Decision Points: George Bush’s Faith

“As I deepened my understanding of Christ, I came closer to my original goal of being a better person — not because I was racking up points on the positive side of the heavenly ledger, but because I was moved by God’s love.”  George W. Bush, (Decision Points, page 33)

Perhaps like no American President since Jimmy Carter has faith been so integral in their decisions while in office than George W. Bush.  I have been reading about the fascinating role that personal faith has played in the life of the 43rd President.  

For my birthday last week, my mother-in-law bought me a copy of President Bush’s book, Decision Points.  I admit that I like the 43rd President and, given the choice of the current occupant or a Bush sitting in the Oval Office, I should be happy to take George W. or his father, George H.W. Bush.  Hey, at this point, I would even take the last Baptist that served in the White House instead of President Obama!

I have only read the first 80 pages of this 481 page tome, just now getting to the section dealing with the Florida recount.  As one who was a resident of Florida in 2000, I was privileged to cast my vote for George W. Bush for President.  I guess one (or a few thousand) votes can really make a difference in the outcome of an election.

As a student of politics, I have thus far found President Bush’s “memoirs” to be engaging.  Whenever I have picked up Decision Points to read a few pages, I find myself not being able to put it down.  In the first two chapters alone, there have already been passages which have piqued my curiosity because the issues raised intersect both politics and religion.

Between now and the end of the year, I will devote one blog post each week to an analysis and discussion of those issues where President Bush’s personal faith intersected with his politics and governance.  Some of these issues touch on principles of religious liberty in a pluralistic society.  In the two years since Bush left office, many of these hot-button issues have only intensified, most especially the view of Islam within American culture.  In these posts, I will not only state my agreements with the former President, but also my disagreements as well. 

Perhaps the best place to start is with Bush’s own personal faith journey, which began in earnest after a visit with well-know evangelist Billy Graham.  It was the summer of 1985 and Rev. Graham had been invited by George and Barbara Bush to visit them at their home in Kennebunkport, Maine.  Graham, a Southern Baptist who was the most influential Christian evangelist in the 20th Century, has been a friend and advisor to every President since Dwight Eisenhower.

During a Q & A with the entire Bush clan (about 30 in all), Bush 41 asked Billy Graham about being born again:

“Billy, some people say you have to have a born-again experience to go to heaven.  Mother here is the most religious, kind person I know, yet she has had no born-again experience.  Will she go to heaven?” 

In what I hope was just Dr. Graham’s way of not trying to offend his hosts, he gave what appears to be a Biblically weak answer.  To this question, Graham said:

“George, some of us require a born-again experience to understand God, and some of us are born Christians.  It sounds as if your mom was just born a Christian.” (Decision Points, page 31)

Far be it from me to disagree with Rev. Graham, but his answer to George H.W. Bush conflicts with Jesus’ own words recorded in the third chapter of the Gospel of John. Contrary to what Billy Graham told the Bush family that summer night, I find no “loopholes” to Jesus twice-stated requirement that Nicodemus and everyone else must be “born again” in order to see the Kingdom of God.

Thankfully for George W. Bush, the following day’s activities included a walk around the compound with Rev. Graham where the evangelist provided a much clearer (and Biblical) explanation of salvation.  According to Bush’s own account:

“Billy explained that we are all sinners, and that we cannot earn God’s love through good deeds.  He made clear that the path to salvation is through the grace of God.  And the way to find that grace is to embrace Christ as the risen Lord — the son of a (sic) God so powerful and loving that He gave His only Son to conquer death and defeat sin.” (Decision Points, page 31)

There’s no question that George W. Bush was greatly influenced by Billy Graham’s Gospel witness 25 years ago.  Not only would his deeper understanding of the Christian faith have a profound affect on his life, but Bush’s personal faith would influence the way he viewed his role as President and the decisions that he made during his eight years in office.

From his answer in the Presidential debate about his favorite philosopher to his faith-based initiative to his view of Islam as a “religion of peace” (remember, he was Commander-in-Chief, not Theologian-in-Chief), President George W. Bush had an active faith that played a vital role in his Presidency.  And his faith, like ours, led him to make decisions that he thought were right.  We’ll explore some of those decisions — the right ones and the wrong ones — as we tackle those issues where politics and religion collided in the Bush White House.

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About Howell Scott

I have been a Southern Baptist pastor for the last fourteen years. Before entering the ministry, I was a practicing attorney in my homestate of Florida. I have been married to my wife, Brenda, for 18 years and we have three sons, Stephen, Jacob, and Andrew.
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6 Responses to Decision Points: George Bush’s Faith

  1. Pingback: Baptist Press: A Case of Curious Headlines | From Law to Grace

  2. Stephen Fox says:

    Howell:

    Couple notes and will come back to the discussion soon. Gonna be interesting to see where you go with this.
    I saw the Matt Lauer interview of President George W. Bush couple weeks ago, the hour prime time feature.
    I like W. and Laura; he just had no business being President of the United States. Oliver Stone’s movie W makes a strong case.
    He is affable, a character and he had some good moments as President.
    The Former Lt. Gov of SC. Bob Peeler, was a year ahead of me in school in Gaffney, SC from the 4th grade on. Bob was in the room with Karl Rove in a hotel Downtown Greenville, SC when the consensus in the room decided to go Negative on John McCain in the Presidential Primary of 2000. And there is some question as to the sequence of events of Bush accepting Jesus Christ as his Lord and Saviour.
    Mother Jones has an easily googled article. I have discussed it with Dan Vestal who was down the street from the UMC church in Midland, Texas when Bush came to Jesus. The Movie W. most likely gets closer to the Truth, than the official Billy Graham version which most likely was staged for Political value.
    Still with Vestal I accept 43 as a Believer. I like Laura biography better than W.’s, but with you find it quite interesting.
    My friend Gus Niebuhr wrote an easily googled piece recently for Wash Post and Newsweek about 43 reading the Metaxas bio of Bonhoeffer. You may want to look for that as you continue your series.
    In the meantime here is the New Yorker take of last week:

    http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2010/11/29/101129crbo_books_packer?currentPage=all

    Bring it to David Miller’s attention.

  3. Lee says:

    The book was interesting, giving some insights into some things that I kind of wish he had been a little more open about when he was in office. I think a lot of the bureaucratic holdovers from his Dad’s administration, and from the latter half of the Reagan administration somehow managed to override a lot of the direction and sense of leadership that W brought to the office of President, and were responsible for a considerable amount of the perception of ineptness and incompetence that caused his job approval to hit historic lows. But then, part of being President is the assertiveness and influence necessary to make the bureaucrats move, and set the policy moving in the direction you want it to go. W was lacking that kind of leadership, hence, his memoirs tend to read like an apologetic with a lot of wishful thinking. In that regard, there are many similarities to both Carter and Obama, though the latter has been a bit more assertive in that he’s been able to get some of his own agenda through a balky Congress. Bush was a nice guy, but in terms of policy and initiative, a terrible President who will, down the road, be honestly evaluated and rated at or near the bottom of the historical Presidential pile, well below Carter.

    What baffles me about Bush’s faith is the reaction to it by the conservative evangelical right. He is, in fact, a typical Liberal Protestant. Most of his views on Christians social issues, if held by a pastor of a Southern Baptist church, would get him fired and defrocked. His church membership during his time as both governor of Texas and President was in a left-sided United Methodist congregation that welcomed and affirmed homosexual members, and whose clergy performed same-sex union ceremonies. Its proximity to Southern Methodist University and its associated Perkins theological school guaranteed a liberal approach to theology and preaching. He declared publicly, on more than one occasion, a belief that Christianity, Judaism and Islam were just different paths to the same God. When attending church in Washington, D.C., he and Laura most often chose St. John’s Episcopal Church, just across Lafayette Park from the White House. He posed for a photo op with Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal church, after he had presided over the Sunday services there, and affirmed that he received communion from the bishop. Had Obama, or Clinton or Carter for that matter, done that in their church, holy hades would have erupted in the SBC but somehow, Bush got away with it and it passed quickly off the radar screen. Nor would Southern Baptists on the political right have tolerated the kind of behavior in Chelsea Clinton or Amy Carter that we saw in the Bush twins during their college years, though the Palin’s two middle daughters get away with far more than the religious right would allow in the Obama girls. Though he gave the pro-life perspective some lip service, he never put any convincing effort into demonstrating that he actually agreed with it.

    Taken with the proverbial grain of salt required when reading politician’s memoirs, Bush’s book falls somewhere between Reagan’s and Ford’s in honest forbearance.

    • Howell Scott says:

      Lee,

      Thanks for reading and for your thoughtful reply. As I am only about half-way through the book at this point, there are serveral things that do jump out at me from a religious/political perspective. I think that much of what you said is accurate, although I do think that Bush 43 will be rated above Carter when all is said and done. In my estimation, especially on the foreign policy front, it’s hard to get much lower than Jimmy Carter.

      That being said, I do think that there are many conservative evangelicals, including Southern Baptists, who have cozied up to politicians in a certain political party. These politicians, as Bush showed, were not always on the same page theologically as the religious conservatives. One of the posts that I will write upcoming regards Bush’s notion (wrong I believe) that all religions are basically the same and all lead to the same God. If Obama said anything remotely like that, Richard Land and others on the religious right would have a field day. Don’t get me started on Palin. I do not dislike her or hate her, but I find that there is something offputting about her that I cannot quite put my finger on. The intertwining of religion and politics (whether from the left or the right) can have negative consequences, especially for the church. When we lose sight of the fact that we have the power of the Gospel and instead put our faith in the government, we are in real trouble.

      Sorry that I didn’ respond sooner. Got back from Dallas last night and trying to catch up. Thanks again for stopping by. God bless,

      Howell

  4. Lydia says:

    Howell, You are very correct about Carter. His affiliation and support of Arafat was not only insidious but traitorous. There are other examples that aren’t much better. And he remains a very bitter and pettty man if you follow his reponses to W’s foreign policy. We all remember the sweaters in the White House, double digit inflation and the misery index, too. That is his legacy.

    As to Palin, I feel the same way but for different reasons most likely. I think her talent lies in being a “back bencher” but not in leadership. Perhaps it is because she resigned as Gov and took advantage of her new fame to cash in? I simply cannot take her as seriously because of that.

    But if she becomes the front runner for President, the comps are going to have a problem. (different topic). They are going to have to try and convince us on the doctrinal front that she can be President of the US but cannot lead a bible study with her male staffers. Not an easy one to take on since Palin professes to be a serious Christian and did lead prayer and bible studies for her staffers in Alaska.

    The gymnastics the comps had to manage when she was running for VP were a bit humorous…as to why she could be VP but could not teach men scripture. Some patriarchs were more honest and said she should be home.

    Since the SBC decided to marry politics and Faith, these are going to be issues that won’t go away.

    Blessings

    • Howell Scott says:

      Lydia,

      I think Palin’s resignation as Governor of Alaska was a bit strange, but then again, she marches to the beat of her own drummer. I do not dislike Sarah Palin. In fact, there is much to like about her, especially when she answers the unhinged attacks from the lunatic left. However, there has always seemed something a little bit “off” about Palin that I can’t quite put my finger on. She would not be my first choice in a Republican primary should she decide to run. I had not really thought about it before, but you make an interesting point about certain Christian leaders — some in SBC leadership — who will have to do some fast talking to get around some of the comp issues that you speak of. Thanks for sharing. God bless,

      Howell

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