President Bush told Southern Baptists on Thursday they could count on him to fight for voluntary prayer in schools and against federal financing for abortions. But the Baptists had a message for Bush, too: You aren't going far enough. The day before the president spoke, the politically conservative Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) passed resolutions calling on Bush to fire the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and criticizing the federal Centers for Disease Control for some of its sex-education programs. The SBC also urged the outlawing of all abortions, except to protect the lives of mothers.
But if the Baptists were miffed at Bush, it didn't show during his 22-minute speech. He was interrupted by applause more than 20 times.
The greatest applause came when Bush choked up and appeared to shed tears as he talked about his prayers before the Persian Gulf war. As an Episcopalian, he had always been reserved in his praying, he told the Baptists. But at Camp David just before the air war began, he cried as he prayed. "And I no longer worried how I looked to others," he said, his voice cracking.
The audience surged to its feet, cheering as Bush wiped the corner of his eye and smiled sheepishly.
In his speech, Bush touched on many of the same topics Southern Baptists had discussed in their three-day annual convention, which ended Thursday: abortion, public morality, greater choice in education and prayer in schools.
"It's clear," the president said, "that America is a nation that no longer lacks a moral vocabulary."
On his way to the convention, Bush stopped by a nearby church day-care school to celebrate his success last year in having religious organizations included in a new federal child-care program. The Department of Health and Human Services announced the rules for the $732-million voucher program for low-income families as Bush was flying to Atlanta. The program begins in September.
"Finally," Bush told the convention, "low-income families will have the chance to choose where their kids get child care, including religious settings with religious instruction."
But Southern Baptists made it clear in several actions that, for all their warmth, they were not totally pleased with the Bush administration. Two resolutions passed by the convention on Wednesday upbraided the White House.
One deplored "the lack of initiative" by the president and Congress in setting standards for the National Endowment for the Arts to prevent the funding of "obscene, offensive, morally repugnant and sacrilegious art." It also called on Bush to fire NEA Chairman John Frohnmayer.
Last year the NEA was criticized by conservatives for financing several art projects that featured homosexual themes and others _ including a photograph of a crucifix in a jar of urine _ that appeared to mock religious symbols.
The other resolution criticized the federal Centers for Disease Control for issuing a grant to a homosexual organization to conduct sex-education seminars. The Baptists called on Bush to issue an executive order forbidding federal funds "to groups or programs which encourage sexual immorality in any form."
Christian fundamentalists, including many Southern Baptists, are among President Bush's strongest supporters. So great is the support that SBC President Morris Chapman denied speculation that the invitation to Bush amounted to a political endorsement. "There is no connection between the invitation of this convention to the president of the United States and a political agenda or a political endorsement," Chapman said.
But there was no denying that feelings for Bush were high among the 23,600 delegates, or "messengers" as they are called. One resolution passed Thursday commended the president for the success of the Persian Gulf war.
Outside the downtown Atlanta convention hall, it was a different story. Several groups, including AIDS activists, civil-rights protesters and Ethiopian groups, staged noisy protests.
Several members of the AIDS protest group ACT-UP managed to get inside the cavernous convention hall. About a minute into Bush's speech, they blew whistles and began to chant. Police quickly hustled them outside to the cheers of the Baptists.
_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.