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George H.W. Bush helped lead GOP toward evangelicalism

Faith played a significant role throughout the life of the 41st president.

George H.W. Bush’s address to the Republican National Convention in 1988 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.” (Handout/Reuters)

George H.W. Bush, who died Friday, 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.

George H.W. Bush, 41st president of the United States, dies at 94

“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.’ ”

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Bush was asked throughout his life about his faith in God, and he also tied some memories of historical events to prayer and God. He was still a student at Phillips Academy, a boarding school with a Calvinistic background in Andover, Mass., on Dec. 7, 1941.

“We had been to chapel, the mandatory chapel service. Came out of the chapel and was walking across the campus there when somebody said Pearl Harbor has been bombed,” he told CNN in 2012.

One of his 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 and the Oval Office” by Gary Scott 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 the 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.

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Bush began to talk about his religious beliefs in public as a presidential candidate. He had to touch on 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.

“I soon discovered that, in my opinion, he was on a spiritual journey,” Wead says. “At first it looked like it was all politics … the more I began to realize, he’s defining what he himself believes, and sharpening that, and based on what other people believe and these other traditions and these other philosophies and these other theologies.”

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 [son Marvin Bush and his wife, Margaret, 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 M. Green, a professor emeritus for the study of ethics and human values at Dartmouth College, says 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,” says 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 Bush 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, D.C. 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 closed his remarks by saying, “I do not fear what is ahead. For our problems are large, but our heart is larger. Our challenges are great, but our will is greater. And if our flaws are endless, God's love is truly boundless.”

He mentioned prayer in 220 speeches, remarks and proclamations while president, wrote Smith, also the 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 & 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.”

But other speeches were memorable for his stumbles around the topic of faith.

In 1982, an address to the Episcopal Church’s triennial general conference was “a disaster,” as he used his remarks to defend the Reagan administration’s arms policy, John E. Booty, a professor of Anglican Studies at the University of the South in Tennessee, told The Washington Post in 1988.

Bush’s presidency included the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Soviet Union’s collapse and the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

He told CNN that he knew the United States would go to war against Iraq quickly after Saddam Hussein went into Kuwait, and he had a meeting with Edmond Lee Browning, then the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. During that meeting, Bush described this exchange: “He said, ‘Mr. President, you must not use force. It would be immoral.’ And so I said to him, ‘Ed, I’m afraid I view this differently. I don’t think it’s immoral.’ I said: ‘Here’s what I think is immoral.' Showed him this Amnesty International report on the brutality to the Iraqi kids. I mean there is this overt, crystal-clear wrong brutality.”

During son George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign, George H.W. Bush wrote in an e-mail to his son, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush: “I hope God will bless us with victory in Florida and across the land; but whatever happens our family will be strong and solid …” according to his book, “All the Best, George Bush: My Life in Letters and Other Writings.”