President Bush made a quick transition from completing a revealing trip across Asia to welcoming the holiday season to the White House this week. Both actions help illuminate the enhanced role that religion plays in the nation's politics and policy under Bush.
The much-dismissed trip said little about Asia but everything about Bush. Religion and democracy were at the top of his agenda there. It was the highlight of what has become a relentless attempt to reverse the recent secularization of U.S. foreign policy as well as other aspects of national life.
The annual Thanksgiving Day proclamation Bush issued also captured the paradoxical American commitments to observing religious freedom for all while surviving as one nation under God. In his version of the ritual document originated by the Founding Fathers, Bush asked God "to watch over America."
He seems more comfortable than most of his predecessors in stressing and reconciling in public his own commitments to religion and democracy, the two grand themes -- and moving forces -- of his presidency. They are the irreducible elements of governance for Bush at home and abroad. American secularists, and others, may see danger in this juxtaposition, but Bush sees it as the solution.
The president did not build his unorthodox visit to China around economic cooperation with the world's fastest-rising manufacturing power. Nor did he seek to advance a strategic dialogue.
Instead, Bush's centerpiece was religious and political freedom. China's communist leaders did not like that approach -- they rounded up dissidents in retaliation -- but they had to welcome Bush politely in front of their people even as they fumed over his worshipping so publicly with Chinese Christians.
For Bush the whole trip, dismissed by policy realists as counterproductive, was probably worth those moments and the photographs of him among the Chinese faithful in a land that persecuted and expelled its once-powerful Catholic community after the 1949 revolution.
Beijing also had to swallow Bush's meeting with the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, on the eve of the president's Asian journey, and Bush's endorsement of Taiwan's vibrant democracy, delivered from the democratic stronghold of Japan.
The persecution of Catholics in China and Eastern Europe made support for Christianity an openly avowed weapon in Western strategy at the outset of the Cold War. John F. Kennedy's interest in South Vietnam was stirred in part by the flight of Catholics from the north and the needs of a besieged government headed by Catholics in the south.
The role of religion in U.S. and European foreign policy faded away with the end of the godless Soviet empire and the Cold War -- even as religion was rapidly becoming the engine of backlash against modernization in the Muslim world and elsewhere.
Bush's priorities are also reflected in his encouragement of and development funding for faith-based organizations working in poor countries. This sparks growing concern among American nongovernmental development organizations and European governments, which are working more closely together as a result.
Usually overlooked in analysis of the relative harmony and effectiveness that Condoleezza Rice's first 10 months as secretary of state have brought to U.S. foreign policymaking is the fact that she and the president share a deep evangelical religious bond. She reflects not only his politics but also his innermost beliefs. This may give her a major advantage over other Bush aides in carrying out policies based on faith.
Let me rephrase that: In contrast to its foreign policy, the Bush agenda at home is a collection of smoldering ruins. The administration has illogically dismissed deficits and balanced budgets as decisive economic factors, alienated Congress on every conceivable issue, left its tax cuts vulnerable to reversal, and enveloped Social Security reform in a poisonous political atmosphere.
Bush's most durable support comes from a coalition of social conservatives who usually define their politics in religious terms -- whom Bush has pleased or placated by nominating John Roberts and Sam Alito to the Supreme Court -- and the pro-democracy activists of the right who agree with him on pushing democracy in Iraq, Ukraine, China and elsewhere.
Bush's Asia trip suggests that the president's heart and mind remain with that core coalition. Republicans who are urging him to pivot to a broader constituency and agenda to rescue a failing presidency are swimming against the tide.
China deserved the frank admonitions about religious freedoms that Bush delivered in his well-conceived celebration of democracy's reach in Asia. Here at home, he needs to establish that he can make religion a force for change without making it a tool of governance, or vice versa.