In 1998, he sent a letter of apology to the Anti-Defamation League stressing his respect for all faiths, and throughout the 2000 campaign he denied ever having made any exclusivist claim about salvation.
"No, no," he told NBC's Tim Russert during a Republican debate in New Hampshire on Jan. 6, 2000. "What I said was, my religion teaches -- my religion says that you accept Christ and you go to heaven. That was a statement that some interpreted that I said that I get to decide who gets to go to heaven. Governors don't decide who gets to go to heaven . . . . God decides who gets to go to heaven."
Bush's record on evangelization is more clear. Some of his religious supporters believe that he fulfills his obligation to evangelize through his example. But there is no evidence that Bush has engaged in direct proselytizing. On the contrary, aides said Bush has joined in common prayer with Sikhs and Hindus, something many conservative Christians would not do.
According to Jay P. Lefkowitz, an observant Jew who served as Bush's chief domestic policy adviser in 2002-03, the president went out of his way to make White House visitors and staff members of other faiths feel comfortable. Religion, Lefkowitz said, is "part of who he is. But he doesn't try to push it on anyone."
Aides said that Bush does not discuss the content of his own faith, either publicly or with his staff. Though religion is far from a taboo subject in the Bush White House, where many workers gather for Bible study during their Thursday lunch hour, Bush rarely if ever participates in such discussions.
"I've learned most about his prayer life when he makes a public statement about it in a speech," said H. James Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, which helps religious charities obtain federal grants. "That's why when I see this image -- when people say he's really so outwardly religious -- yes, he feels very strongly about the faith-based initiative, he feels strongly about the rights and importance of faith in the public square, but he's not the kind of person who wants to talk about faith during work hours."
People around Bush suggested several possible reasons for this reticence.
"Because he is appealing to all people of faith, he doesn't want to start arguments," said Frum, the former speechwriter. "Religious faith unites people, so talk about that. The particulars of religious faith divide people, so he's not going to share those kinds of religious opinions with us."
Anderson, the Knights of Columbus leader, said religious people who go into politics have learned from bitter experience that baring their souls opens them up to attack.
"Jimmy Carter talked about having lust in his heart, and look what happened to him," Anderson said. "Any serious Christian man would say he had at some point had that problem. But nobody dealt with it seriously. They just parodied him. You get burned like that once or twice, and you're not going to do it again."
Bush himself said in a 2000 interview with Beliefnet.com, a religion Web site: "To be frank with you, I am not all that comfortable describing my faith, because in the political world, there are a lot of people who say, 'Vote for me, I'm more religious than my opponent,' " he said. "And those kind of folks make me a little nervous."
Fulfilling God's Will
While Bush does not say much about his own beliefs, he does talk a lot about faith, and some of that talk has made others nervous, particularly when he has suggested that he sees God's will at work in his presidency.
In "Plan of Attack," a book about Bush's decision to go to war by Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor Bob Woodward, the president is quoted as saying that he prayed "for the strength to do the Lord's will" in Iraq. "I'm surely not going to justify the war based on God. . . . Nevertheless, in my case I pray I will be as good a messenger of his will as possible," Bush told Woodward.
Earlier, Bush had told members of the clergy that he believed God called upon him to run for president. In his book "A Charge to Keep," Bush said he was moved to run by a sermon delivered by his friend Mark Craig, a Methodist minister, in 1999 during his second gubernatorial inauguration. "I believe God wants me to be president," the Rev. Richard Land, head of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, quoted Bush as saying.