George W. Bush is turning out to be one of the most openly religious presidents in American history. He prays daily. He delivers speeches and national radio broadcasts that sound like sermons. He oversees a White House full of Bible study groups. Most important, he favors lowering the barriers between church and state by giving government money to religious charities.
But in recent weeks, the leaders of the many mainline American churches opposed to a war with Iraq — including the president's own church, the United Methodist — have grown frustrated that they have not been able to see Mr. Bush to express their anxieties. The group represents nearly every faith and denomination, including Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Baptists and mainstream evangelicals. The Southern Baptist Convention, conservative evangelicals and some Pentecostal leaders are supporting the president, while Jewish leaders are divided.
"There's never been such unity among the churches in the country, even during Vietnam," said the Rev. Jim Wallis, the editor of the evangelical magazine Sojourners and the leader of a delegation of United States religious leaders that last month met for nearly an hour in London with Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, Mr. Bush's closest ally and an observant Christian.
Those Americans who met with Mr. Blair included John B. Chane, the Episcopal bishop of Washington; Melvin Talbert, the ecumenical officer of the United Methodist Council of Bishops; Clifton Kirkpatrick, the chief ecclesiastical officer of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); and Dan Weiss, the immediate past general secretary of the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. Last week, the group released an antiwar plan that calls for coercive weapons inspections and the indictment of Saddam Hussein on charges of crimes against humanity — but no bombing of children, as Mr. Wallis put it, in downtown Baghdad.
In London, Mr. Wallis said, although Mr. Blair did not move away from his conviction that action against Mr. Hussein was justified to prevent weapons of mass destruction from falling into the hands of terrorists, he "engaged deeply the moral and theological issues at stake."
It has not been lost on Mr. Wallis and the other Americans who met with Mr. Blair that they have not yet had the same conversation with their own president. Mr. Wallis, who supports Mr. Bush's plan to give federal money to religious charities, has met with him a number of times in the past on other issues.
"I hope he hasn't walled himself off," Mr. Wallis said. "I haven't heard a moral language or a faith language from him in relation to this momentous decision."
The only antiwar religious leader who has seen Mr. Bush recently is Cardinal Pio Laghi, a peace emissary sent by Pope John Paul II. Cardinal Laghi, who as the Vatican's representative in Washington in the 1980's played tennis with Vice President George Bush, met with the current President Bush for 40 minutes on Wednesday. The cardinal also delivered a letter from the pope to Mr. Bush. "I assure you, Mr. President," the letter concluded, "that I am praying for you and for Americans, and I ask the Lord to inspire you to search for the ways of a stable peace, the noblest of endeavors."
The entreaties of the pope and the cardinal seem not to have persuaded Mr. Bush, who at a news conference a day later made clear that war was imminent and that if necessary, the United States would wage it alone, without the support of the United Nations. If so, many Christians say the attack would not be a "just war," according to a theory developed by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, because it would not have what they consider proper authority, an important requirement for a just war.
But Mr. Bush, his advisers say, sees it differently. "The president thinks the most immoral act of all would be if Saddam Hussein were to somehow transfer his weapons to terrorists who could use them against us," Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, said last week. "So the president does view the use of force as a matter of legality, as a matter of morality and as a matter of protecting the American people."
At the White House, where two liaisons to religious groups are on the staff of Karl Rove, the president's chief political adviser, the concern is that a meeting with antiwar leaders would turn into a circuslike news conference. Even Cardinal Laghi said he was told by the White House last week that he could not speak to reporters in the driveway outside the West Wing, where microphones are set up for regular news conferences with visitors to the Oval Office. Mr. Fleischer said that was not true, but Cardinal Laghi nonetheless held his news conference at the National Press Club.
On the eve of the 1991 Persian Gulf war, the first President Bush met with the man who was then the national leader of his faith, Presiding Bishop Edmond L. Browning of the Episcopal Church. Church leaders describe the conversation as "vigorous." The two famously disagreed, but at least, religious leaders say, the meeting occurred.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company