When he was offered the opportunity to write The Faith of George W. Bush, author Stephen Mansfield saw it as a chance to delve below the spiritual sound bites familiar to many.
"I really have always thought the George W. story needed to be told more fully than simply he was a drunk and then he went for a walk on a beach with Billy Graham," Mansfield said in an interview.
"It was a more beautiful story of a man finding fulfillment in faith."
The 200-page book, laced with copious footnotes, traces Bush's family and faith, from a grandfather who was known as a "Ten Commandments man" to the grandson, now president, who prayed at the hospital bedside of a soldier who lost his arm last year in Afghanistan.
A joint publication of Strang Communications' Charisma House and the Penguin Group, the book is based on interviews, media reports, White House transcripts and previously published books about Bush, including the president's autobiography, "A Charge to Keep."
With the help of researchers who traveled to Midland, Texas, Mansfield details how Bush joined a Bible study group that introduced him to "verse-by-verse study." His history of church and chapel attendance with his family and fellow students was followed by this more individualized spirituality where he was "challenged to explore Scripture in a way he never had before," Mansfield writes. The author said Bush brought this devotional practice with him to the White House.
Mansfield discusses how Bush lost a congressional race, led a struggling oil business and was described by a cousin as "on the road to nowhere at 40." In an interview, he humorously compared Bush's transformation to that of Seabiscuit, the subject of a recent book and movie about a broken-down horse that eventually becomes famous.
"He finds faith -- or faith finds him," the author said of the president. "And 12 years later, he's the Republican front-runner for president of the United States."
Over time, the religious practice of the Episcopalian-turned-Methodist was combined with the influence of key clergymen. Mansfield mentions Graham, but also gives details of how a cross-carrying evangelist named Arthur Blessit led Bush in the "sinner's prayer" that evangelicals consider a significant juncture in Christian commitment. And Mansfield says an even larger force is religious broadcaster and fellow Texan James Robison, with whom Bush prayed on the set of his "Life Today" program during the presidential campaign.
Robison says in an interview in the book that Bush revealed his sense of calling to the presidency to him.
"I can't explain it, but I sense my country is going to need me," Bush said, according to Robison. "Something is going to happen, and, at that time, my country is going to need me. I know it won't be easy, on me or my family, but God wants me to do it."
Mansfield, in the interview, called the comment "fascinating" and said Bush, post-9-11, now feels compelled "to root out international terrorism, which he sees as a ... network of evil."
The author said the president has infused his policies with his religious and moral values without becoming "preacher in chief."
"He is a man of faith feeling his way along the dimly lit path of religiously responsible politics," Mansfield writes.
The author discusses the political tightrope Bush sometimes walks as he tries to merge faith and politics.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, he criticized terrorists who embraced their fundamentalist version of Islam but declared that average Muslims practiced a religion of peace.
"It is a very tough line and, of course, he really alienated a lot of people in the religious right as a result," Mansfield said.
Likewise, Bush has supported faith-based organizations both as governor and president but says he doesn't want religion per se to be funded by the government. Mansfield believes the president's support of such groups comes from his personal experience.
His book quotes Bush, speaking to some religious leaders, about how he overcame his drinking problem.
"Right now I should be in a bar in Texas, not the Oval Office," he said. "There is only one reason that I am in the Oval Office and not in a bar. I found faith. I found God. I am here because of the power of prayer."
Mansfield concludes his book with a chapter called "Bush Unbound" in which he declares that the president can't be pigeonholed as "a cowboy-hat-wearing Texan who doesn't read much."
His White House may have Bible studies, shun swearing and consider M&Ms as "the drug of choice," but, surprisingly, the author says, the president can joke about rocker Ozzy Osbourne and appoint gays to his administration.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment on the book.
Mansfield, a historian who previously wrote biographies of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, educator Booker T. Washington and evangelist George Whitefield, said he is now glad that when he asked early on if he could interview the president, it proved to be at a time when Bush was busy overseas.
"I ... didn't want to be open to the charge that this was either a Bush family or administration product," he said.
The author, who attends an interdenominational evangelical church in Nashville, Tenn., said he doesn't consider his book to be a defense of the president but rather a serious look at Bush's faith.
"He really wants to hear God say, `Well done,'" said Mansfield. "I think that's really what's driving him personally."
© 2003 Religion News Service.