WASHINGTON -- President Bush reached out to evangelical Christians at a National Day of Prayer ceremony yesterday that religious networks broadcast from coast to coast.
"At so many crucial points in the life of America, we have been a nation at prayer," Bush said, recalling that Abraham Lincoln had called the country to prayer in the darkest days of the Civil War and that Franklin Roosevelt led US citizens in prayer 60 years ago when US and British troops invaded German-occupied France.
Some academic specialists on religion and politics -- and some advocates of a stark division between church and state -- suggested that the Republicans were using the 53d annual National Day of Prayer to give the GOP an edge in the November election.
"This event has very strong underpinnings of partisan support for the president, and that's what it's designed to do," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
"It's not like he is ignoring other religious groups, but he knows that this day is the one where he signals: 'I am an evangelical Christian. Remember that in November.' "
Christian conservatives overwhelmingly supported Bush over Al Gore in 2000, but the Bush-Cheney campaign wants to lure even more evangelical Christians to the polls in November.
During the event yesterday, one of thousands of National Day of Prayer observances held across America, Bush recognized Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinred of the Orthodox Union of Jews and other religious leaders as well as Oliver North, honorary chairman of this year's National Day of Prayer.
"This is stroke-the-base, stroke-the-base, stroke-the-base," said John Kenneth White, who teaches in the politics department at Catholic University of America and has written about values that divide the country.
In some ways, Bush is like President Carter, wearing his faith on his sleeve, White said. What's different between 1976 and now is that the country is extraordinarily polarized on issues of marriage, race, and religion, he said.
"It's not the old Protestant vs. Catholic gap, but one between those who attend church regularly versus those who seldom or never go," White said.
"Bush hasn't divided us, but I think this prayer event serves to reinforce that existing division."
Bush appeared at the prayer event in the East Room minutes after he apologized for the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by US soldiers -- a statement he made standing alongside the king of Jordan.
"We cannot be neutral in the face of injustice or cruelty or evil," Bush said in his prayer day remarks, without specifically referring to the war in Iraq. "God is not on the side of any nation, yet we know he is on the side of justice. And it is the deepest strength of America that from the hour of our founding, we have chosen justice as our goal.
"Our greatest failures as a nation have come when we lost sight of that goal: in slavery, in segregation, and in every wrong that has denied the value and dignity of life. Our finest moments have come when we have faithfully served the cause of justice for our own citizens and for the people of other lands."
Bush nodded his head as soloist Beth Cram Porter gave a rendition of a gospel song, "There's a Balm in Giliad." But the event, filled with references to US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, was not without levity.
Barry Black, chaplain of the Senate, recalled how his mother used to give him a nickel for every Bible verse he memorized. Then he added, "She eventually put me on a flat rate."