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Frontline: The Jesus Factor

Raney Aronson
Friday, April 30, 2004; 11:00 AM

On the day that George W. Bush was sworn into his second term as governor of Texas, friend and advisor Dr. Richard Land recalls Bush making an unexpected pronouncement. "The day he was inaugurated there were several of us who met with him at the governor's mansion," says Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. "And among the things he said to us was, 'I believe that God wants me to be president.'"

How George W. Bush became a born-again Christian-and the impact that decision has had on his political career-is the focus of Frontline's "The Jesus Factor."

Frontline (washingtonpost.com)

Producer Raney Aronson was online Friday, April 30 at 11 a.m. ET, to discuss the one-hour documentary chronicling George W. Bush's personal religious journey while also examining the growing political influence of the nation's more than 70 million evangelical Christians

"The Jesus Factor" aired Thursday, April 29 at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings).

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Washington, D.C.: Excellent Frontline; also heard you on Fresh Air.

You may not feel this lies within your expertise, but here goes anyway: your documentary makes the point that some evangelicals support Bush not simply because they agree with him, but because they believe he is one of them. Could Republicans be painting themselves into a corner here? Will its future presidential candidates be at a disadvantage within the party unless they're born again, and wear that on their sleeves? And could that lead to a perception of the GOP as a religious-special-interest party?

Raney Aronson: I think this is such an insightful question, thank you. In all my reporting I never found that evangelicals say that the candidate has to be born again, but they look for a candidate (as all do) that cares about the issues they care about. So I would say that they won't be painted into a corner, and there will not be the neccesity of being born again, but that any Republican candidate will have to take this voting bloc and their concerns very seriously.


Seattle, Wash.: A friend of mine was outraged. He felt you made Bush look almost heroic and you did not underscore the implications of such a lifeview. Please respond to this comment?

Raney Aronson: I expected some viewers to feel that way. What I felt was the most important when producing this story is not to judge the President's faith - as offensive as some might find it - others find it comforting. So for me, and for FRONTLINE, it was just important to show both sides, and try to start a discussion. I hope you'll pass this on to your friend. Thanks.


Statesville, N.C.: What was your motive in producing this inside look of President Bush?

Raney Aronson: One of the reasons we produced this film is that Bush himself is so open about his faith that we wanted to understand what implications his faith has on his policies, and how it affects us as a nation. I wouldn't say we had a "motive" but rather a curiousity about it.


Boston, Mass.: Given Mr. Bush's popularity, are we as a nation at risk of tearing down the wall between church and state?

Raney Aronson: This is hard for me to answer, but I do think that many would say that President Bush is certainly trying to renegotiate the relationship between church and state and has attempted to do this for his entire political career, starting back when he was Governor. Again, this is a comfort to some, and alarming to others - it just depends on how you as an individual see the role that the church should play in the state, and vise versa.


Pensacola, Fla.: What is Jeb Bush's relation to evangelical Christianity?

Raney Aronson: That's a good question, as far as we know when Jeb married his wife, he converted to Catholicism.


Laramie, Wy.: Hi, I was unable to watch your show last night, so I hope this question isn't irrelevant. Can you tell me whether Bush believes the Earth is only 4,000 years old, as many Fundimentalists do? Also, has Bush ever taken any sides on the various school board battles over the teaching of evolution?

Raney Aronson: President Bush has never said in public what he believes in this area. We do know while he was Governor he tried to promote the idea of teaching both evolution and creationism. It's a good question for the President to answer!


Vienna, Va.: Why has the mainstream print and broadcast media not given more attention to the extraordinary efforts that this administration has undertaken to support and promote evangelical sponsored organizations through faith-based initiatives?

Raney Aronson: I wondered as well - why did we (the mainstream press) miss this story? I think part of the reason is that it's very complex territory and challenging to report on - and the other reason is that the press tends to cover big legislative battles and ignore the executive branch, and what's happening in those agencies.


Southern Maryland: On one hand, I respect Bush's personal religious values, and I admire him for using his faith to turn around his life. Certainly more of us could benefit from recognizing that there is always something greater than ourselves.

On the other, I get concerned when Bush suggests that he and/or America is acting in God's name. That suggests that dissenters are fighting against God, that they're not just wrong, but also evil. I don't think Bush wants to push America toward theocracy, unlike many on the religious right. Still, it's worth remembering that the monsters behind 9/11 believed they were God's instruments.

Raney Aronson: Thanks for your comments. You line up along with Jim Wallis, the editor and chief of Sojourners who was in our program.


Mesa, Ariz.: Did you contact George W. during filming? Has he seen the program? What was his reaction?

Raney Aronson: We did indeed try to contact the White House, but after repeated attempts they declined an interview.

As for whether he saw it last night, we have not heard.


Washington, D.C.: Is Barbara Bush really distainful of George W's moralistic viewpoints or is this just rumor?

Raney Aronson: I never heard this, even as a rumor...


Buffalo, N.Y.: Insofar as the show was limited to describing Mr. Bush's religion and its effects on his political career, the show was adequate; but it barely touched upon the larger questions, such as (1) how government funding of religious programs establishes certain religions, and who gets to choose which religions receive my tax money; (2) the cynicism of a political party manipulating simple-minded believers to stay in power; (3) the hypocrisy of claiming to be Christian while furthering policies which harm the poor and powerless people both here and abroad. Will there be a follow-up show which deals with these and other ramifications of the evangelican/Republican alliance?

Raney Aronson: I definitely think a follow up show would be fascinating! Thanks for your critique.


New York, N.Y.: I grew up in a middle-class family in the NYC suburbs. Most of my family is Catholic (though I've never been much of one). Growing up, I knew Jews and mainline Protestants. I knew pious black families. I even knew Muslims and Hindus. But I never knew any white evangelicals. Some of my Irish-Catholic relatives use "Baptist" as a synonym for "black" -- they assume that there are no white Baptists. I'm a political scientist, so I know all about the political influence of evangelicals, and I've even met a few. But they still feel so foreign to me. When I heard Bush talk about Christ changing his heart, I thought, "nobody I know talks like this." Maybe I'm not really an American, after all.

Raney Aronson: Many people who are not evangelical feel that way, but if you look at the numbers - while more than 40 percent self identify themselves as evangelical or born again - many of them live outside of New York City. So you are part of America - just a different part. And just an aside, many of the evangelicals feel the exact same way about folks who aren't evangelical as you do about them!


Derwood, Md.: If Bush believes in the Bible, then he believes that God gave the land of Israel to the Jewish people. How Bush then proclaim that Jewish settlements are an "obstacle to peace?" Is this selective application of his religious beliefs?

Raney Aronson: Well, I do think because President Bush does talk so frequently about his belief in the bible that he should answer this question, and address concerns such as this.


Ashland, Mo.: What one or two things about evangelicals do you think the media and other so-called elites most misunderstand or fail to relate to? And what are the consequences of this misunderstanding?

Raney Aronson: I think for a long time the media mischaracterized evangelicals, lumped them together with fundamentalists and the religious right. Many evangelicals I spoke to felt that way - that the media is filled with seculars who didn't understand them, that their faith was a good force in their life rather than a dangerous one. In the NYTIMES there was a column by one of my favorite writers, Nicholas Kristoff and he said and I agree that the media does need to treat evangelicals (and all faiths for that matter) with respect, to not just write them off as "religious freaks."

As for the consequences, I do think that many evangelicals in turn demonize the media - they feel that we are out to get them, and so this means there's no hope for a thoughtful discussion. Although the good news in all of this is I see it changing...slowly, but it does seem to be changing.


Cottage Grove, Ore.: I was listening to the Oregon Public Broadcasting radio station on the date of the Frontline Broadcast. The radio show had a segment on the Frontline show regarding President Bush's religious committment. Dr. Land said that he hoped the television program didn't modify President Bush's comment regarding his knowledge that God wanted him to be President. Dr. Land went on to tell what the entire comment was. I was sorry to see that President's comment was indeed taken out of context. Without including the President's entire comment the viewer was left with a twisted view of what President Bush said that day.It was not lengthy and it appeared to me there was room to include it.It appears someones bias is showing.Will Dr. Land's comments be available for those who are interested in hearing them on the OPB or Frontline archived recordings?

Raney Aronson: Thanks for your comment. We do edit our shows, but we do not take things out of context and in this case we did not twist what the President said. Actually we have this comment corroborated by two other sources that he did in fact say that.

Our reporting at Frontline is very transparent - for every show we produce, and edit down our interviews we also include many of the interviews in full on our FRONTLINE website. Richard Land's is included on our website if you're curious to read the whole thing.


St. Louis, Mo.: How would you compare Jimmy Carter's presidency with that of George W. Bush in the context of "The Jesus Factor?"

Raney Aronson: Great question! I think one of the most important things I learned was how diverse the evangelical and born again community is - and looking at the spectrum we can see that on the one hand Jimmy Carter is born again and on the other hand, so is President Bush. They both claim to have a deep belief in Jesus, but their politics of course are very different. Along the political spectrum, while most evangelicals are conservative, some are not - and Carter falls into that category.


washingtonpost.com: Full Interview: Richard Land, (PBS.org)


Washington, D.C.: Raney, what is your religious affiliation? Are you an evangelical?

Raney Aronson: No, I'm not an evangelical. I was raised in a non-religious household, but identify as Jewish culturally.


Boston, Mass.: Jimmy Carter was very open about being born-again, and often ridiculed in the media for it. Why did the evangelicals abandon him in favor of the only vaguely religious Ronald Reagan?

Raney Aronson: Well, it goes to the heart of what most (not all!) evangelicals believe and how that in turn affects how they vote - they are not just looking for a President with their faith but one who cares about the issues they care about. And while some evangelicals did continue to support Jimmy Carter, the more conservatives ones opted for Reagan because he was more politically conservative.


Albuquerque, N.M.: After watching the documentary last night, and now reading your responses to people's comments and questions, you appear to me to be an evangelical yourself. Are you?

Raney Aronson: No, as I said earlier I was raised in a non-religious household, and consider myself to be Jewish culturally.


Portland, Ore.: The Republicans have secured the Evangelical vote in this country, but what makes Evangelicalism so popular in the first place? Isn't church attendance going up in this country? What's behind this trend?

Raney Aronson: Church attendance is not up in this country. Mainline denominational churches are seeing their attendance down, but evangelical churches are seeing their attendance go up slightly. For the last thirty years evangelicals have been a powerful political force - we in the media are just catching on to that and starting to examine what that means, and what ramifications this could have for our country.


Charlotte, N.C.: Comment: I found it somewhat ironic that Mr. Bush's own denomination, the United Methodist Church, came out against the war.

Question: How much anti-war sentiment exists in the religious community?

Raney Aronson: For the most part, religous leaders came out against the war - both domestically and internationally. White evangelicals who consider themselves conservative, however, came out in support of the war. So as always, the religious community is diverse.


Eschaton, USA:
Is there any evidence that Bush shares the "Christian Zionist" belief that Israel must gain dominance over the Holy Land in order to bring the Second Coming of Christ, the Rapture, etc.?

Raney Aronson: President Bush has not spoken about this issue. But I do believe as he talks so often of his faith, and his belief in the bible that again - this is a good question for him to address.


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