Pat Robertson's resignation this month as president of the Christian Coalition confirmed the ascendance of a new leader of the religious right in America: George W. Bush.
For the first time since religious conservatives became a modern political movement, the president of the United States has become the movement's de facto leader -- a status even Ronald Reagan, though admired by religious conservatives, never earned. Christian publications, radio and television shower Bush with praise, while preachers from the pulpit treat his leadership as an act of providence. A procession of religious leaders who have met with him testify to his faith, while Web sites encourage people to fast and pray for the president.
There are several reasons for the adulation. Religious conservatives have regarded Bush as one of their own since the presidential campaign, when he spoke during a debate of the guidance of Jesus. At the same time, key figures in the religious right -- Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, Billy Graham and Franklin Graham -- have receded in political prominence or influence, in part because they are no longer mobilized by their opposition to a president. Bush's handling of the anti-terrorism campaign since Sept. 11 has solidified his standing by painting him in stark terms as the leader in a fight of good against evil.
"I think Robertson stepped down because the position has already been filled," said Gary Bauer, a religious conservative who challenged Bush in the Republican primary. Bush "is that leader right now. There was already a great deal of identification with the president before 9-11 in the world of the Christian right, and the nature of this war is such that it's heightened the sense that a man of God is in the White House."
Ralph Reed, who once led the Christian Coalition and now is chairman of the Georgia GOP, notes that the religious conservative movement "no longer plays the institutional role it once did," in part because it succeeded in electing Bush and other friendly leaders. "You're no longer throwing rocks at the building; you're in the building."
Conservative Christians tend to view Bush's recent success as part of a divine plan. "I've heard a lot of 'God knew something we didn't,' " Reed said. "In the evangelical mind, the notion of an omniscient God is central to their theology. He had a knowledge nobody else had: He knew George Bush had the ability to lead in this compelling way."
Bush himself dismisses the notion that he is part of some divine plan. "He does not believe he was chosen for this moment," a senior aide said. "He just views himself as governing on his beliefs and his promises. He doesn't look at himself as a leader of any particular movement."
Still, some of those around Bush say they have a sense that a higher purpose is involved. "I think President Bush is God's man at this hour, and I say this with a great sense of humility," Bush aide Tim Goeglein, described as a "strong evangelical," told World magazine, a Christian publication.
Partially a victim of their own success, groups such as the Christian Coalition are finding fundraising difficult. Some leaders, such as Focus on the Family's Dobson, have retreated from political involvement.
Some religious conservative leaders have inflicted wounds on themselves. Falwell was roundly criticized, even by supporters, for saying on television, with Robertson's agreement, that "abortionists and the feminists, and the gays and lesbians" and civil libertarians were to blame in part for the Sept. 11 attacks. Franklin Graham produced a furor by declaring Islam a "very evil and wicked religion."
Voting patterns also show a declining religious right. Karl Rove, Bush's top political strategist, said that only 15 million of the 19 million religious conservatives who should have voted went to the polls in 2000. "We may be seeing to some degree some return to the sidelines of previously involved religious conservatives," he said.
And Bush, his advisers acknowledge, deliberately circumvented the power of the leaders of the religious right, appealing to conservatives himself rather than paying homage to the Christian Coalition during the campaign. "In the old days, Republican presidential candidates went to religious conservative leaders to seek their imprimatur," said a Bush adviser. "George W. Bush was able to go directly to those who sat in the pews."
Bush's effort succeeded. "He is the leader of the Christian right," said Marshall Wittmann, a former Christian Coalition figure now with the Hudson Institute, a think tank. "As their institutions peel away, he can go over the heads" of religious conservative leaders.
Bush, aided by speechwriter Michael Gerson, himself a religious conservative, speaks the language of religion better than any president since Jimmy Carter, religious leaders say, and Bush's policies appeal more to conservatives. To many outside the religious conservative movement, Bush's faith-infused words may sound sanctimonious; to those within it, the words sound familiar and comforting. Across the country, churchgoers share Bush's "testimony," his discovery of God 15 years ago with the help of Billy Graham. "Reverend Graham planted a mustard seed in my soul, a seed that grew over the next year," Bush's memoir recounts. "He led me to the path, and I began walking. It was the beginning of a change in my life."
As Bush had embraced religious conservatism, religious conservatives have openly embraced him. The Internet has several sites offering prayers for the president's success. One example: "Call on the name of the Lord to hedge him in from terrorists and violent people. Psalm 91:11-12; 1 Corinthians 1:10-11."
World magazine, which is edited by one-time Bush adviser Marvin Olasky, named Bush's attorney general, John D. Ashcroft, its "Daniel of the Year." Ashcroft himself considered running for president in 2000 as the candidate of the religious right. "Just as the biblical Daniel faced an established idol-worshiping religion in Babylon, so our Dans must not back down in the face of deadly persecution abroad or the scorn and harassment that comes domestically from the academic and media high priests of our established religion, secular liberalism," Olasky wrote.
The top Daniel, of course, is Bush himself, a view liberally offered by the many religious figures who pass through the White House. In an account of one such meeting, Jean Bethke Elshtain, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, wrote of a "powerful and moving moment" with Bush and an ecumenical group of religious leaders. "One of our group asked, 'Mr. President, what can we do for you?' He indicated that we could 'pray for me, for our country, for my family.' He believes in the efficacy of prayer and needs wisdom and guidance and grace, he said. A Greek Orthodox archbishop was invited to lead us in prayer. We all joined hands in a prayer circle, including the president."
© 2001 The Washington Post Company