Even for a national media at best secular and at worst hostile to religion, you would think they would have mentioned the most crucial part of George H. W. Bush’s remarkable life, which ended on this earth Nov. 30, 2018, at 94. That would be Christianity — as he often told me, naming the priorities of “faith, family, and friends.”
It is true that Bush’s memorial service at National Cathedral in Washington and the next-day funeral at his home St. Martin’s Church in Houston rousingly hailed the former president’s belief, as Ronald Reagan often said, in “The Man Upstairs.” It is also true that TV/print flagrantly ignored faith’s role in forging Bush’s core. The media’s omission was deliberate — thus, deceitful.
Born in 1924 into a favored world of Eastern commerce, Bush was taught early the fleeting place of earthly wealth.
“George, you forget any ‘La-Dee-Lahs,’” mother Dorothy, a 110-pound mighty mite, said of patrician pretense. As a boy, he bragged of a home run till she brought him back to earth, referencing lyrics from a hymn: “Now, George, none of this ‘How Great Thou Art’ business.”
Growing up, the second of five children heard “Mother or Dad give a Bible lesson each day at breakfast.” In 1944, the Navy’s youngest World War II aviator was shot down by the Japanese in the South Pacific, landed near an island he feared controlled by the enemy, and spent four hours in an inflated raft. Waiting, he relied on “How Firm a Foundation,” another of countless hymns Bush could sing by rote.
Finally, he was rescued by the USS Finback submarine, staying aboard for a month to help rescue other pilots. “I went on deck at night, stood watch on the tower, and looked out at the dark,” he said. Alone, Bush felt “inner peace — God’s therapy.” At war’s end, he returned home, wed Barbara Pierce, entered Yale, moved to Texas, made Congress, then became a diplomat, vice president, and 1989-93 president. His real work then began.
In the late 1950s, Bush and his family joined St. Martin’s Church, remaining a congregant till death. He taught Sunday school, greeted newcomers, and practiced a gospel embodied in a plaque he gave its rector, Dr. Russell J. Levenson Jr.: “Preach Christ at all times. If necessary, use words.” Bush was, like Franklin Roosevelt and Reagan, among other presidents, an intensely religious man.
As speechwriter in the White House, I often heard him say that “I cannot possibly imagine being president without a belief in God.” That belief wore the sunshine of his smile. Bush once addressed the Catholic University of America annual dinner for the second time in three years. “Tonight I’m back,” he said, “even though I realize this isn’t what you have in mind when you preach about the Second Coming.” Noting the Bible’s allusion to the “Burning Bush,” he added, “I know I’m not that hot a speaker.”
More serious was Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, dubbing it Iraq’s 19th Province. Bush forged an armada to remove him. Explaining it, he wrote a speech about what constituted a “Just War.” His task, Bush concluded, was “to serve and seek wisely.” Hussein had cast “this conflict as a religious war.” In fact, it had “everything to do with what religion embodies. Good versus evil. Right versus wrong.” Bush quoted Lincoln, asked in the Civil War if he thought the Lord was on his side: “My concern is not whether God is on our but whether we are on God’s side.”
Sadly, this core was excluded during the week of Bush’s passing by a media that finds Christianity akin to Beriberi. Honest journalism might have linked it to Bush’s charity: As a child, his moniker was “Have Half,” giving half his lunch to classmates. Equality: In 1992, he said, “When God looks down from Heaven, he says, “All are welcome at my table.” Family: That year, Bush spent July 4 in the small town of Faith, North Carolina, recalling a small boy’s prayer: “God bless mother and daddy, my brother and sister, and, oh God, do take care of yourself, because if anything happens to you, we’re all sunk.”
The night before U.S. troops invaded Kuwait in 1991, Bush invited close friend Billy Graham and wife Ruth to stay at the White House. He thought of “the thousands of people praying in churches.” About “my home church — St. Martin’s — its prayer book, crosses, and handmade Christmas cards made in Sunday school for our troops in the Gulf.” He thought of the troops themselves and their confessions of the heart, knowing them as well as any sailor, soldier, airman, or marine.
Churchill once said of a prosaic desert, “This pudding has no theme!” Bush’s life did. It was character, based on right and wrong, forged in faith. You can fully, somewhat, or not share Bush’s belief in a hereafter. You cannot pretend that it did not exist. An institution that wholly ignores this belief, as national print and TV did, validates the view of a person so unlike Bush, Donald Trump — that the media lies.
By the time the glorious hymns “Rock of Ages” and “Abide with Me” and “Fairest Lord Jesus” filled National Cathedral and then St. Martin’s Church, the 41st president, as son George W. said, had “passed to the other side.” George H. W. Bush was a great leader and a noble man. God bless you, Mr. President, and as you once said in a speech at Pearl Harbor, “God Bless America — the most wondrous land on earth.”
Curt Smith’s newest book, “The Presidents and the Pastime: The History of Baseball and the White House,” was released this summer. He is a former speechwriter to President George H. W. Bush, Associated Press “Best in New York State” radio commentator, and senior lecturer of English at the University of Rochester. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.