05/03/2013 09:13 am ET Updated Jul 03, 2013

Presidents Bush and Obama, and the Faith Divide

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In reflecting on both President Obama's speech in the aftermath of the Boston bombings and President Bush's speeches following the horrific attacks on Sept. 11, I have come to understand better the different ways each man conveys their faith and how this reflects on something going on in America today.

Both men speak of God and the Bible and faith in many of their speeches and conversations. And both men are self-professed Christians, but for some reason many doubt the faith and commitment of President Obama while never doubting the same of President Bush. Why is that?

I think much has to do with how faith is reflected in their lives and practice. President Bush seems primarily religious in outlook, while President Obama seems primarily spiritual. And because of this, President Bush sees the world in more black-and-white terms, while President Obama sees the world as more gray. President Bush conveyed more bravado and an easier time coming to clear judgment, while President Obama seems to weigh things in a more nuanced way and approach things more slowly.

This difference of religious vs. spiritual between the two presidents represents a tension that has emerged in the faith and political environment of America. On one side is a growing group of devout religious folks who see traditional and definitive roles of family and faith as under attack and in need of defending. On the other side is a fast growing group of unaffiliated faith folks who, while still believing in God or some universal presence, see tradition and certain religions as holding back progress of society.

The religious folks believe if you don't have a black-and-white, right/wrong view of the universe, then you hold no values and are untethered to principles. This group feels that the moral failures of today's society are a direct result of religious and family institutions having been undermined, and that the lessening of adherence to strict faith practice has caused our country to lose its way.

The spiritual folks believe that traditional religious institutions have failed to keep pace with a changing world and that the black-and-white view of the world has increased the level of conflict and violence in our society -- that it is the judgmental ways of the religious folks that have prevented the progress needed to move forward and evolve as a species.

This past election played out in many ways with each side lining up behind who they thought was the candidate who best represented their view of faith and the world. Conservative religious folks overwhelmingly supported the devote Mormon in the race, Mitt Romney, while the spiritual folks favored President Obama by huge margins.

This distinct difference in faith adherence also reflects what consumer products folks purchase and where folks live and the communities they put together to live. Our country is becoming more and more one of homogenous enclaves that highlight demographic differences as well as faith distinctions.

Because of all this, it is not surprising that the devout folks don't see President Obama as a "real Christian" even though he is a man who is highly spiritual and faithful. Attacks on him, even ones purely political, have a religious, zealous feel to them. And when we have seen that kind of attack in world history, it is very hard to have an intellectual discussion and reach common understanding.

The perceptions of President Bush by the unaffiliated group have a similar dynamic. Because he has a tendency to see things as more black and white, there was an assumption he was "dumb" and didn't give thought to any of his policies. Attacks on him became and are visceral and as mean-spirited as attacks on President Obama.

In this polarized political environment, the religious vs. spiritual underpinning of each side's argument has created a deep gulf that cannot be bridged by intellectual arguments or "fact" presentations. As I said before the election, we need some form of our own Middle East Peace process that can bring opposing sides together to see the values that are shared in common that aren't about ritual and faith practice. The differences that exist in America today are as stark as those involving Muslims and Jews and Christians in the Middle East.

Each side believes in the power of love. Each side believes all human beings are created in the image of God. Each side believes we have an obligation to respect nature and God's creation. Each side professes to the importance of the Golden Rule of do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And interestingly, each side sees the evil that greed and materialism can have on society, though they want to blame different parties and solve it in different ways.

The first step in this peace process would be a coming together on shared core values and respect for each side in their practice of faith. If we can start there, then maybe we can all begin to move forward to build a world that we would be proud to leave our children.

President Obama and President Bush represent two distinct strains of American faith (one is religious, and the other spiritual) and both are good and decent men. Maybe after watching them come together in Dallas recently for a day of respect, we can each take a step today and try to accept someone who has a different faith view than us. It would be a good start.

Cross-posted from