Republican presidential candidates in 1988 included, from left, Vice President George Bush, Rep. Jack Kemp, Pat Robertson and Sen. Robert Dole after a debate in Atlanta on Feb. 28, 1988. (AP Photo)

When George H.W. Bush played the religion card

(RNS) — George H.W. Bush was not one to wear his religion on his sleeve. But to gain the Republican presidential nomination, he felt he had to.

A New England Episcopalian, Bush was raised listening to his devout mother read from the Book of Common Prayer. Like other upper-class class WASPs raised in the mid-20th century, he was a regular churchgoer.

Faith was important in his personal life. But beyond checking the appropriate denominational box and invoking the Deity on the appropriate ceremonial occasions, Bush did not make his religion part of his political life.

Until 1988, that is.

Eight years earlier, Ronald Reagan had consummated the alliance between the Republican Party and conservative white evangelicals. Motivated by the cultural shifts of the day, voters of the so-called religious right put their support behind a GOP that was willing to embrace their concerns about women's liberation, gay rights and abortion. Now, religion was a force to be reckoned with in the party.

To become its standard bearer, Vice President Bush was going to have to elbow his way ahead of two rivals who held greater appeal for white evangelicals: New York congressman Jack Kemp and Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson. Not long after the election, I found out how he did it from Doug Wead, who worked on the campaign's religious outreach effort.

The Bush people considered Kemp to be the real threat. A staunch economic and social conservative, he could easily finish second in the Iowa caucuses behind Sen. Bob Dole of nearby Kansas. So, under the guidance of campaign manager Lee Atwater, the Bush team subtly pushed Robertson forward.

RELATED: In quiet moments, George H.W. Bush showed that faith mattered

The technique of the Robertson campaign was to make caucus attendance a church activity. Tables would be set up for congregants to sign on to caucus for Robertson, and when the day came they showed up en masse. Indeed, the strategy worked so well that it propelled Robertson to a second-place finish ahead not only of Kemp but also of Bush himself.

Vice President George Bush talks to reporters outside his Washington headquarters on Aug. 4, 1988. At right is Bush's campaign chairman, Lee Atwater. (AP Photo/Charles Tasnadi)

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Bush succeeded in recovering from the shock by taking the New Hampshire primary, but the Southern Super Tuesday primaries, where Robertson was expected to do very well, were just around the corner.

No problem. Methodically, his people had taken Bush to call on leading Southern pastors, whom the transplanted Yankee convinced that yes, he too was a Christian who had been born again. Meanwhile, when the tables for Robertson began to go up in churches across Dixie, prominent congregants would go to the pastors and ask to set up their own tables for Bush. In church after church, the decision was made to not do tables and risk splitting the congregation politically.

Bush swept Super Tuesday, effectively putting an end to the Robertson and Kemp campaigns. And he went on to a landslide victory over the secular liberal Democratic candidate, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.

As president, however, Bush did little for the religious folks he had assiduously courted. In 1992, he drew a strong primary challenge from former GOP presidential aide Pat Buchanan, who ran on a right-wing populist platform of opposition to abortion, gay rights, multiculturalism and immigration.

That Bush had never won the hearts and minds of social conservatives became clear in the general election, in which the triumphant Southern Baptist governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, won a clutch of Southern states. It would fall to Bush's more plausibly born-again son George W. to establish a firm hold on the white evangelical vote.

(The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)


  1. A New England Episcopalian, Bush was raised listening to his devout mother read from the Book of Common Prayer.

    Actually, Bush’s mother was probably more familiar with the Presbyterian Prayer Book than the Episcopalian one since the family were practicing Presbyterians in St. Louis right up until the year young George was born. That was the year Bush’s father, Prescott, strategically relocated the family to tony Greenwich, Connecticut in order to be better connected socially. It also helped him land a solid job on Wall Street. Once in Greenwich, Prescott Bush promptly joined the toniest of tony Episcopal Churches, Christ Church. Naturally that’s where all the moneyed elite worshipped.

    When George H.W. decided to seek his own fortune he did so by moving his family to the Lubbock, Midland-Odessa area of Texas (not Houston, as has been erroneously reported) in order to strategically place himself right smack in the middle of the burgeoning Texas oil industry. Once in Texas H.W. decided that First Methodist Church in Lubbock was the place to be in order to be socially well-connected, so Anglicanism got dropped like a hot potato and it was on to new things.

    He reverted back to the Episcopal Church later in life when he moved to D.C. because of course that’s where all the “right people” worshipped.

    With H.W. Bush it’s always been less about theology and allegiance to any one particular denomination and more about the way church could help him become more socially well-connected. He learned that from his daddy. It’s no accident, therefore, that his current parish church, St. Martin’s Episcopal in Houston, is the largest Episcopal Church in the U.S. and also one of the wealthiest.

    “Ask not what you can do for religion, but rather what religion can do for YOU!”

  2. It is not about “when” as much as it is about whereas, because God is involved. As matters of the heart go, compare the contrast, Bush and then Clinton. What was God telling us?

  3. Yes you are well informed. D Magizine 1998 has piece on Koon Kreek Klub a bit of land owned by Gov Clements. He purchased the surrounding land gave it to Scouting for Boys and the Corp of Engineer to keep the rif raf out. Its a good read. If I’m not mistaken George W’s picture was taken there on perogue fishing. I know every inch of that country. It’s no fluke that the longest zip lines in Texas are nearby. I digress. The Presbys have the best setup in Dallas as best i can tell and having taken some to the “Stew Pot” i can tell you If its not Scottish Its crap.

  4. The true social climbing Anglo Saxon. Start out Baptist move up to Methodist onto Presbyterian or Congregationalist and finally landing as an Episcopalian. Its classic.

  5. Clinton’s morals were superior to those of anyone named Bush.

  6. On the occasion of the death of President George Herbert Walker Bush and his funeral today, the wording of the headline of this story (i.e. “playing the religion card”) seems particularly graceless. Contrast that with a headline that could have read, for example, “When George H.W. Bush reached out to evangelical pastors.”

    As for the actions of the pastors (“the decision was made to not do tables and risk splitting the congregation politically”), that sounds eminently reasonable and sensible.

  7. which is why he got a hummer in the oval office from an Intern? Got it

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