NASHVILLE, Tenn. – President George W. Bush gave the keynote speech yesterday at the annual convention of the National Religious Broadcasters, pushing his faith-based initiative and urging more churches and Christian organizations to join the “armies of compassion.”

The convention was held at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center. The gathering has found a permanent home at Opryland, due in large part to sponsorship by major Christian publishers, such as Thomas Nelson, which are in high concentration in and around Nashville.

Inspirational and fund-raising support come in high doses from well-known Nashville music artists, many of whom are outspoken Christians. Typical of the culture in “Music City USA,” the photograph of Bush appears on the NRB website just below the picture of Charlie Daniels.

The theme of this year’s NRB convention is “Changing World – Unchanging Message.” The confab attracts people from all over America and around the world, with the focus on delivering the Christian message to people via broadcasting. Display booths include not only the well-known speakers – Dr. James Dobson, Dr. Charles Stanley, Dr. D. James Kennedy, Dr. Pat Robertson – but also those who sell satellite dishes, switching boxes, microphones, and every type of broadcasting concept, method and equipment.

Using notes but not a teleprompter, Bush focused mainly on his support for “faith-based initiatives,” and praised the NRB attendees for their “faithfulness and good work.” The president spent a large portion of his speech extolling the “urban-suburban partnership,” in which churches of more affluent demographics work with churches with a predominantly low-income membership. Just prior to delivering his speech, Bush attended a roundtable meeting that included Nashville pastors. During the speech, he cited two pastors who had built a partnership that had grown to a group of more than 60 area ministers.

One of the local Nashville groups participating with the federal government’s AmeriCorps is Christian Community Services Inc., or CCSI. Using a new federal housing program called HOPE-VI, CCSI’s main focus is to help low-income families gain self-sufficiency. Similar programs have begun to spring up across the country. The CCSI program centers around a part of the city known as Vine Hill, which used to contain conventional housing “projects.” In place of the projects, Vine Hill now includes neatly manicured town houses. Families that reside in the HOPE-VI community must wean themselves completely off public assistance within five years. Toward that goal, families attend classes that center on a popular program called Financial Peace University. Several churches sponsor FPU classes because FPU instructor Dave Ramsey bases his advice on biblical concepts.

The people from the Vine Hill community that participate in CCSI programs are assisted by volunteers from the Woodmont Hills church, which is only a few miles away, but the surroundings are worlds apart. At the church, which has numerous classrooms, both parents and children attend classes. Parents work with volunteer mentors on FPU assignments, and children work with volunteer tutors. The children attend an age-appropriate discussion, where a weekly lesson focuses on practical applications of biblical values. At a weekly dinner before the workshops begin, parents make announcements such as, “My child’s grades have gone up dramatically.” Children are rewarded with applause.

According to his speech, Bush hopes to dramatically expand programs such as these. Saying he wants to “rally the armies of compassion,” the president announced that he had signed an Executive Order to prevent the federal government from “discriminating against religious programs, just because they are religious.” The crowd’s response was generally supportive, but whispers rippled through the room. Many religious leaders are leery of federal money to support faith-based programs, because they fear that certain strings will be attached to the money.

Whispers also could be heard when the president, using a word picture, equated programs that have “a cross on the wall” with programs that have “a crescent on the wall.” Although support for Bush is fairly widespread among the Christian community, there is some friction regarding his overtures to the Muslim community in the wake of the 9-11 attacks. Outspoken leaders and theologians, such as the Rev. Franklin Graham, have stated that Allah is definitely not the God of the Bible. Many Americans, both Christian and Muslim, believe they are the same. Under ordinary circumstances, this theological point might not make it into the political arena, but the introduction of federal money and power highlights the issue.

“Armies of compassion” were not the only armies mentioned in the 36-minute speech. After focusing most of his address on the goodness of the American life, based upon religious values, the president turned his attention toward terrorists, Iraq and Saddam Hussein. He repeated his familiar theme that “we will disarm him.”

Using an interesting point of language before the religious audience, Bush referred to the “weapons of mass murder” under Hussein’s control. He made it clear that, with or without a United Nations coalition, the United States will disarm Iraq “for the protection of future generations.” Bush then referred to Saddam Hussein as “the true enemy of the Iraqi people. …” Pledging help for “the Iraqi people … who have suffered long enough under this tyrant,” the president reminded listeners that “liberty is not America’s gift to the world. Liberty is God’s gift to every human being in the world.”

Calling upon Americans to both “defend our nation and to lead the world to peace,” Bush concluded his Nashville speech by quoting an old saying: “Let us not pray for tasks equal to our strength. Let us pray for strength equal to our tasks.”

Tom Kovach is a free-lance writer, proud father, certified paralegal and a former Blue Beret. He lives in Nashville and is currently working on two books.

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