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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 June, 2004, 09:42 GMT 10:42 UK
Bush's faithful balancing act
By Clare Murphy
BBC News Online

As the tributes to the now widely revered Ronald Reagan flowed in following his death, comparisons were inevitably drawn with the current Republican occupant of the world's most powerful office.

Bush prayer
Most voters are comfortable with some religious display

Like President George W Bush, Mr Reagan was a religious man. But in a eulogy to the late Cold War leader, Ron Reagan Jnr declared his father had "never made the fatal mistake of so many politicians - wearing his faith on his sleeve to gain political advantage."

The remark - rightly or wrongly - has been interpreted as a jibe at President Bush. The incumbent responded with a snappy quote from the Bible, and said he had never asked anyone to vote for him because he was more religious than the next.

Nonetheless, there is little doubt that Mr Bush, who has described Jesus as his favourite philosopher, has overseen one of the most religious presidencies in living memory, both in style and substance.

"But his religious expression is certainly not just electioneering," says Professor John Green, an expert on the relationship between religion and politics at the University of Akron in Ohio.

"However, as Americans have become more interested in having religious ideas in the public arena, politicians from both sides have started to deliver. With Mr Bush, we've seen this trend in its most expressive form."

Moral malaise

America, founded by those escaping persecution for their faith, has always had a deeply religious streak, but it was during the 1990s that an interest in spiritual matters once again came sharply to the fore.

The sense of moral malaise brought on by the Columbine high school shootings and the prospect of a president being impeached for lying over the nature of his extra-marital liaisons are seen as having played a key role in nurturing this phenomenon, but the booming economy is also thought to have made a significant contribution.

Without so many money worries, so the thinking goes, there was more time to ponder lifestyle issues like faith.

As Americans have become more interested in having religious ideas in the public arena, politicians from both sides have started delivering
Professor John Green
Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore tapped into this when he ran against Mr Bush in the 2000 election campaign, and declared that he considered the question "What Would Jesus Do?" - a popular expression among young Christians - when making policy decisions.

But it was the born-again Mr Bush who benefited most from the devout who voted, a group he and his advisers have sought to keep on board throughout his time at the top.

Walking the tightrope

It has required a careful balancing act, simultaneously introducing religious conservatism into some key elements of social policy while trying hard not to alienate the country's more secular voters.

Banning a contentious form of late abortion - the emotively labelled "partial-birth" procedure - is one such example of his tight-rope walking.

As the first ever federal encroachment on Roe v Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalised abortion, the move was hailed by pro-life conservatives.

Yet by picking a particularly controversial, and indeed relatively rare, form of abortion, the move did not elicit protest from the majority of the population who support a woman's right to choose.

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Similarly the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which classifies an attack that harms an expectant mother and her unborn child as two separate crimes and as such confers personhood on the foetus, was particularly embraced by those who perceived that it could provide the legal basis for a full assault on Roe v Wade.

But it has also proven relatively uncontentious in the nation at large, winning support from those who see it as an effective way to ensure adequate punishment for violence against pregnant women.

Other issues such as increasing federal funding to movements which encourage abstinence among young people and pushing some $1.5bn towards promoting "healthy marriages" are popular with religious groups.

Despite reservations among some professionals about the nature of these abstinence programmes, which cannot by law promote contraception, and fears that marriage initiatives are at best a waste of money and at worst a dangerous intervention into private lives, they have not sparked an ardent national debate.

Picking a fight

Paul Weyrich, one of the founders of the contemporary conservative movement, would have preferred a blazing row.

Bush has got a far better record on social issues than people know about. But members of his administration are so worried about offending that they haven't sufficiently advertised his achievements
Paul Weyrich
Leading conservative
The president of the Free Congress Foundation think-tank is impressed by Mr Bush's record to date, which he says has surpassed his expectations - particularly on the abortion front.

"The problem is that he hasn't trumpeted what he's done. Bush has got a far better record on social issues than people know about. But members of his administration are so worried about offending that they haven't sufficiently advertised his achievements," he says.

Mr Weyrich cites the alleged four million evangelical voters who apparently did not vote in 2000 after revelations about Mr Bush's 1970s drunk driving incident. In an election as close as the one that is looming, their ballots - some advisers believe - could prove crucial.

"He needs the right issue to rally them, to get them engaged. It's not Iraq - there are too many mixed feelings about what's going on there. It's got to be the federal marriage amendment," says Mr Weyrich.

Earlier this year, as the gay marriage issue came to a head with hundreds of same-sex weddings across the country, Mr Bush finally threw his weight behind this constitutional amendment which would outlaw such unions.

It was a move seen at the time as an effort to appeal to the evangelical wing in an election year, but without a clear timetable for congress to vote on the change, the issue has moved to the backburner.

"He needs to get going on this. It's an issue people care about, and a real fight over it will get people voting," says Mr Weyrich.

The danger for President Bush is that while more than two-thirds of Americans oppose same-sex marriage, there are reservations about whether a constitutional ban is an appropriate and measured response.

"The problem with this suggestion is that he'll fall off the tightrope," says Professor Green, who in any case has doubts about the significance of the 4 million "missing" evangelical voters.

But if a report in the National Catholic Reporter is to be believed, Mr Bush may get someone to start the fight for him.

The newspaper, citing a Vatican official, reported that Mr Bush had in recent talks with the Pope's secretary of state asked for pressure to be placed on American bishops to be more aggressive on social issues in the run up to the election.

Gay marriage was, reportedly, the primary concern.

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