Bush’s faith opened door to evangelicals
George H.W. Bush, who died on Nov. 30 and whose funeral services were held this week, was a lifetime Episcopalian, part of the blue-blood of America’s founding Christianity. But as a presidential candidate, he was part of a Republican opening to evangelicalism that changed the country’s landscape.
A bombing mission that plunged him into the Pacific Ocean during World War II and his younger daughter’s death from leukemia were among the times when he said he looked to God and prayer.
Bush attended Christ Episcopal Church in Greenwich, Conn., as a child. His father, Prescott Bush, was a Republican senator from Connecticut. The future president’s mother, Dorothy Walker, would read to her family from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.
“He was Episcopalian by tradition. His mother was extremely devout, read all the books. And he loved his mother and so he loved the tradition,” said Doug Wead, who co-authored the 1988 book, George Bush, Man of Integrity, with Bush and served as a special assistant to the president, told The Washington Post in April.
The seaside St. Ann’s Episcopal Church, in Kennebunkport, Maine, has been a site for family weddings. The Rev. Billy Graham also was invited to preach there, as he wrote in his book, Just As I Am.
A Washington Post story in 1988 quoted George H.W. Bush’s cousin, George Herbert Walker III, as saying the president espoused “a happy Christianity, rarely dwelling on suffering or sin. It was upbeat, ‘Do your duty,’ ‘It’s a great world out there.’”
One of Bush’s most frequently cited faith moments was after a September 1944 bombing mission. Bush, a naval aviator, parachuted into the Pacific Ocean after his plane was damaged. Bush has been quoted as saying he wondered: “Why had I been spared and what did God have for me?”
“He definitely felt that his experience in World War II was a spiritual moment for him,” Wead said. “He definitely had something happen there … and [had] several other experiences through his life. When he would be asked about whether he was born again, he’d say, ‘I didn’t have one specific moment above all others that I can point to where everything turned around, I had several.’ And that rescue in World War II was one of them.’”
He and his wife, Barbara, married in 1945 at First Presbyterian Church in Barbara’s hometown of Rye, N.Y. When they moved to Texas in the early 1950s, they first joined a Presbyterian church, according to the book, Religion in the Oval Office by Gary Smith.
The book quotes Bush as saying that the couple’s faith “truly sustained us” after their daughter, Robin, died of leukemia at age 3 in 1953.
Bush was one of 11 presidents who identified as Episcopalian, according to Pew Research Center. In Houston, where George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush moved in 1960, they attended St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, where her private funeral was held this spring.
Bush began to talk about his religious beliefs in public as a presidential candidate. He had to touch
the increasing evangelical movement, Wead says, and the discussion when he was vice president was how he could build a relationship with and show respect to the evangelical movement.
As a candidate for president in 1988, Bush ran against Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis, who supported abortion rights.
During the second presidential debate, on Oct. 13, 1988, Bush said: “I think human life is very, very precious. And, look, this hasn’t been an easy decision for me to meet. I know others disagree with it. But when I was in that little church across the river from Washington and saw our grandchild christened in our faith, I was very pleased indeed that the mother had not aborted that child, and put the child up for adoption (his son, Marvin Bush, and his wife, Margaret Conway, adopted two children). And so I just feel this is where I’m coming from. And it is personal. And I don’t assail [Michael Dukakis] on that issue,
or others on that issue. But that’s the way I, George Bush, feel about it.”
While the Bush family has had both conservative and liberal views on reproductive health and birth control, Ronald Green, a professor emeritus for the Study of Ethics and Human Values at Dartmouth College, said the Bush family has led, to some extent, the movement of patrician Republicans from centrist thinking to conservative Christian opposition to birth control, abortion and research on reproductive health, such as the use of stem cells or fetal tissue in transplantation.
“G.H.W. started this movement and the politically active sons accentuated it,” said Green, who has followed the Bush family on bioethics issues for 28 years.
Smith’s book, Religion in the Oval Office, notes that Bush celebrated the nation’s Judeo-Christian heritage and he viewed family and faith as America’s “moral compass.”
When he accepted the presidential nomination in 1988, his address to the Republican National Convention included these comments: “I am guided by certain traditions. One is that there’s a God, and He is good and His love, while free, has a self-imposed cost: We must be good to one another.”
During his presidency from 1989 to 1993, Bush attended St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington. In his 1989 inaugural address, he said his first act as the nation’s 41st president would be to pray.
“I ask you to bow your heads,” he said. “Heavenly Father, we bow our heads and thank You for Your love. Accept our thanks for the peace that yields this day and the shared faith that makes its continuance likely. Make us strong to do Your work, willing to heed and hear Your will, and write on our hearts these words: ‘Use power to help people.’ For we are given power not to advance our
own purposes, nor to make a great show in the world, nor a name. There is but one just use of power, and it is to serve people. Help us remember, Lord. Amen.”
He mentioned prayer in 220 speeches, remarks and proclamations while president, wrote Smith, also author of Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush, and a fellow for faith and politics in the Center for Vision and Values at Grove City College, a Christian liberal arts school in Pennsylvania.
In his Thanksgiving Day remarks on 1990, Bush discussed the nation’s faith heritage, saying, “The grand experiment called America is but a recent manifestation of humanity’s timeless yearning to be free. Only in freedom can we achieve humanity’s greatest hope: peace. From the wisdom of Solomon to the wonder of the Sermon on the Mount, from the prophecies of Isaiah to the teachings of Islam, the holy books that are our common heritage speak often of the many blessings bestowed upon mankind, often of the love of liberty, often of the cause of peace.”
Former President George H. W. Bush lies in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda on Tuesday in Washington. A lifelong Episcopalian, Bush is credited by some for helping move Republicans toward conservative Christianity.
A group of nuns views the flag-draped casket of former President George H.W. Bush as he lies in state in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington on Monday. Bush kept his faith on display as president, and his first act after inauguration was to pray.