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Openly Religious, to a Point

The second account of Bush's conversion is contained in two new books about his faith. Both say that more than a year before the seaside chat with Graham, Bush requested a meeting with Arthur Blessitt, an eccentric evangelist known for dragging a 12-foot cross around the world.

David Aikman, author of "A Man of Faith," who confirmed his account with presidential adviser Karl Rove, said Bush and Blessitt sat at a table in the empty Holidome restaurant of a West Texas Holiday Inn. Blessitt's Web site says the following exchange took place:

President Bush, with Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson, waves to a cheering crowd in Dallas before speaking to the Knights of Columbus convention. (Jim Mahoney -- Dallas Morning News)

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"If you died this moment, do you have the assurance you would go to heaven?" Blessitt asked.

"No," Bush replied.

"Then let me explain to you how you can have that assurance and know for sure that you are saved," Blessitt said.

"I'd like that," Bush said.

That conversation, which Blessitt's Web site says ended with the two men holding hands and praying for Bush's salvation, sounds much more like a born-again experience than Bush's celebrated talk with Graham. But Bush made no mention of it in his autobiography, and has not discussed it since.

An Evangelical?

Because he does not claim to have embraced Jesus in a single moment, aides said, Bush does not call himself "born again." Nor does he refer to himself as an evangelical, though evangelical leaders do not hesitate to claim him as one of their own.

"I think most of us recognize him as a guy who sure has the same orthodox beliefs we do," said Charles W. Colson, a Nixon White House aide who heads Prison Fellowship Ministries.

John C. Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron in Ohio, said that despite many variations, evangelicals generally adhere to four core beliefs: the Bible is without error, salvation comes through faith in Jesus and not good deeds, individuals must accept Jesus as adults and all Christians must evangelize.

Where Bush stands on that litany is not entirely clear.

According to aides, Bush rises early each morning to read the Bible or other religious literature. But he has not indicated where he stands on the great debates over biblical inerrancy and interpretation.

In 2000, he suggested that creationism should be taught alongside evolution in public schools since "religion has been around a lot longer than Darwinism." But he avoided stating his choice between the two positions. "I believe God did create the world. And I think we're finding out more and more and more as to how it actually happened," he told U.S. News & World Report.

On the question of salvation, Bush has also adopted a nuanced position. In a Houston Post interview in 1994, as he was beginning his first run for governor, he suggested that heaven is open only to those who have accepted Jesus as their savior. Though to many Christians that is a basic article of faith, the comment caused a small furor among Jews in Texas and threatened to become a bigger problem when Bush considered running for president.

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