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Written by John R. Vile, published on January 16, 2024 , last updated on February 16, 2024

George W. Bush

President George Bush, the nation's 43rd president, is known largely by his response to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. He created the Department of Homeland Security and pushed for the Patriot Act, which was criticized by some of overly broadening surveillance of Americans. Bush was supportive of religious liberty — notably not blaming the religion of Islam in general for the Sept. 11 attacks though the people who carried it out were Muslims. He also expanded the ability of religious organizations to apply for government-funded projects. (Official White House portrait, public domain)

George W. Bush, who was born in 1946, served as U.S. president from 2001 to 2009. The son of George H. W. Bush, he was born and raised in Texas, and earned his undergraduate degree from Yale University and his master’s of business administration from Harvard.

He spent some time as a pilot in the Texas Air National Guard before working in the oil industry, being co-owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team, and serving as governor of Texas.

In 2000, Bush, running with Dick Cheney as his vice president, narrowly defeated Al Gore in an Electoral College contest that was ultimately resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore, which stopped vote counting in Florida, where Bush was leading.

An advocate of tax cuts and of education reform, Bush shifted his priorities after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and other targets on Sept. 11, 2001. He responded by creating the Department of Homeland Security, asking for increased surveillance in the Patriot Act and invading Afghanistan and Iraq. He justified the invasion of  Iraq, saying it had weapons of mass destruction, which later proved to be untrue. 

Bush pursued Muslim terrorists, but did not blame Islam

Although Bush vigorously pursued terrorists, lowering the bar for search and seizures and even authorizing torture to secure information, he did not blame the terrorist attacks on Islam in general but on those whom he accused of distorting its message. 

In a speech delivered in Atlanta, Georgia, about two months after the terrorist attacks, Bush sought to contrast American ideals, a number of which are expressed in the First Amendment, with those of the attackers:

This new enemy seeks to destroy our freedoms and impose its views. We value life; the terrorists ruthlessly destroy it. We value education; the terrorists do not believe women should be educated, or should have health care, or should leave their homes. We value the right to speak our minds; for the terrorists, free expression can be grounds for execution. We respect people of all faiths and welcome the free practice of religion; our enemy wants to dictate how to think and how to worship, even to their fellow Muslims.

Bush gave faith-based groups eligibility for government support

Bush had fairly strong support among evangelical Christians, and one of his top priorities was allowing faith-based organizations to be eligible for governmental support of projects that benefitted the general public. To this end he created a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, similar to one that he had established when he was governor of Texas.

When Congress failed to act on his proposals, he signed an executive order to carry them into effect (Boden 2006, 997). As summarized by one author, the program was designed “(1) to ‘level the playing field’ so religious organizations could compete on equal footing for grant money; (2) to foster non-discrimination by prohibiting ‘inherently religious activity’ with federal dollars; (3) to protect ‘maintenance of religious character’ for grant recipients;’ and (4) to ‘prevent discrimination against recipients based on religious belief.’” (Boden 2006, 998). There are continuing disputes about the constitutionality of such programs although the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts has generally upheld them.

In Hein v. Freedom from Religion Foundation (2007), the Supreme Court held that taxpayers lacked standing to challenge expenditures on a conference promoting faith-based initiatives. 

Bush signed campaign reform law, restricting "soft money" 

Bush expressed reservations about the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (better known as the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill), which restricted “soft-money” contributions by corporations and unions, but much to the chagrin of his critics, he signed it anyway (Healy and Lynch 2006, 4-5).  

Although the Supreme Court upheld much of the law in McConnell v. Federal Election Commission (2003), it subsequently struck down the soft money bans in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010), which recognized a corporation’s right to protected political speech under the First Amendment and a right to spend money on that speech as protected expressive speech.

After presidency, Bush pushes back to support a free press

Perhaps in part in reaction to the terrorist attacks of September 2001, critics accused Bush of being less accessible than some of his predecessors to the press and of overclassifying materials (Alterman and Zornizk 2008).

During the later Trump administration, when Trump was describing the press as an “enemy of the people,” however, Bush described the media as being “indispensable to democracy” (Siemaszko 2017).

In an interview with Matt Lauer on the TODAY show, Bush explained that “we need the media to hold people like me to account. I mean, power can be very addictive and it can be corrosive and it’s important for the media to call to account people who abuse their power, whether it be here or elsewhere.” Also pushing back against the Trump Administration’s attempt to bar immigration from certain predominantly Muslim nations, Bush observed that “I think it’s very important, for all of us, to recognize one of our great strengths is for people to worship the way they want to or not worship at all. I mean the bedrock of our freedom—a bedrock of our freedom is the right to worship freely.” He added that “I am for an immigration policy that’s welcoming and upholds the law” (Siemaszko 2017). 

As president, Bush signed the Freedom to Display the American Flag Act of 2006, which prevented home associations from preventing members from displaying the flag. 

Bush appoints Roberts, Alito to Supreme Court

Bush had promised to appoint strict constitutional constructionists to the courts. After the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Bush appointed John Roberts Jr. in his place. Although he is conservative, Roberts has sought consensus on the court.

When Justice Sandra Day O’Connor retired, Bush first nominated Harriet Miers, his White House Counsel who had not previously served as a judge. After she withdrew from consideration, Bush nominated Samuel Alito, who was confirmed and has proved to be a consistent conservative on the Court.  

President Trump subsequently appointed Neil Gorsuch, whom Bush had appointed to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

John Vile is a professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. This article was published on Jan. 16, 2024.

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