PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH, CHURCH, EPISCOPALIAN, CHINA, JIANG ZEMIN

"America is a nation guided by faith," a fired-up President Bush told a crowd of Chinese university students during his visit to Beijing last week. "Ninety-five percent of Americans say they believe in God, and I'm one of them." It was the closest he'd come to a public testimonial about his faith since he was campaigning in the Deep South.

He explained how, when he met President Jiang Zemin for the first time in Shanghai a few months ago, "I told him how my faith has shaped my own life, and how faith contributes to the life of my country." This time, he lobbied Jiang to meet with Tibet's Dalai Lama and the pope's ambassador, the papal nuncio.

For some politicians, professing faith or going to church on Sundays is like an obligatory campaign swing: it looks good, but the heart isn't in it. Bush's talk of his own redemption certainly stepped up a notch in the Bible Belt during the 2000 presidential race. So did his Southern drawl. But Bush wasn't just pandering to the religious right, as some cynics surmised. His faith is very real and it deeply influences his presidency.

Raised an Episcopalian, Bush got fired up about religion somewhat late in life. His fellow oilman and buddy Don Evans, now secretary of Commerce, brought him into a men's Bible study class back in Midland, Texas. Early in his marriage, Bush attended the Methodist church with his wife, but wasn't entirely pious. One fellow parishioner I interviewed a long time ago recalled how Bush would start the clock on his stopwatch whenever one particularly long-winded preacher began to preach. A little beep would echo across the room just as the sermon began.

After he had kids and gave up drinking, Bush began to take his faith more seriously. In 1985, he had a heart-to-heart with the Rev. Billy Graham. In his autobiography, the president writes that Graham "planted the seed of faith in my heart ... It was the beginning of a new walk where I would recommit my heart to Jesus Christ."

Bush's religious beliefs are straightforward. When he was asked during the 2000 campaign who his favorite political philosopher was, he answered Jesus Christ, because "he changed my heart." For Bush, politics and religion are intertwined. You hear echoes of it nearly every day in the war on terror. There is good and there is evil. There are "evildoers." Not coincidentally his chief speechwriter, Mike Gerson, is a conservative Christian.

The White House has at times been squeamish about revealing just how religious the president is. Back in May, the Bush aides were none too pleased with a reporter who discovered that Bush had prayed with Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski (also a Methodist) when he came to the Oval Office for a visit. White House aides went out of their way to tone down the story. I happened to sit next to President Trajkovski at a congressional dinner a few weeks ago, and I asked him about the report. Yes, they prayed together, he told me. They went into the private study just off the Oval Office, got down on their knees and-here's the big secret-joined hands and prayed.

Since September 11, the White House has been much more willing to show the president at prayer. The times call for spiritual faith, they reason. And telling this president to tone down his religiosity is like telling him to speak perfect English. It's not natural. When the American EP-3 spy plane was downed in China last year, Bush asked if the crew had two things: access to Bibles and exercise. For Bush, these are two essentials to his daily existence.

Lately it's come out that he and his Cabinet say a prayer before their meetings. Similarly, at Camp David, Bush will randomly call on one of his staff members to say grace at dinner. Often, he'll pick Kathleene Card-chief of staff Andy Card's wife and an ordained Methodist minister. The Evergreen chapel at Camp David has become Bush's new religious home, though he still occasionally prays on the phone with Kirbyjon Caldwell, the Houston preacher who gave the Inaugural blessing. Mostly, Bush's prayer is private. He says he reads the Bible every day. He prays for guidance from the Oval Office-now more than ever.

Some civil libertarians worry that the church and state divide has been eroded under George W. Bush. His beloved faith-based charities initiative, they say, blurs the line. They also object to the fact that Attorney General John Ashcroft, who is a Pentecostal (yes, the ones who speak in tongues and don't dance) has daily prayer meeting at his office.

Last week in Beijing, President Bush's speech felt like more of a sermon. The room had a tall ceiling and he stood at a podium looking down into the crowd. "Faith gives us a moral core and teaches us to hold ourselves to high standards, to love and serve others, and to live responsible lives," he told the well-heeled Chinese students. His audience-most of whom know no religion-did not seem particularly moved by the spirit. But the president clearly was-and wanted us all to know it.