It's becoming known as Campaign 2000's "Christ moment":
In the two days after George W. Bush told an Iowa audience during Monday's Republican presidential debate that Christ was his favorite political philosopher, "because he changed my heart," Christian leaders were busy dissecting his answer to determine if it was a brave and genuine expression of faith or a manipulative attempt to win them over.
Even as Bush backed off his answer yesterday, telling an Iowa reporter he hadn't quite understood the question, Christian leaders described it as a telling moment, about the candidate's own faith and about how he is popularizing a new religious idiom in mainstream politics.
For evangelicals, who make up the nation's most active religious voting bloc, Bush's answer was something of a coming out: In their circles, Bush is legendary for his spontaneous outbursts about the impact of Christ on his life, but this was the first time the nation got a chance to hear one.
"I was watching the debate with my wife and daughter in the room, neither of whom are political junkies," said Richard Land, a leader in the Southern Baptist Convention. "And when they heard that answer they both stopped what they were doing, looked at me and said 'Wow.' "
But others were more skeptical. "To see Christ as a political philosopher is to lose sight of what we believe," said Rich Cizik, spokesman for the National Association of Evangelicals. "It seems more like a political statement, and there is always a temptation to use religious faith for partisan purposes."
Whatever his intentions on the Iowa stage, Bush is pioneering a more personal religious style in his courtship of evangelical votes. Rather than agreeing to a checklist of religious right issues such as abortion and gay rights, Bush seeks to connect to his fellow born-again Christians "from the heart," as he likes to say. On the stump, he regularly tells evangelical audiences the story of his own religious conversion, substituting style for substantive policy concessions.
"He talks their language," said Land. "Most evangelicals who heard that question probably thought 'That's exactly the way I would have answered that.' "
This makes Bush unusual in the field. The Republican candidates who are running as religious conservatives--Steve Forbes, Gary Bauer, Alan Keyes--have mostly consented to the usual list of evangelical policy demands, such as agreeing to pick a running mate and judges who oppose abortion, and staying tough on China.
And in the Iowa debate, even the other candidates who mentioned Christ in response to the question about philosophers broadened their answers. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch said Christ's influence goes without saying, then added Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan to his list of influences. And Bauer articulated a fuller, more universal image of Christ, noting that he "taught us about our obligations to each other."
Keyes told CNN's "Crossfire" yesterday that Bush's comment reflected a misunderstanding of Christ. "Christ was not a 'thinker.' He was the Word itself."
Bush's answer, when he was asked to elaborate on his initial six-word response, struck some as sectarian and evasive. Although he has told the compelling story of his conversion many times, this time he didn't bother.
"If they don't know," Bush added, "it's going to be hard to explain. When you turn your heart and your life over to Christ, when you accept Christ as the savior, it changes your heart."
By cutting Christ to a sound bite, some said, he re-created exactly what he was trying to avoid: buying off evangelicals with a buzzword.
"It felt like a throwaway line," said Mark Holbrook, president of the Evangelical Christian Credit Union. "I was disappointed he didn't take the opportunity to personalize and internalize his faith."
To some the answer was emblematic of the campaign's general aversion to the concept of the follow-up. "An appeal to personal faith is uncheckable, unknowable, unintelligible to anyone else," said Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard. "It allows him to duck legitimate questions, evade debate of serious moral issues."
And some predicted that while the answer sounded jarring at the time, Bush would so overuse the idiom that it would become the white noise of Campaign 2000.
"That God talk will just become a part of the rhetoric," said Dan Smith, an Episcopal leader in Iowa who watched the debate with a focus group. "Eventually people will start demanding positions on the actual issues."