A Brief Look at How George W. Bush Became one of Our Most Evangelical Christian Presidents

By Terry Wimberley

I believe that George W. Bush’s religious experiences transformed him from a close-encounter with life-long alcoholism and put him on the road that eventually took him to the White House. Regardless of whether you care for Bush or his policies or not, his religious transformation is an interesting and indeed a compelling saga.

George W. Bush startled many during his first campaign for the Presidency when he responded to a question regarding the identity of his favorite philosopher by citing the name “Jesus Christ.” While many appreciated his candor and his willingness to affirm his devotion to Christ, others were put-off – wondering if America was about to elect a religious fanatic to the White House.

Now that George Bush is a former President, there remains among some a lingering concern regarding the degree to which his faith influenced public policy – particularly in regard to his “faith-based initiatives,” his values regarding human cloning and stem-cell research, his advocacy for the teaching of “intelligent design,” and in regard to his position on abortion.

George W. Bush was primarily raised within the Presbyterian and Episcopal traditions, and hailed from a long line of deeply religious and spiritual people to include his great grandfather, Presbyterian minister James Bush, his grandfather Prescott Bush (who while a student at St. George’s Episcopal School considered studying for the ministry) and his grandmother Dorothy Walker (Prescott Bush’s wife) who was noted for her deep spirituality and devout church attendance. As a young man, George W. Bush followed his father George H. W. Bush to Philips Academy where his Episcopal religious affiliation continued until he graduated and was enrolled as a freshman at Yale University – also the alma mater of his father.

These years at Yale were “nomadic years” for the former President during which Bush responded to the snobbery he had experienced while a student at Phillips Academy by adopting a partying lifestyle. During these years, Bush’s attitude toward so-called “mainstream” religion was influenced by an encounter he had with then-chaplain William Sloan Coffin at Yale. George W. Bush’s father had just lost the bid for a Senate seat from Texas to a Republican candidate by the name of Ralph Yarborough. Reflecting upon this loss in a conversation with the younger Bush, Coffin is reported to have said, “I know your father, and your father lost to a better man.”

It is probably not an exaggeration to say that Coffin’s blunt and thoughtless comment further reinforced Bush’s growing dislike for the “elitism” that he had encountered at Phillips and at Yale – an elitism that also extended into the church (as he then knew it) and among some of its ministers.

To fully understand Bush’s distaste for so-called Eastern elitism you have to recognize the significant impact that growing up in Midland, Texas had upon him. Although Bush was the progeny of sophisticated and wealthy Eastern families, the young Bush had been reared in West Texas – a world dominated by oilmen, cowboys, roughnecks, ranchers and risk-takers. It is within this community that young George W. established life-long associations and within this cultural setting that he defined his self-identity. Bush acknowledged the influence of Midland upon his life while running for President in 2000 when he said, “I don’t know what percentage of me is Midland, but I would say people – if they want to understand me – need to understand Midland and the attitude of Midland.” Moreover, Bush asserted that the values that Midland Texas embraces “are the same ones I hold near to my heart. The slogan ‘The Sky’s The Limit’ was meant for everyone, not just a select few. Midlanders believed if you work hard and believe it will happen, anything can happen.”

Midland is a small West Texas community with small town values – what journalist George Neumayr refers to as “the small town Christian America of Bush’s memory.” It is a place where Christianity is openly practiced – an experience scarcely found in larger urban areas. It is the sort of town where people comment about the working of miracles and prayer concerns in their everyday discourse, and is also a community where the concept of “duty” to God, country, community and family prevails.”

Bush returned to Midland after graduating from Yale, and it is in Midland that he established himself as a businessman, married his wife Laura and started a family. It is also the place where he returned to a new form of Christian faith and religious practice that typified the community. As commentator George Neumayr observed, “Midland’s Christianity” is consistent with that of George W. Bush in that it is “at once direct and affable, evangelical and ecumenical, salt-of-the-earth and perhaps a bit salty — not surprising given its frontier atmosphere through which “roughnecks,” “wildcatters,” and “bombardiers have passed.”

Bush wandered away from his Presbyterian and Episcopal roots when he returned to Midland as a young man. After marrying his wife Laura, he became Methodist – though not a particularly evangelical one – at least not at first. However, according to those who knew him in Midland during the 1980’s, it was the sharp downturn in the oil market that led him, and many other West Texas businessmen, into a deeper evangelical expression of faith. During that period of economic turmoil Bush’s close friend, Don Jones (then president of one of Midland’s largest and fastest growing banks), became very active in a Christian organization by the name the Community Bible Study group. It was through this Christian fellowship that Jones experienced a spiritual conversion, allowing him to finally walk away from a long-term drinking habit. Bush, who also had a serious and growing alcohol problem, attributes Jones’ spiritual rebirth as one of the factors that ultimately brought him to quit drinking himself

In addition to the influence of Don Jones, Bush’s journey toward embracing evangelical spiritual “rebirth” was principally influenced by evangelist Billy Graham, who he encountered at the family compound at Kennebunkport, Maine. During the visit, Graham and Bush took a walk together on the beach during which Graham is reported to have asked Bush “Are you right with God?” to which Bush answered “No. But I want to be.” Bush recalls this event in A Charge to Keep recollecting that “I knew I was in the presence of a great man.” “He was like a magnet; I felt drawn to seek something different. He didn’t lecture or admonish; he shared warmth and concern. Billy Graham didn’t make you feel guilty; he made you feel loved.”

Clearly Bush’s interaction with Graham was life-changing and was so powerful that Bush began studying the Bible daily, and, with the support of his good friend of many years, Midland resident Don Evans joined the Community Bible Study group that had supported his friend Don Jones in giving up his drinking habit. These habits of daily bible study and cooperative Bible fellowships resulted in clear changes in Bush – changes so noticeable to those close to him that some months later his mother Barbara was overheard telling someone on the phone that “George has been born again.” To this day Bush reads the Bible daily and every other year he reads the Bible in its entirety.

So this is the background of the former President who at one point motivated many to worry whether he would create a Christian autocracy as President and inflict his evangelical zeal on the whole nation. As it turns out this did not happen and George W. Bush served as one of our more openly evangelical Christian Presidents.

Edward T. (Terry) Wimberley teaches courses in philosophy and ethics and environmental public policy at Florida Gulf Coast University in Naples, FL. He holds a doctorate in public affairs from the University of Pittsburgh and served as the founding dean of FGCU’s College of Education and College of Professional Studies. He is also an ordained Presbyterian minister and serves as a part-time chaplain at Moorings Park in Naples.

His blog, Veritas Libertas, is dedicated to commenting upon those issues that serve to either limit or promote truth and liberty in our society. The blog asserts that truth in media, politics and government promotes liberty whereas deception and spin contribute to enslavement and tyranny. Consequently, this blog provides a commentary on local, regional, national and international issues where truth and liberty are at stake.

This blog entry first appeared in the online version of the Naples (FL) News and is used with permission http://www.naplesnews.com/blogs/veritas-libertas-edward-wimberley/2009/nov/09/bush/?print=1

[Editor’s note: the original URL (link) referenced in this article is no longer valid, so the link has been removed.]