KEY WEST, Fla. -- Like many evangelical Christians, President Bush believes that God is at work in his life. But he has avoided claiming that God is behind his presidency or U.S. foreign policy, his chief speechwriter said.
"The important theological principle here, I believe, is to avoid identifying the purposes of an individual or a nation with the purposes of God," Michael Gerson said. "That seems a presumption to me, and we've done our best to avoid the temptation."
At a meeting with reporters in Key West, Fla., on Monday and Tuesday, Gerson, who has crafted almost all of Bush's major speeches since 2000 but has rarely spoken to the media, defended the president's religious rhetoric. Although the session was off the record, Gerson subsequently agreed to allow some of his main points to appear in print.
Bush's references to God have drawn criticism both at home and abroad, particularly in the context of the war in Iraq. Boston Globe columnist James Carroll, for example, has argued on the basis of Bush's statements that "the war on which America has embarked is essentially religious," a contention often echoed by commentators in the Middle East.
Gerson acknowledged some rhetorical missteps, such as Bush's remark five days after Sept. 11, 2001, that the United States had begun a "crusade" against terrorism. Gerson said it was an unscripted comment that White House officials quickly realized would reverberate badly in the Arab world.
But on the whole, the speechwriter argued, Bush's references to the role of providence in human affairs have been carefully calibrated and fully within the tradition of American civic religion. He said that Bush, like other presidents from George Washington to Bill Clinton, has expressed trust in God without claiming to understand all of God's ways.
Some people, Gerson said, seem to think that all references to God should be banished from presidential speeches.
"As a writer, I think this attitude would flatten political rhetoric and make it less moving and interesting," he said. "But even more, I think the reality here is that scrubbing public discourse of religious ideas would remove one of the main sources of social justice in our history. Without an appeal to justice rooted in faith, there would be no abolition movement or civil rights movement or pro-life movement."
About 20 reporters from major newspapers, television and radio networks attended the session, part of a two-day conference on religion and politics organized by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington think tank. Some participants closely questioned Gerson on Bush's frequently repeated line that "freedom is not America's gift to the world, it's the almighty God's gift to all humanity."
Gerson said the president wrote those words. They are, he said, a repudiation of the kind of "American exceptionalism" that holds that God has chosen the United States as his special instrument, and an echo of Abraham Lincoln's assertion that Americans should strive to be on God's side rather than claiming that God is on their side.
Gerson, a former journalist who studied theology at Wheaton College in Illinois and worked as an aide on Capitol Hill, rejected the allegation that Bush's speeches contain "code words" understood only by evangelicals. He noted that some speeches have contained allusions to secular literature as well as to scripture and hymns.
"They're not code words; they're our culture," he said. "It's not a code word when I put a reference to T.S. Eliot's 'Four Quartets' in our Whitehall speech [in London on Nov. 19, 2003]; it's a literary reference. Just because some people don't get it doesn't mean it's a plot or a secret."
Gerson also caustically dismissed the idea that the invasion of Iraq or U.S. policy toward Israel were prompted by theories about the second coming of Jesus. "The president is not reading Tim LaHaye for his Middle East policy," he said, referring to the best-selling "Left Behind" series of apocalyptic novels.
Critics of Bush's religious rhetoric, contacted after the conference, remained skeptical.
Gerson's assertion that Bush does not identify "the purposes of an individual or a nation with the purposes of God" is "a beautiful statement," said the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, a Baptist minister and president of the Interfaith Alliance. "I would scream for joy if I thought that statement was the guiding principle behind the president's rhetoric."
Gaddy noted that three days after Sept. 11, 2001, Bush said the United States has a responsibility "to rid the world of evil," and that the president later told Congress that God is "not neutral" in the war on terrorism.
"I think he has slipped over the line on many occasions," Gaddy said.