The quiet, steely faith of George H.W. Bush

(RNS) — With the passing of George H.W. Bush from this life, we will have the opportunity to be stirred once again by tales from his lengthy journey. We will hear of his early heroism at war. We will be reminded of his storied political career. We will be touched anew by his tender 73-year marriage. We will be told of his mistakes, and of regrets of a kind familiar to us all.

Yet we will likely hear little about his religious faith, and this is unfortunate.

The truth is that his deep sense of God’s calling lay beneath all that he was and all that he gave us. We should remind ourselves of this part of him, both because it is an act of honor and because his brand of faith offers a needed antidote to some of the toxins of our time.

The faith that shaped his life was first embedded in him by his New England, Episcopal Church upbringing. It is common today to speak of such a heritage with disdain. Yet for Bush, it was the means of receiving a faith that could fashion destinies. He was shaped by the church services and the liturgical seasons and the oft-repeated rituals, of course, but there was more. Each morning when he sat at the family breakfast table, his mother read the Bible aloud. Young George listened, absorbed, and came to regard what he heard as the steely truths of life.

A favorite verse was Proverbs 27:2: “Let another man praise you, and not your own lips.”

It was nearly the Bush family creed. Never vaunt yourself. Never set yourself above. No good will come of it, and God is watching.

The Bush family in the early 1960s. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

Another part of the family canon were the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke: “To whom much is given, of him much shall be required.” The gifts you have received form a mandate. Show gratitude by serving. Live for a cause greater than yourself.

He stepped into adulthood, then, armed with an elegant version of traditional Christianity and the hard-won maxims for living his parents had wrung from the pages of Scripture. Yet his was a quiet faith, one woven into the fabric of his life but never held aloft as a banner for selfish gain.

Religion was a personal thing. It formed a mandate, yes, but secretly, sounding in a whisper from private places in the soul. It was embarrassing to speak of it publicly.

It might even be a sin.

This was the ethic that carried Bush through valiant service during World War II, through Yale, through years in the oil fields of Texas, and then into his half-century of government service: Congress, the U.N., China, the CIA, the vice presidency and, ultimately, the White House.

Yet it was when he ran for president that his faith was forced, against his will, into public view. Bush faced contests with the popular religious broadcaster Pat Robertson in 1988 and a charismatic Baptist governor from Arkansas named Bill Clinton in 1992.

Though Bush had a deeper resume of public service than any presidential candidate in American history, he seemed — in contrast to Clinton and Robertson — a man churched but perhaps not converted, a man religious but unable to explain the connection to God he said defined his life.

It was all hard to watch.

His own son wrote that though the elder Bush was religious, he was uncomfortable espousing his faith in the public square. This was an understatement. George H.W. Bush was nearly inarticulate in matters of faith.

When he was once asked what he had thought about as a young pilot floating in the Sea of Japan after being shot down during World War II, he answered, “Mom and Dad, about our country, about God … and about the separation of church and state,” according to columnist Terry Mattingly. It sounded as though he was shoving every religious phrase he could think of into a single sentence.

This was language sure to disappoint the rising religious right in his own party and to amuse every single member of the Democratic Party.

Yet his problem was one of language, not of heart. Asked if he had ever been “born again,” he hesitantly answered, “I think I would ask for a definition.”

Again came the sighs and the sneers.

As he later explained to an adviser, “If by ‘born again’ one is asking, ‘Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior?’ then I could answer a clear-cut ‘Yes.’ No hesitancy, no awkwardness.”

Yet if the question was whether there had been “one single moment, above any others, in which your life has been instantly changed, then I can’t say that this has happened, since there have been many moments,” he said.

Bush improved and became adept at expressing the faith that guided him. He also learned to draw from his own well of experience in answering the needling questions of reporters.

The columnist George Will once recounted the story of a journalist who wanted to play to the “George Bush is an elite New Englander who doesn’t live in the real world” theme by asking if Bush had ever had any “personal difficulty.” Offended but controlled, Bush fired back, “Have you ever sat and watched your child die?” He was referring to the horrible death of his own child, Robin, felled by leukemia at the age of three.

“No,” answered the reporter.

Point made.

I have suffered more than most, he was saying. Don’t doubt me merely because I do not put my pains on public view.

He would step into his elder-statesman years more skilled in matters of faith but as reluctant to put that faith on display as ever. This seeped even into the counsel he gave his son.

When the younger George Bush ran for president and was asked who his favorite political philosopher was, he responded, “Jesus Christ, because he changed my heart.” It had been an unguarded moment, but still he was pleased with his answer. Later, on the phone, Dad Bush was encouraging but said, “I don’t think the answer on Jesus will hurt you too much.”

George W. had never considered the answer might hurt him. Then he saw his words through his father’s eyes. You mentioned your faith publicly. Don’t. It is never wise. Keep such matters to yourself.

There is much to inspire us from the life of this man. There is the sacrifice, the humor, the rising from defeat, the humility and the eagerness to do good in the world. There are, too, the parachute jumps at the age of 80, 85 and 90, the latter an age when most sane people might be unsure of flying in a plane, much less jumping out of one.

Then there is his faith which, given the arrogance that dominates our politics today, comes to us as though from a kinder, gentler world: What a man receives from God forms a mandate for service. Never brag. Never praise yourself. Live large. Do great things. Always be humble. Remember that God is watching.

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