth. It was a wonderful
way at this moment, where they were in business together, many of them, to
both bring up their families in a largely homogeneous and very structured

Ms. ARONSON: You know...


Ms. ARONSON: I just wanted to add one thing 'cause I think it was really
interesting when I found out that, you know, the men's Bible study--this
particular Bible study came out of the bust. I mean, it was really formed as
a reaction to all of the economic hardships that were happening in Midland at
the time. Preceding the men's Bible study was the women's Bible study, so the
women of Midland actually really encouraged the men at the time to form their
own Bible study. And that Bible study, the Midland Chapter of Community Bible
Study, is still in--you know, it's very active today.

GROSS: Raney, in your "Frontline" documentary, "The Jesus Factor," it said
that this Christian Bible study group that George W. Bush joined in the
mid-'80s, you know, believes that the Bible is the Word of God without error.
I'm wondering about some of the other things that the group believes. What
are its views on other faiths? On Catholicism? Judaism? Islam?

Ms. ARONSON: What I found, talking to many of the Bible study members, was
that, while it is a non-denominational Bible study--in other words, any faith,
any person of any faith can attend this Bible study--they really do believe
that to make it into heaven, to have salvation, to live your life the right
way, you really do have to have had a born-again experience. In other words,
you really do have to have what they call a personal relationship with Jesus

GROSS: Do you know if the president believes that people who are born again
will be saved and go to heaven and others will be damned? You know, and

Ms. ARONSON: In fact, yeah...

GROSS: ...if you don't have a personal relationship with Jesus, you will be

Ms. ARONSON: In fact, we report in our "Frontline" something very
interesting. It's an anecdote that Ken Herman, who's a reporter in Texas and
a friend of Wayne Slater's, actually--he had a conversation with then-Governor
George Bush. They started to talk about what George W. Bush believed in in
terms of his religion, and George W. Bush said to Ken, `You know, I once had
this conversation with my mother, and we were talking about salvation.' And
there was a disagreement between himself and his mother, and the conversation
was whether you needed to believe in Jesus Christ or have this personal
relationship with Jesus Christ to make it into heaven. His mother said,
essentially, you know, `Really don't worry about it. We don't know the answer
to this, but really don't worry about it.'

So they decided to get Billy Graham on the phone. Billy Graham sided with his
mother, but George W. Bush said, you know, ultimately that he believed that to
make it into heaven, you had to have a personal relationship with Jesus
Christ, you had to believe in him and that he had to be your Savior. So I
would say that we can pretty much assume that this is what he believes today.

GROSS: And does this Bible study group believe in the rapture, in the coming
apocalypse in which those who are born again will rise to heaven and others
will be left behind?

Mr. SLATER: Yeah, the whole pre-millennial community and the rapture and all
that was not fundamentally a part of the men's Bible study program. That
program that George Bush was a part of was really very straightforward. It
was Jesus is the Savior. It was that you must have a personal relationship
and be committed to Jesus, that Jesus was the only way and that your saving
comes from God's grace, not your good works. And everything comes out of
that. This whole more elaborate network of discussions about the rapture and
is it a thousand years before or a thousand years after, who's left, who's
not--this was not an official part of the Bible study. But it is, if you talk
to evangelicals, very much a part of the theology of many of these people,
certainly in Midland and all over the country.

I personally don't know that George Bush--I've never talked to George Bush
about the rapture itself. It is my sense that he's a very practical guy and
that that rapture and the theology around that is not what guides him. His
belief is more fundamentally Christ-oriented.

Let me say one other thing. Let me just take a second and elaborate on what
Raney said. When, in fact, George Bush talked about the only way to go to
heaven is through Jesus Christ, which is what he believes, and, frankly, is
what the church teaches, it was good theology for these Protestant Methodists
and Baptists, who are even more hard-core here in Texas. But what it was was
terrible politics. In 1994, when this thing erupted, he was challenging Ann
Richards for governor. And effectively, what you had in the press was George
Bush saying, `Christians go to heaven, Jews go to hell.' And he had to do
some very quick political fixing of this that continued even through the
presidential race.

GROSS: What did he do?

Mr. SLATER: He basically answered quickly in a way that Raney said his mother
did. That is to say what George Bush did is amended his answer to say that,
`My church teaches that the only way to go to heaven and be saved is a
personal relationship, a belief that Jesus is God. But, as Billy Graham said,
we don't know what God's will is for everyone else. For me, that's what I
believe. But God will sort this out with respect to all other cultures, all
other religions.' And that's the tack that he has taken since the '94
election, and that was exactly the language that he used and didn't get in
trouble for as much in 2000 when the issue was briefly raised again.

GROSS: My guests are Wayne Slater and Raney Aronson. Aronson produced and
wrote tonight's edition of the PBS series "Frontline" about how being born
again has affected the life and political career of George W. Bush. Wayne
Slater is senior political writer for the Dallas Morning News. We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, I have two guests. Raney Aronson is a
producer for the PBS documentary series "Frontline," and she produced and
wrote the forthcoming "Frontline" edition, which is called "The Jesus Factor."
It's about President Bush, his faith and how that faith has affected his
political career. Also with us is Wayne Slater, senior political writer for
the Dallas Morning News and former Austin bureau chief for the paper. And he
is one of the people interviewed for the documentary. He has followed
President Bush throughout his political career.

Shortly after President Bush was born again in the mid-'80s, he left Texas to
go to Washington and work on his father's presidential campaign. This was in
1987. Did being born again and having so much in his life subsequently change
as a result of this new faith? Is that why he joined his father's campaign?
Are they connected?

Ms. ARONSON: From how I understand it, George W. Bush joined his father in
1987, not in any official capacity, to reach out to evangelicals or religious
voters. But once he came onto the campaign, it became very clear, especially
after the Iowa caucus in which Pat Robertson beat George H.W. Bush, that this
was a constituency that the campaign should take very seriously. And at the
same time, George W. Bush was telling his father about the experiences he had
had in Midland, and it became very clear that George W. Bush had a link to
this community that his father did not have.

Doug Wead, who we have in our film, was a political adviser to the vice
president at the time of the campaign and says that while he was preparing
memos for the vice president, George W. Bush was sort of whispering in his
ear. So he was getting it from two sides. He was getting it from an adviser
and he was also getting it from his son that this was a religious group that
you really had to take seriously. And George W. Bush really ended up, after
a few months into the campaign, really reaching out to these religious voters.
He was able to speak their language, and this was really part of the reason
that many scholars and historians and theologians believed that George H.W.
Bush won the election.

GROSS: Wayne Slater, what else did George W. Bush do to help get out the
evangelical vote for his father for the 1988 election?

Mr. SLATER: Yeah, the key element in 1988 was this group of evangelical
voters, these socially conservative, largely Republicans, who George Herbert
Walker Bush needed. And what happened was this community as a whole loved
Reagan and were deeply suspicious of the father. And so Bush was a key
factor. He could talk their language, he could meet with them, he would call
pastors, he would talk with Doug Wead, who was sort of an emissary to this
religious-right community. And he could assure them, in many ways, trying to
undercut the candidacy of Pat Robertson, by reassuring them that, `My dad,
even though he's an Episcopalian, is OK. I'm one of you. He has beliefs that
are similar to your beliefs: family values and fundamental Christian ideas.
I am his son. I am his most important adviser, and my father is someone you
can vote for and you can support.' I am convinced that George Herbert Walker
Bush would have lost that election had it not been for the son who was able to
communicate in such an effective way with evangelicals who were suspicious of
the father but who felt that they had an ally in the son.

GROSS: Now let's get back to George W. Bush's political career. After
helping his father win the presidency, Bush returns to Texas and runs for
governor. Do you think his strong evangelical connection helped him defeat
Ann Richards?

Mr. SLATER: George Bush's evangelical connections in Texas were very, very
strong in 1994 when he challenged this formidable candidate, Ann Richards.
And without those evangelicals, both in west Texas, central Texas and east
Texas, George Bush would never have won. And you have to understand sort of
the dynamic of Texas at that moment in the mid-`90s. One community that had
been strongly Democrat since pretty much FDR was east Texas. Strongly
Democrat, but also deeply religious. It's the heart of the Baptist church in
Texas. It is an extension, in a sense, of the Old South. And George Bush
went out of his way in a number of ways to try to appeal to this community, he
and his political adviser, Karl Rove. They turned out in enormous numbers.
I've seen some statistics, some exit polls that indicate that 90 percent of
people who identified themselves as social conservative voted for George Bush
in 1994, and he won.

GROSS: When he was governor of Texas, did he refer much to his faith in
public life?

Mr. SLATER: He did not refer very much at all to his faith. It's funny, I
saw this transformation over the years as a sort of fledgling governor. It
was clear, in retrospect, that faith was a very important part of his life.
And yet, at the same time, it was not something that--you didn't want to be
meretricious about it, you didn't want to show it off as a gaudy affectation.
That's the kind of thing that TV preachers did, and that's the kind of thing
that Bush was somewhat uncomfortable with.

At the same time, what he did was, in terms of some programs, applied some
fundamental ideas that really came from his religious background and his
born-again experience to the social programs in the state of Texas.

And also, one other thing was just after he was elected, a couple of things
happened. One was they sang a hymn at his inaugural, and that was a hymn
written by Charles Wesley, the famed--you know, one of the founders of
Methodism, called "A Charge to Keep." Bush has a painting in his governor's
office and now, I believe, has it in the White House in the Oval Office. It's
a hymn that talks about glory to God, souls to save, doing the Master's will.
And in 1995, as a young governor, even though he wasn't talking widely in
those days about his religious experience, he sent a memo to members of his
staff referring specifically to this hymn and that painting which showed a
horseman charging up this rough trail. And he wrote in the memo, `This is us.
We serve one greater than ourselves.' And so he set a very strong religious
sense inside his own administration from day one.

GROSS: And his campaign memoir was also named after this hymn, "A Charge to

Mr. SLATER: That's right. Yes, the campaign memoir for "A Charge to Keep" is
really from that hymn and from that painting.

GROSS: Wayne Slater is senior political writer for the Dallas Morning News.
Raney Aronson wrote and directed "The Jesus Factor," tonight's edition of the
PBS series "Frontline." They'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm
Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, we continue our discussion about how being born again has
affected President Bush's life, his political career and American politics.
We'll hear more from Raney Aronson and Wayne Slater, and we'll talk with Dr.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and
Religious Liberty Commission.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our
conversation with Raney Aronson and Wayne Slater. Aronson produced and wrote
tonight's edition of the PBS investigative series "Frontline" called "The
Jesus Factor." It explores how being born again has affected the life and
political career of George W. Bush. Wayne Slater is one of the people
interviewed for "The Jesus Factor." He's senior political writer for The
Dallas Morning News and has followed the president's career.

So, Wayne Slater, you mentioned that when he was governor of Texas that the
president didn't speak publicly often about his faith but that some of his
programs seemed very informed by that faith. What programs were you thinking

Mr. SLATER: Where you really saw George Bush's faith reflect itself in the
programs of Texas as governor were in the areas where he attempted very
strongly to do what he subsequently tried to do as president, and that's bring
faith-based or church-based or charity groups more actively involved in
government programs. Basically, in prison ministries you saw it, in job
training, in helping single mothers and so forth. Bush's idea was--a very
conservative idea, and it's a very standard idea among this community--you
don't simply hand somebody a check. You don't give them a piece of paper that
says, `You can get a job over here.' You don't simply devise a class where
they will learn a new skill or trade. What you must do is fundamentally
change them from the inside. That's a Christian idea. It is an idea that he
got from the Bible study at Midland in a very profound way.

In the case of Bible study, he brought basically a religious group--caused a
furor in some sections of Texas--that helped, you know, some prisoners along
the way. Again, the thesis is change the heart of the prisoners and their
lives will be changed. But at the same time what you're doing is introducing
religion in a secular activity of government.

GROSS: Do you think that in his presidential administration that he has made
a point of surrounding himself with people who share his faith?

Mr. SLATER: One of the things that was really interesting about this
development of the White House was, in a sense, what I saw in Austin, except
in a bigger way, there were many different kinds of people in the inner
circles of George Bush. His closest circle of advisers and friends include
both Karl Rove, who is really not actively evangelical at all, but include Don
Evans, Karen Hughes, Condoleezza Rice, Mike Gerson, the speechwriter, all of
whom are very, very important, find religion very important, and religion
really guides their lives in a fundamental way. When he became president in
that White House, it became almost assumed that you go to Bible study. And
Bible study really meant a sort of Christian, often Protestant approach to
religious belief. It was a very different White House when George Bush took
over than the White House that Bill Clinton left.

GROSS: You're not saying it was mandatory to go to Bible study.

Mr. SLATER: Absolutely, it was not mandatory at all but generally had an
environment where some people, sort of middle-level folks, in the White House
I've talked to say, `You know, you really felt like you were really out of it
if you were not part of a Bible study at one place or the other.' It was a
very strong religious sense, not mandatory, but the coercive factor was
something that--it wound encourage you, not mandate you, but encourage you to

GROSS: We should point out that some people who are or were closely involved
with the Bush administration not only weren't evangelical Christians, they
were Jewish. And I'm thinking here of David Frum, who was one of the
president's speechwriters, and Paul Wolfowitz, who is an important aide in
foreign affairs, in defense. So, you know, there were people who didn't
subscribe to these views.

Mr. SLATER: Absolutely. And David Frum, who was there for about a year
working as a speechwriter--fine, fine writer in the White House--felt a fish
out of water, really, with respect to this attitude. He's written about it
and talked about it.

GROSS: The president has said that his religion does not affect his policy
decisions. Raney, reporting on the story, do you think that that is true,
that the president's faith does not affect his policy decisions?

Ms. ARONSON: I think when you look at the president's actions, it's very,
very hard to tell whether he's acting out of his actual personal faith or if
he's acting out of a political necessity to appeal to this group. So I'm very
careful to say always about this question unless the president himself says,
`This is my faith, and therefore I did X,' we can't actually say that's the
case. Critics have pointed out in our show that the agenda of conservative
Christians, in particular evangelical Christians, do match many of the actions
that the president has taken. If you look at how many public statements he's
made in support of their moral agenda, the so-called partial-birth abortion
ban, calling an embryo life when he spoke of embryonic stem cell research;
when he appointed two judges in recess appointments who are very conservative
Christians--there are many things we can point at that will match the agenda
of conservative Christians.

The thing I thought was the most important--and Wayne spoke about this during
his governor years--is his attempt to look at how the church and the
government should be related to each other. What George W. Bush believes--and
I think this is as close as we can come to saying that his faith really does
affect his policies--is his fervor and his excitement over the faith-based
initiative. Now Congress has completely stalled on this initiative. The
president has gone around them, in a sense, and set up offices in seven of his
executive agencies. Now he believes very strongly that the government should
be looking to faith-based groups to help the people of America. He believes
that faith-based groups, as long as, you know, there are certain rules about
proselytizing--that, you know, groups should not proselytize--however, they
should be able to accept money as much as a secular group. And this is where
we see the president being the most open about what he believes in terms of
his faith and his policies.

GROSS: Let me ask you about some of the statements President Bush has made
that refer to his faith. In the "Frontline" documentary, Richard Land tells
the story--and Richard Land is the president of the Ethics and Religious
Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Commission. And he said that the
day that George W. Bush was inaugurated as governor of Texas for his second
term, several evangelicals, including Land, met with him in the governor's
mansion. And among the things the president said to them was, `I believe that
God wants me to be president.' What are some of the ways this statement has
been interpreted?

Ms. ARONSON: Wayne, I'll start with this, and then I'd love to hear what you
think about this. One of the interesting things about this anecdote is I
found people responding to this in two ways. Secular people, when they heard
that the president felt called to run for presidency by God, felt very
alarmed. They felt very concerned that he was looking to God or God was, you
know, the reason he had this sort of divine calling. That really alarmed
them. What I found on the religious side was, well, they weren't alarmed at
all. In fact, they were comforted by this idea. They believe, many of them,
that God really does call you to do things. So I had these sort of
diametrically opposed opinions on this: people who are happy with this,
comforted, and people who are alarmed.

GROSS: Let me ask you about a statement that Bob Woodward reports in his new
book. He says that when Bush was asked whether he consulted his father before
going to war, the president said, `You know, he's the wrong father to appeal
to in terms of strength. There is a higher father that I appeal to.' Wayne,
Slater, how have you heard this interpreted?

Mr. SLATER: That's another example of this extraordinary dichotomy about in
terms of the way people interpret the way George Bush thinks. In George
Bush's mind, in the mind of many evangelicals, there is nothing at all unusual
about the idea that they are instruments of God; that the God, the Father, has
them here at a specific place. And I think it's important to recognize--and I
know this will sound alarming to some people who are more secular and very
comforting to those people who are evangelicals, but George Bush is a
president who believes fundamentally the religious idea of evangelicals that
we are at this moment in a divine drama, a battle between good and evil. And
so when he uses the word `evil,' it's a very informed use, not as an abstract
idea but as something very real.

With respect to the war in Iraq, he understands and his sense as president is
this is something that's playing out on a bigger field. And as a result, it
reflects, really, God's design. Now I don't think George Bush believes that
God is telling him every little step to take, but there is no doubt that
George Bush believes that he is God's man in this hour--I don't know how many
evangelicals have told him that--and that this is his moment in history and
that he hopes and believes he is following God's will.

GROSS: My guests are Wayne Slater, senior political writer for The Dallas
Morning News, and Raney Aronson, who produced tonight's edition of the PBS
series "Frontline." It's called "The Jesus Factor." We'll take more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guests are Raney Aronson and Wayne Slater. Aronson produced
tonight's edition of the PBS series "Frontline" called "The Jesus Factor"
about how being born again affected the life and political career of George W.
Bush. Wayne Slater is senior political writer for The Dallas Morning News.

Raney, there are other presidents who have spoken of their faith and who have
had a deep and abiding faith. I mean, most recently, Bill Clinton, Jimmy
Carter, Ronald Reagan. Do you see any fundamental differences between how
President Bush has used his faith to inform his politics or drawn from his
faith for public statements? Any differences between that and his

Ms. ARONSON: I think there's a very big difference. When I talked to
religious scholars about this, because I was very curious about this--because
of all of our presidents, you know, George W. Bush is not unusual in his
faith, I mean, in the sense that Bill Clinton has had a very strong faith;
Jimmy Carter, of course, was a born again Christian. What we found by looking
at his speeches and looking at how he addresses the public when he talks about
his faith, he speaks specifically about his belief in Jesus Christ. Jimmy
Carter and Bill Clinton, they were also very good at articulating their
religious beliefs, but they did so more in a sort of general way. If they
used the Bible in their speeches, they would evoke it in a sort of more
general way. President Bush, instead--he really draw on the Bible to make
specific statements. He will replace the idea of Jesus Christ and replace the
United States of America. So, in other words, he really does use the Bible

GROSS: What do you mean by what you just said? I think you're referring to a
quote that is discussed in your documentary.

Ms. ARONSON: A year after 9/11, at Ellis Island, George W. Bush addressed the
nation. And when he addressed the nation, he drew upon a passage from the
Gospel of John. What he did was he took the idea of Jesus Christ as being the
shining light to the rest of the world, and instead he replaced America, the
United States. What one of our religious theologians...

GROSS: Instead of talking about Jesus being the guiding light, he was talking
about America being the guiding light.

Ms. ARONSON: Exactly. He was really replacing the idea of Jesus Christ with
America. To some, of course, this is very comforting. To others, really, you
know, religious theologians who I've spoken to, including Jim Wallace, they're
very concerned that this idea of America sort of being the shining hope to the
rest of the world will really lead us down a path of being arrogant, of being
too sure of ourselves, of not asking enough questions about our actions and
the way that we come across to the rest of the world. It's a sort of
dangerous assumption that America is the sort of shining light to the rest of
the world.

GROSS: Wayne Slater, how do you see religion figuring into today's
presidential race?

Mr. SLATER: Oh, you see it in today's presidential race in, you know, an
enormous way. You have John Kerry trying to win back some of these moderate
evangelicals or moderate Christians. And so when John Kerry, not long ago,
began talking about another part of the Bible--George Bush refers to those
verses that might be appealing to evangelicals--John Kerry talks about, from
the chapter in the Book of James where works--faith without works is dead.
That's a Democratic idea that not only do we have to have faith in Jesus,
faith in Christ, but we also ought to do something about it and help the least
among us. So you see John Kerry attempting--I don't know if he'll be
successful--in trying to win back some of this evangelical support or
conservative, moderate Christian support, and it's going to be a tough sell.


Mr. SLATER: Well, I think, fundamentally, many of these evangelicals and
social Christians like George Bush. They like what he's done on partial-birth
abortion. They like what he's done in terms of appointees. They like what
he's done in the war. I was down in Georgia the other day talking to some
pastors, and when I talk to them about the war in Iraq, they understand
fundamentally in ways that George Bush does not talk about that this is part
of a millennial crusade. Bush got in trouble using the word `crusade.' You
talk to some pastors in suburban Atlanta, they understand that this war is
against the Muslims, against the infidel in fundamental ways hasn't changed in
a thousand years. They see that this is the president who's engaged in
something bigger than just this moment.

GROSS: Raney, I'm wondering, now that you've completed this documentary, "The
Jesus Factor," about President Bush, his faith and how that faith has affected
his politics, what are some of the questions you're left with about how a
political leader who is also a man of deep faith should draw on that faith to
inform his politics and where perhaps the limits should be? I mean, what are
some of the questions that you come away with?

Ms. ARONSON: Hmm, so many questions. But I guess the central question for me
is: How deeply does his faith really affect his policies? I mean, the idea
of America, obviously, is that there's a very strong separation between church
and state. We know that George W. Bush is someone who believes that that
needs to be renegotiated. So I'm curious how far he'll take it, what he'll do
if he is re-elected and sort of where he really sees this is going.

GROSS: What are the questions the George Bush story raises for you, Wayne
Slater, about the line between faith and politics?

Mr. SLATER: I think the divine is so--it's so dangerous to put these two
together in a country. It is so alien, arguably, to the origins of this
country, the idea of a separation of church and state. And America's never
going to become a theocracy in a sense that Iran or Iraq or some other of
those nations are. But it really raises questions to the extent that the
government raises a religious theological one point of view to a dominant
force, it really does so in a way that damages one of the basic First
Amendment, from the religious point of view, fundamental values of this

GROSS: I want to thank you both very much for talking with us.

Ms. ARONSON: Thanks, Terry.

Mr. SLATER: Good to be with you.

GROSS: Wayne Slater is senior political writer for The Dallas Morning News.
Raney Aronson wrote and directed "The Jesus Factor," tonight's edition of the
PBS series "Frontline."

Coming up, we talk about the president, faith and politics with Dr. Richard
Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Religious Liberty
Commission. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Richard Land discusses how Bush's religious beliefs
affect his life and political career

We've been talking about how being born again has affected the life and
political career of George W. Bush. A report on that subject will be shown
tonight on the PBS series "Frontline." One of the evangelical leaders
interviewed on the program is Dr. Richard Land. He's president of the
Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He's
also president of For Faith & Family. On its Web site, he has written this
message: `Our vision is an American society blessed by God that affirms and
practices Judeo-Christian values rooted in biblical authority. In order to
ensure the large blessing on our nation, Christians must take our place in
calling our nation back to her biblical roots.'

I asked Dr. Land if he had consulted with President Bush or spoke with him
during his tenure as governor.

Dr. RICHARD LAND (President, Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and
Religious Liberty Commission): I've been a friend of the president's since
long before he was governor. We first met when he came and asked me to come
work in the campaign and help his dad in 1988. I didn't do that because I was
getting ready to be interviewed for the job I hold now but told him that if
that job didn't work--if they didn't ask me to take the job, then I'd contact
him and would be happy to work in his dad's campaign. And we have maintained
a relationship both during the time that he was governor--I am a sixth
generation Texan. So while I'm living in Tennessee, I have a great interest
in what happens in my home state. And I also have known Karl Rove longer even
than I've known the president. So I've known Karl since about 1980 when I was
living in Dallas and Karl was living in Austin. And we were both working in
causes close to our hearts: his, the Republican Party; and mine, the pro-life

GROSS: Are there issues that the president or Karl Rove have sought your
advice on?

Dr. LAND: Well, they haven't had to seek my advice. My job as head of the
Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission is to
make certain that the executive branch, the congressional branch and the
judicial branch are aware of Southern Baptist concerns and Southern Baptist
convictions about the public policy issues that we face as a nation. So
seldom have they had to ask. I've volunteered as vigorously and as
vociferously as possible what the concerns of Southern Baptists are. And, you
know, sometimes they call and ask questions, the administration does. And
I've had the opportunity to visit with the president from time to time and
with Karl more frequently, but, you know, that's what Southern Baptists expect
me to do, and so I do it. I did it with this administration, I did it with
the previous administration and I did it with Bush I and with Reagan.

GROSS: Now the "Frontline" documentary that we've been discussing on today's
edition of FRESH AIR that deals with President Bush, his faith and how his
faith has affected his political career--in that documentary, you're quoted as
saying--I mean, you say that on the day that George W. Bush was inaugurated
for his second term as governor of Texas, he met with a group of evangelicals
in the governor's mansion after the inauguration, and he said, `I believe that
God wants me to be president.' What did that mean to you?

Dr. LAND: Well, first of all, it was before the inauguration. It was the
morning of the inauguration. And I haven't seen the "Frontline" documentary,
but I have been a little disturbed by the advanced news reports of people that
have seen it because he did say that. But they stopped the quote there, and I
hope that the documentary doesn't stop the quote there because if they do,
then by editing they have distorted the meaning and the whole ethos behind the
quote. What the president said was, `I believe that God wants me to be
president. But if that doesn't happen, that's OK. I'm loved at home, and
that's more important. And I've seen the presidency up close and personal,
and I know that it's a sacrifice, not a reward, and I don't need it for
personal validation.'

I remember it exactly because I was so struck by the humility of it, the
combination of conviction and humility. And the fact that--I went home and
told my wife, I said--I quoted it to her. And I said, `You know, that's
probably about as healthy emotionally as you're going to get for someone who's
willing to put up with all the sacrifices that you have to put up with in
order to run for president and be president.' And I still believe that. I
mean, that is the essence of George W. Bush's approach to God's will for his
life and for his public service.

GROSS: But I think what concerns the people who are concerned by that
statement is this: If you think that God wants you to be president and that
God is on your side, then does that mean you don't have to listen to your
critics or worry about shades of gray or nuisances in your policy and that you
don't have to worry that you may be wrong because God is on your side?

Dr. LAND: Well, first of all, I don't think the president looks upon it as
God is on his side. I think he looks upon it as he's doing his best to make
certain that he's on God's side. It's exactly the same perspective that
Abraham Lincoln had and stated in his second inaugural address. He said, you
know, `Both sides believe that God is on their side in this war, and both
sides can't be right, and maybe neither side is right. And, you know, maybe
God sent this war as a judgment upon our country,' is what he said about the
Civil War. But he said that, `With malice toward none and with firmness in
the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work
we are in and to bind up the nation's wounds.'

Lincoln was going to move forward, seeking God's will, seeking the
understanding what God wanted him to do, and he was going to do the right, as
God gave him the light to see the right. That's exactly the perspective that
George W. Bush has on his service as president and on his life and on his
service to the country. And it seems to me that that's a very humble

You know, for those who live in a world of relativism, those who are
uncomfortable with categories of good and evil and of absolutes--some things
are always right and some things are always wrong--that may come across as
arrogance. It may come across as certitude. But people who are relativists
are likely to confuse moral conviction with certitude.

GROSS: Dr. Land, thank you very much for talking with us.


GROSS: Dr. Richard Land is the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's
Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

We'll close with a track from the recently reissued recording, "Thelonious
Monk Plays Duke Ellington." Today is the 105th anniversary of Ellington's

(Soundbite of "Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington")
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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