Amy Sullivan writes for The New Republic:
Bush is one of the most explicitly religious politicians in American history. Both of his presidential campaigns have used religion to appeal emotionally to voters. The entire philosophy behind his signature slogan, "compassionate conservatism," rests on the belief that religious communities have a unique ability to tend to the nation's social ills. And yet, after the flood of coverage around Bush's first--and only--visit to a neighborhood church during inauguration weekend in Washington, D.C., no one has bothered to report on the president's whereabouts on Sunday mornings.
Around Washington, D.C., it's considered bad form to point out that Bush doesn't regularly attend church. "You don't have to go to church to be a good religious person," argue his defenders. And they're right. They have made much political hay, however, over polls that indicate Democratic voters attend church less frequently than Republicans, so even the most brazen feel compelled to offer explanations for Bush's absence from church membership rolls.
The very fact that the president doesn't attend church, some leading conservatives insist, is proof of what a good Christian he is. Unlike certain past presidents they could name but won't--ahem, cough, Bill Clinton--Bush doesn't feel the need to prove his religiosity. "This president has not made an issue of where he goes to church," says Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. "I find it refreshing that we don't have a president coming out of church with a large Bible under his arm." Conservatives relish this opportunity for a little gratuitous Clinton-bashing. In private, however, they admit the explanation doesn't hold up. "I really don't get it," one prominent Bush partisan told me. "There's no reason why the president couldn't find a church around here if he wanted to."
The excuses offered by conservatives for why Bush doesn't go to church are pathetic — but even more pathetic are the efforts to bash Clinton in the process. Conservative defenders don't have any good responses to this because they have so much invested in the meme that Republicans go to church more often than Democrats and if that meme is going to mean anything, it's difficult to deal with the fact that Clinton and Carter went to church regularly but Bush never does.
The idea that Americans who vote Democrat and don't much go to church are no worse, no less religious, and perhaps not that far different from their beloved President Bush must be giving headaches to the few religious conservatives who actually trouble themselves to think about this (most probably ignore it and pretend that the issue doesn't exist).
And, yes, this is unfortunately an issue. It shouldn't be but it is because conservatives (and not just religious conservatives) have made it one. They did so first of all by touting surveys showing greater church attendance among those who vote Republican as if that were significant in some manner. They did so secondly by the intense focus they have tried to place on John Kerry's religiosity. After doing all of this they can't very well complain about similar scrutiny of Bush's religiosity and religious beliefs (which are generally unknown, even to White House staffers).