WASHINGTON - President Bush, often portrayed as using a strict good-and-evil compass to navigate national issues, has always peppered his speeches with exhortations to moral and civic duty. With war, tragedy and terrorism confronting him now, his allusions to spirituality and morality seem to be increasing.
"I welcome faith to help solve the nation's deepest problems," Bush told a convention of religious broadcasters last week. Referring to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he said, "We carried our grief to the Lord Almighty in prayer."
Earlier, in his State of the Union address, he said, "The liberty we prize is not America's gift to the world, it is God's gift to humanity."
Hours after the shuttle Columbia disintegrated, Bush turned to religion and a quote from the book of Isaiah to help console the nation.
"The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today. The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth; yet we can pray that all are safely home," the president said.
Expressions of faith and values are familiar ground for American presidents, and this one, who became a born-again Christian in the 1980s after concluding he was drinking too much, is no exception. Yet lately, Bush has gone beyond his usual broad remarks on the power of faith in general to use language and ideas specific to Christianity.
It is a welcome message for some, particularly the evangelical Christian conservatives whom Bush is courting as he seeks a second term. Some others are uncomfortable.
"This president is using general references and, beyond that, terminology and vocabulary that come straight out of a very particular religious tradition, which is evangelical Christianity," said the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, a Louisiana pastor and executive director of the Interfaith Alliance Foundation, an umbrella interfaith group.
"I think his rhetoric implies a lack of appreciation for the vast pluralism of religion in this nation," Gaddy said.
Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said Bush speeches have started sounding "more and more like a sermon in a church" and risk alienating significant chunks of his constituency.
"When presidents start to become theologians on a regular basis, they begin to exclude people from their audience," Lynn said.
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said Bush is comfortable speaking about religion because of its importance to him personally.
"The president when he speaks, speaks in a very inclusive way, very respectful ... of the fact that we are a nation whose great strengths come from the fact that we have people of so many faiths and people who have chosen not to have any particular religious affiliation," Fleischer said.
In his State of the Union address, Bush reflected on the challenges facing the nation as it prepares for possible war:
"We Americans have faith in ourselves, but not in ourselves alone. We do not claim to know all the ways of providence, yet we can trust in them, placing our confidence in the loving God behind all of life and all of history. May he guide us now, and may God continue to bless the United States of America."
In Nashville, Bush praised Americans' "deep and diverse religious beliefs." But he also singled out a special place for Christianity, calling the gospel that the broadcasters share over the airwaves "words of truth."
More generally, the president has delivered several passion-filled speeches recently on behalf of his proposal to spend billions more to combat AIDS abroad. In Grand Rapids, Mich., the day after his State of the Union address, Bush said the humanitarian crisis is a chance "a moral nation" cannot pass up to use its riches and know-how for good.
By Albert H. Lee