WASHINGTON, Feb 3 (AFP) - US President George W. Bush, mocked by some during the campaign for saying his favorite philosopher was Jesus, has brought religion back to center stage in US politics with a rarely-seen zeal.
Moments after taking his hand off the Bible at his inauguration, Bush -- a Methodist who reads scripture daily -- hinted at a divine national purpose by suggesting that "an angel rides in the Whirlwind and directs this Storm."
In his self-created whirlwind, Bush declared the day after he took office a national day of prayer; quickly unveiled a plan to help children in ailing public schools seek private -- perhaps parochial -- institutions; and floated another to arm faith-based entities on the front lines of the fight against homelessness and hunger with federal funds.
"For the first two weeks in office, it is unprecedented in modern history for a president to make religion and religious involvement in public policy such a leitmotif," said Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University here.
"Others have emphasized religious roots, used religions imagery, met with religious leaders, infused their speeches with religious language," like Ronald Reagan's 'shining city on a hill' imagery, drawn from Augustine, he added.
But rarely, Lichtman said, has religion played such an important role so early in an administration, despite exceptions like John F Kennedy, the first Catholic president, who faced critics wrongly worried he would answer to the Vatican.
Bush has credited the Reverend Billy Graham, a spiritual adviser to several past US presidents, with helping him quit drinking, which he decided to do the morning after his 40th birthday in July 1986.
Faith "has sustained me in moments of success and in moments of disappointment. Without it, I'd be a different person. And without it, I doubt I'd be here today," the president said Thursday at the annual National Prayer Breakfast.
The emphasis Bush has placed on religion since taking office has rattled critics who warn what Bush proudly touts as his "compassionate conservative" programs amount to a breach in the constitutional wall between church and state.
"The president ought to stick to running the country, and leave the soul of the nation to its religious leaders," said Rob Boston, spokesman for the watchdog Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
At issue is the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which reads in part: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
The clamor from opponents grew loud enough that Bush used the prayer breakfast to reassure Americans he did not mean to impose his religious views on the nation.
"America's Constitution forbids a religious test for office. And that's the way it should be. An American President serves people of every faith, and serves some with no faith at all," the president insisted.
Yet he won his loudest applause when he pledged: "The days of discriminating against religious institutions simply because they are religious must come to an end."
That approach may enjoy widespread approval in the United States, where a poll last year by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found 70 percent of the people say their president ought to have strong religious beliefs.
The survey, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points, also found 45 percent go to religious services at least once a week.
Despite the constitutional provision, subtle reminders of religion abound in the dealings of government: US currency bears both the latin "E pluribus unum" -- out of many, one -- and "In God We Trust."
Most witnesses in courtrooms swear to tell the truth with one hand on a Bible, "so help (me) God," -- and the one Bush used for his swearing-in was reportedly the one used at George Washington's inaugural, the very first such ceremony in US history.
I am 40 years old now and all I remember growing up in this country as a Christian is that we were not to talk about faith in school. We even had to be careful in public settings not to offend others with our beliefs. We were told because of separation of Church and State that we could not even celebrate Christmas at School or have a nativity scene on public property.
President Bush is the first President I have ever seen express the need for us to apreciate our founding fathers' belief that our nation was created for freedom of religion based on Christian principles. HE SAID, "AND IN NO WISE SHOULD WE EVER TAKE DOWN FROM A PUBLIC PLACE, A MUSLIM CRESCENT, A JEWISH STAR OF DAVID, NOR A CHRISTIAN CROSS." THANK GOD FOR THIS GOOD MAN IN THE WHITE HOUSE.
Now we need to pray for the Muslims in this country that are having public calls to prayer on open public address systems. Many people have grown up with pressure not to be so religious in public. If the Muslims are breaking no laws they should be able to call for prayer. We are trying to change this policy in our country to more religious tolerence and President Bush is leading the way. I have only heard him say good things about our faithful, good Muslim brothers and sisters. May God be glorified in this matter.
Remember, many people in this country don't even know that Allah and God (With great respect to His Name) are one in the same so you can understand why many people are afraid of "this Allah" (Praise His Name) that they don't understand. With a good man like George Bush in the White House this is our best chance to bring back open worship to God (Allah)(The Almighty God of Abraham) here in this country.