WASHINGTON, Oct. 25 — Shortly after George W. Bush took office, an odd coalition came to the White House to see Karl Rove, the president's powerful political adviser, to ask that the United States intercede in the civil war in Sudan. The group included Charles W. Colson, the born-again Christian who spent seven months in jail for his role in Watergate, and David Saperstein, a Reform rabbi and a longtime lobbyist for liberal causes in Washington.
The two-decades-long war in Sudan was not a front-burner problem for the new administration, and Mr. Rove was not a foreign policy adviser. But the religious strife between Christians and Muslims in a conflict that had killed two million people was of enormous concern to American religious groups, particularly the evangelicals who make up a major portion of President Bush's electoral base.
Mr. Rove, the participants in the meeting recalled, was unusually receptive during a nearly hourlong conversation. "He made it clear how seriously the administration was going to engage on this," said Rabbi Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
Close to three years later, the White House has lived up to Mr. Rove's promise to engage not only in peace talks in Sudan, but on other human rights issues of critical importance to American religious groups, most notably sex trafficking and AIDS.
Administration officials and members of Congress say the religious coalition has had an unusual influence on one of the most religious White Houses in American history. The groups have driven aspects of foreign policy and won major appointments, and they were instrumental in making sure that the president included extensive remarks on sex trafficking in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September.
No one disputes that Mr. Bush already cares deeply about those issues and has a personal faith that his advisers say brings a moral dimension to a foreign policy better known for war. "To put it simply, it's a fairly radical belief that a child in an African village whose parents are dying of AIDS has the same importance before God as the president of the United States," said Michael Gerson, Mr. Bush's chief speechwriter and an important White House policy adviser who is a born-again Christian.
But it is also true, religious leaders and administration officials note, that white evangelicals accounted for about 40 percent of the votes that Mr. Bush received in the 2000 presidential election. In 2004, political analysts say, he is unlikely to be re-elected without the strong support of this constituency, which is predominately but not wholly Republican, and which in other years has thrown significant support to southern Democrats like Bill Clinton. Mr. Rove is now tending to the constituency with great care.
"You're not going to run into too many people who are smarter than Karl," said Dr. Richard D. Land, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, who is in regular contact with Mr. Rove. "Karl understands the importance of this segment of his coalition, and I think the president understands it. The president feels that one of the contributory factors to his father's loss is that he didn't get as many evangelical votes as Reagan did."
The human rights issues offer a politically safe way for the president to appeal to his base of white evangelicals, who leading scholars and pollsters define by their membership in historically white evangelical denominations, like the Southern Baptists and the Assemblies of God. Evangelical churches believe that the Bible is truth, that members have an imperative to proselytize and convert and that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation.
"There are these issues below the radar screen that are of deep concern to the evangelical community, and while they are sincerely held by the administration, they also have the benefit of allowing the president to say, `I have responded to what you wanted me to do,' " Rabbi Saperstein said. "But they're not issues that will alienate large segments of the center in America. These are all-win issues for the administration."
The religious dynamic at the White House reflects a larger change within American evangelicals themselves, and their interest over the last decade in moving beyond the divisive domestic issues that consumed them a generation ago — abortion, school prayer, homosexuality, pornography — into an international arena.
The change is taking place in part because of a new focus on what evangelicals call "the persecuted church," or fellow Christians in other regions of the world who face abuse. The change also stems from leaders' concluding that evangelical groups made little headway on domestic social issues in the 1980's.
"Evangelicals today are more interested in making a difference than in making a statement," said the Rev. Richard Cizik, the vice president for governmental affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents 43,000 congregations. "We made a lot of statements in the 1980's and got zip."
Mr. Cizik said that evangelicals were now more willing to work with Jewish and feminist groups on certain foreign policy issues and that the failure of evangelicals in the 1980's to meet their goals was in part a failure to collaborate. "Evangelicals have thought historically, `Well, we'll do politics the way we do faith — we'll just convert the opposition,' " he said. "But you can't do politics the same way you do religion."
The groups now find the Bush White House to have an open door, particularly with a president who uses evangelical language in his speeches and credits his faith with helping him to give up drinking.
"There was no movement under Clinton," said Mr. Colson, the founder and chairman of Prison Fellowship Ministries, who once Mr. Gerson's boss. "We couldn't get anyone to talk to us."
Other religious leaders say that this White House far surpasses the administrations of Ronald Reagan and Mr. Bush's father in its attentiveness.
"Under previous Republican administrations, they would take our calls and often return them," Dr. Land said. "In this administration, they call us. They say, you know, `What do you think about this?' "
The closeness has led to collaboration on policy, most recently on human trafficking. Religious leaders like Dr. Land and Mr. Colson pushed the White House for months to have the president denounce the coercion of women into prostitution around the world and the forcing of men and children into modern-day slavery.
"We certainly encouraged the White House to make it a prominent issue," Dr. Land said, adding that the United Nations speech "was one place we suggested it could be done."
The issue had also risen within the administration, which, as Dr. Land put it, "has a lot more evangelicals in it, and traditional Catholics," than previous administrations. Mr. Gerson, for one, said that he had been talking about international human trafficking for nearly a year, and that it was "bubbling up" on the National Security Council. It was of interest, Mr. Gerson said, to Elliott Abrams, a senior director for Middle East affairs, and to Stephen J. Hadley, the deputy national security adviser. Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, and Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff, were also focused on the issue, Mr. Gerson said.
About three weeks before Mr. Bush's United Nations address, Mr. Gerson said, "we went in and talked to the president in the Oval Office — Steve, Condi, Andy and myself. He was very interested and supportive of the idea of having trafficking in the speech. And that became the major topic of discussion in the meeting — where it's happening, how large. And he had a lot of questions."
Earlier in the year, religious groups say they successfully lobbied for a new director of the State Department's Trafficking in Persons Office, which was created in 2000 by legislation aggressively pushed by a coalition of evangelicals, Catholics, Jewish groups and feminists. John Miller, a former Republican member of Congress from Seattle who had worked on human rights issues on Capitol Hill, was the group's choice. Mr. Rove is said to have raised concerns that Mr. Miller supported Senator John McCain in the 2000 presidential campaign, but the groups held fast.
"Essentially a variety of people let out the word that this is not the hill you want to die on — this is the guy we want," said Allen Hertzke, the director of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma and the author of a forthcoming book, "Freeing God's Children: The Faith-based Movement for International Human Rights."
Mr. Miller, for his part, said the influence of the groups on human trafficking had been substantial. "They're consumed by this issue," he said. "I think it's great. It helped get the legislation passed, it helped spur me, I think it keeps the whole government focused."
The groups were also influential in the development of the president's commitment to fight global AIDS, particularly the part of the policy based on Uganda's A.B.C. campaign, which promotes, in order, abstinence, being faithful and condoms.
Mr. Colson, who has enormous influence among evangelicals because of his books, lectures and radio program, said President Bush personally told religious leaders that he was supporting them on the A.B.C. campaign in a meeting at the White House this spring.
After the meeting, Mr. Colson said he went up to Mr. Bush and said emphatically that faith-based policy worked. "He said, `You don't have to tell me,' " Mr. Colson said the president replied. "He said, `I'd still be drinking if it weren't for what Christ did in my life. I know faith-based works.' "
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company