Before President Bush addressed a Knights of Columbus convention last month in Dallas, the audience of 2,500 conservative Catholics watched a documentary film about a woman who chose to die rather than end a pregnancy that threatened her life. Then the president gave a speech in which he called Pope John Paul II "a true hero of our time" and used the pope's phrase "culture of life" three times.
When it was over, many in the audience were convinced that the president shared their view that abortion is murder and should be banned. "The 'culture of life' is a very important code word that will resonate with Catholics," said Carl A. Anderson, head of the 1.6 million-member Knights of Columbus, the world's largest Roman Catholic men's society.
But Bush had not actually said that abortion is tantamount to murder. Nor, according to aides, has he ever said that all abortions should be illegal. When asked by reporters during the 2000 presidential campaign and again last fall whether abortion should be banned, Bush said the nation was not ready for that step, without indicating his position.
George W. Bush is among the most openly religious presidents in U.S. history. A daily Bible reader, he often talks about how Jesus changed his heart. He has spoken, publicly and privately, of hearing God's call to run for the presidency and of praying for God's help since he came into office.
But despite the centrality of Bush's faith to his presidency, he has revealed only the barest outline of his beliefs, leaving others to sift through the clues and make assumptions about where he stands.
Bush has said many times that he is a Christian, believes in the power of prayer and considers himself a "lowly sinner." But White House aides said they do not know whether the president believes that: the Bible is without error; the theory of evolution is true; homosexuality is a sinful choice; only Christians will go to heaven; support for Israel is a biblical imperative; or the war in Iraq is part of God's plan.
Some political analysts think there is a shrewd calculation behind these ambiguities. By using such phrases as the "culture of life," Bush signals to evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics that he is with them, while he avoids taking explicit stands that might alienate other voters or alarm foreign leaders. Bush and his chief speechwriter, Michael J. Gerson, are "very gifted at crafting references that religious insiders will understand and outsiders may not," said the Rev. Jim Wallis, editor of the evangelical journal Sojourners.
Current and former White House aides, as well as religious leaders close to the president, maintain that underneath Bush's religious references is a no-frills set of classical Christian beliefs that he holds firmly but voices softly. While some of his opponents portray him as a closet fundamentalist, some of his allies cast him as a closet moderate whose differences of opinion and style with the most vociferous elements of the religious right have been played down by his political advisers and underreported by the media.
How voters perceive Bush's beliefs could be a major factor in a tight presidential contest. As he courts both conservative Christians and swing voters, the GOP is seeking to move those perceptions toward the middle.
"If you asked me how I would describe George Bush's religious expressions in a word, I would say 'gentle.' He's never harsh, and abortion is an example," said former White House speechwriter David Frum. "He's coaxing the country to move gradually in his direction, and that's been happening."
In addition to what Bush's allies say, there is a growing historical record of his religious statements and practices, including several new books, dozens of presidential speeches and some recent campaign interviews. Yet much about his faith remains opaque or open to interpretation, beginning with two versions of how he came to accept Jesus.
The first account is Bush's own. In his 1999 campaign autobiography, "A Charge to Keep," which helped introduce him to a national audience, he fondly recalled serving as a teenage altar boy at his parents' Episcopal church in Houston. But as a young oilman in Midland, Tex., he joined a Presbyterian congregation. When he and Laura Bush married in 1977, he switched to her denomination, the United Methodist Church.
Though he was always somewhat religious, Bush said, a turning point came in a private talk with the Rev. Billy Graham along the coast of Maine in 1985. Graham's words planted the "mustard seed in my soul" that eventually led to a decision to "recommit my heart to Jesus Christ," he wrote.
In addition to being a Bush family friend, Graham is a widely admired Baptist evangelist who has counseled many presidents, and his frequently cited role in Bush's journey of faith adds to its ecumenical air. But from the point of view of some evangelical Christians, this story has a basic flaw: It lacks the drama of a single moment when Bush accepted Jesus as his savior, a true born-again experience.