WASHINGTON (Reuters) - If imitation is the highest form of flattery, President George W. Bush praised Pope Benedict to the heavens on Wednesday by poaching some of the pontiff's best-known lines when he welcomed him to the White House.
He also gave the scholarly pope a lesson or two about public speaking, winning loud cheers from the 9,000-strong audience in the Rose Garden, while Benedict elicited only sparse, polite applause for a speech without noticeably sharp edges.
"The speechwriter who picked out those phrases must be very familiar with the pope's works," said Rev. Gerald Fogarty, a Roman Catholic Church historian at the University of Virginia.
"It was all there, starting with the 'dictatorship of relativism' quote from Cardinal Ratzinger's speech before his election," he said.
Bush's use of the pope's words stood out all the more because the pope, possibly aware of the influence of social and religious topics in the current U.S. presidential campaign, avoided speaking out on several of his trademark issues.
The president started by denouncing terrorism in the name of religion, an issue Benedict often brings up when he meets Muslims, and made a reference the pope's first encyclical ("God is Love") as an antidote.
"In a world where some evoke the name of God to justify acts of terror and murder and hate," he said, "we need your message that God is love."
Loud applause interrupted Bush as he echoed Benedict's pro-life stand and the way the pontiff reminds the faithful in his sermons that God loves every individual:
"In a world where some treat life as something to be debased and discarded, we need your message that all human life is sacred and that each of us is willed and each of us is loved and each of us is necessary."
There was more applause when Bush echoed Benedict's speech before the 2005 conclave that elected him, when he warned that modern society took an "anything goes" attitude to moral issues.
"In a world where some no longer believe that we can distinguish between simple right and wrong, we need your message to reject this dictatorship of relativism and embrace a culture of justice and truth," Bush said.
Fogarty said the fact that Benedict opted for a more general speech urging Americans to base political decisions on moral principles did not mean he had changed his mind. Roman Catholics following his visit would understand this.
"With the pope, you may disagree with what he says, but at least he's a moral leader. What you see is what you get." he said.
(Editing by Patricia Zengerle)
(For more on religion, see the Reuters religion blog FaithWorld at blogs.reuters.com/faithworld)