President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, kneel and pray during the National Prayer Service Jan. 22, 1989, at Washington National Cathedral. (AP Photo/Doug Mills)

The quiet, steely faith of George H.W. Bush

President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, kneel and pray during the National Prayer Service Jan. 22, 1989, at Washington National Cathedral. (AP Photo/Doug Mills)

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

(RNS) — With the passing of George H.W. Bush from this life, we will have the opportunity to be stirred once again by tales from his lengthy journey. We will hear of his early heroism at war. We will be reminded of his storied political career. We will be touched anew by his tender 73-year marriage. We will be told of his mistakes, and of regrets of a kind familiar to us all.

Yet we will likely hear little about his religious faith, and this is unfortunate.

The truth is that his deep sense of God’s calling lay beneath all that he was and all that he gave us. We should remind ourselves of this part of him, both because it is an act of honor and because his brand of faith offers a needed antidote to some of the toxins of our time.

The faith that shaped his life was first embedded in him by his New England, Episcopal Church upbringing. It is common today to speak of such a heritage with disdain. Yet for Bush, it was the means of receiving a faith that could fashion destinies. He was shaped by the church services and the liturgical seasons and the oft-repeated rituals, of course, but there was more. Each morning when he sat at the family breakfast table, his mother read the Bible aloud. Young George listened, absorbed, and came to regard what he heard as the steely truths of life.

A favorite verse was Proverbs 27:2: “Let another man praise you, and not your own lips.”

It was nearly the Bush family creed. Never vaunt yourself. Never set yourself above. No good will come of it, and God is watching.

The Bush family in the early 1960s. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

Another part of the family canon were the words of Jesus in the gospel of Luke: “To whom much is given, of him much shall be required.” The gifts you have received form a mandate. Show gratitude by serving. Live for a cause greater than yourself.

He stepped into adulthood, then, armed with an elegant version of traditional Christianity and the hard-won maxims for living his parents had wrung from the pages of Scripture. Yet his was a quiet faith, one woven into the fabric of his life but never held aloft as a banner for selfish gain.

Religion was a personal thing. It formed a mandate, yes, but secretly, sounding in a whisper from private places in the soul. It was embarrassing to speak of it publicly.

It might even be a sin.

This was the ethic that carried Bush through valiant service during World War II, through Yale, through years in the oil fields of Texas, and then into his half-century of government service: Congress, the U.N., China, the CIA, the vice presidency and, ultimately, the White House.

Yet it was when he ran for president that his faith was forced, against his will, into public view. This was during the campaign of 1988. Bush faced contests with the popular religious broadcaster Pat Robertson and a charismatic Baptist governor from Arkansas named Bill Clinton.

Though Bush had a deeper resume of public service than any presidential candidate in American history, he seemed — in contrast to Clinton and Robertson — a man churched but perhaps not converted, a man religious but unable to explain the connection to God he said defined his life.

It was all hard to watch.

His own son wrote that though the elder Bush was religious, he was uncomfortable espousing his faith in the public square. This was an understatement. George H.W. Bush was nearly inarticulate in matters of faith.

President George H.W. Bush responds to questions during a news conference at the White House in 1990. Photo by Mark Reinstein/MediaPunch /IPX

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

When he was once asked what he had thought about as a young pilot floating in the Sea of Japan after being shot down during World War II, he answered, “Mom and Dad, about our country, about God … and about the separation of church and state,” according to columnist Terry Mattingly. It sounded as though he was shoving every religious phrase he could think of into a single sentence.

This was language sure to disappoint the rising religious right in his own party and to amuse every single member of the Democratic Party.

Yet his problem was one of language, not of heart. Asked if he had ever been “born again,” he hesitantly answered, “I think I would ask for a definition.”

Again came the sighs and the sneers.

As he later explained to an adviser, “If by ‘born again’ one is asking, ‘Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior?’ then I could answer a clear-cut ‘Yes.’ No hesitancy, no awkwardness.”

Yet if the question was whether there had been “one single moment, above any others, in which your life has been instantly changed, then I can’t say that this has happened, since there have been many moments,” he said.

Bush improved and became adept at expressing the faith that guided him. He also learned to draw from his own well of experience in answering the needling questions of reporters.

The columnist George Will once recounted the story of a journalist who wanted to play to the “George Bush is an elite New Englander who doesn’t live in the real world” theme by asking if Bush had ever had any “personal difficulty.” Offended but controlled, Bush fired back, “Have you ever sat and watched your child die?” He was referring to the horrible death of his own child, Robin, felled by leukemia at the age of 3.

“No,” answered the reporter.

Point made.

I have suffered more than most, he was saying. Don’t doubt me merely because I do not put my pains on public view.

He would step into his elder-statesman years more skilled in matters of faith but as reluctant to put that faith on display as ever. This seeped even into the counsel he gave his son.

President Bush with first lady Laura Bush, left, leave St. Ann's Episcopal Church with his father and mother, right, former President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush, in Kennebunkport, Maine, on July 7, 2002. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite/File)

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

When the younger George Bush ran for president and was asked who his favorite political philosopher was, he responded, “Jesus Christ, because he changed my heart.” It had been an unguarded moment, but still he was pleased with his answer. Later, on the phone, Dad Bush was encouraging but said, “I don’t think the answer on Jesus will hurt you too much.”

George W. had never considered the answer might hurt him. Then he saw his words through his father’s eyes. You mentioned your faith publicly. Don’t. It is never wise. Keep such matters to yourself.

There is much to inspire us from the life of this man. There is the sacrifice, the humor, the rising from defeat, the humility and the eagerness to do good in the world. There are, too, the parachute jumps at the age of 80, 85 and 90, the latter an age when most sane people might be unsure of flying in a plane, much less jumping out of one.

Then there is his faith which, given the arrogance that dominates our politics today, comes to us as though from a kinder, gentler world: What a man receives from God forms a mandate for service. Never brag. Never praise yourself. Live large. Do great things. Always be humble. Remember that God is watching.

 (Stephen Mansfield is the New York Times bestselling author of "The Faith of George W. Bush," "The Faith of Barack Obama," "Lincoln’s Battle With God" and "Choosing Donald Trump." The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)


  1. George H. W. Bush was definetely a man of faith. But did Barack Obama actually had any religious faith? People like Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher said that he had all the characteristics of an atheist. I`m not sure if he was an atheist but he didn`t seem to be a religious person at all.

  2. I believe Obama was an atheist, but also a great president. Can we call someone a great president if he didn’t promote christianity from govt, didn’t make religion the center of this govt, yes. Thomas Jefferson never made a religious proclamation during his two terms but was a great president. He believed religion was a personal matter, as all presidents should. Washington, Madison, Adams never spoke of Jesus or a savior, all great presidents. Trump is most likely an atheist, loved by evangelicals.

  3. Bush was a quieter christian, but was an extreme christian more along the lines of Roy Moore in belief. He believed there should be a religious test for office (christianity), believed and said atheists were not/could not be patriots or citizens (in other words did not believe in religious freedom). Believed America was a christian nation, unlike our founders who could have made us that but voted against it. If GHW Bush had been a founder we would have been a christian privileged nation that tolerated non christians but expelled atheists according to what he said out loud. All our schools would teach christianity, gays would be second class citizens, and women’s place would be in the home.

    During his good ole days christians made up 95% of the population and most believed the bible was true. Now it’s 70%, 40% are practicing to some degree, and 30% believe the bible has some authority. The faith that drove him is dying under it’s own weight and will be a minority religion, it already is on half our states.

  4. In your estimation anyone who thinks the Ten Commandments are moral laws is an “extreme (C)hristian”.

  5. There were never written as moral laws. They are laws for a theocratic govt. Telling the population what god to worship and how. 8 of them would be illegal to enforce in america and the other two can be traced back over 4000 years. Even the bible says moral laws are written on the hearts of men, we are born moral beings.

    But if you think the bible is true and want to force them on people who have no desire for them, that is extreme christianity.

  6. studies show no one really answers truthfully when it comes to religion, people always answer what mom would want them to say. it’s possible 40% of americans are really atheists, just don’t have the courage to say it outloud.

  7. Of course they were written as moral laws:

    “On the one hand, the Commandments’ text undeniably has a religious message, invoking, indeed emphasizing, the Deity.”


    “Those 40 years suggest that the public visiting the capitol grounds has considered the religious aspect of the tablets’ message as part of what is a broader moral and historical message reflective of a cultural heritage.”

  8. Ever notice that the people online most likely to claim their Christian faith is the source of moral thinking are the people most likely to support immoral positions?

  9. Obama is — or was — religious. For some unspecified reason, the national media does NOT want to do any “investigative journalism” regarding exactly how far Obama’s beliefs have “evolved.”

    (And make no mistake: whatever their other faults may be, atheists like Dawkins and Maher ain’t stupid. They got eyes, if nothing else.)

  10. President Obama attended Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago before becoming president. Then the Republicans and Fox News did a smear job on the pastor of that church, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, so Obama quit that congregation under pressure in the heat of the campaign. While president, he attended services at St. John’s Episcopal Church across from the White House, as well as Zion Baptist Church, Nineteenth St. Baptist Church, Allen Chapel AME, Metropolitan AME, and Shiloh Baptist Church, all in DC. Most atheists I know don’t attend church services of any kind. Make of that what you will. And yes, he was a great president whatever his inner faith (or lack thereof) is/was.

  11. When did they ever, except in people’s rose-colored imaginations?

  12. I know what we were taught growing up. But he people who are still studying the texts along with recent finding of different versions of the texts and what was believed in the communities during the time say different.
    people at the time believed in hundreds of gods, the first commandment says stop it!
    there were graven images of yhwh all over, the commandment said stop it.
    people worked on the sabbath to feed their families, the commandment said stop it.
    no other gods before me, was talking about statues of gods in the temple
    lords name in vain meant don’t say god’s name out loud.
    honor your father and mother was to keep judaism in the family.

    if anyone enforced those laws it was the government military or police, not the church. in digging up villages people were still worshipping other gods into the first century. Judaism was never more than a 10% religion unless the govt forced people, same with christianity.

  13. Thank you for sharing your anti-religious obsessions.

    I hope you feel better now.

    You’re well off the topic, which was the “The quiet, steely faith of George H.W. Bush”

  14. the OT never says it was written by god or that the stories in it are true. It was never taught that the bible is the literal word of god till 300 yrs ago. the story of moses and the ten is not written anywhere except the OT and neither moses, abraham, or yahweh can be proven outside the OT. all fictional characters. outside of a few names, places, and battles, NONE of the bible stories appear anywhere outside the pages of the bible.

  15. I know. Washington attended church every (most) sundays but never said he believed jesus died for his sins or anything about a savior. it’s complicated. Politicians pander. I’m going by a video of Obama talking about separation of church and state. He says things believers don’t say. it’s just my opinion.

  16. Well I’m a believer (of a very liberal sort) but I’m also a strong believer in the separation of church and state, just as the founders intended. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. As a Christian, the last thing I want is some fundamentalist telling me how I ought to worship God. When there’s a wall of separation between church and state, both church and state are better off for it, IMO. Conversely, the opposite is true as well.

  17. I’m curious about what comments made by President Obama regarding the separation of church and state make you think he couldn’t possibly be a believer.

  18. I watched the whole thing. As a Christian who also believes in the separation of church and state, I thought it was a superb speech. The crux of his argument I think is to be found at the 2:30 mark where he talks about balancing individual faith in a pluralistic society.

  19. “the OT never says it was written by god or that the stories in it are true.”

    Thank you for that zany bon mot.

    In other fora it might be appropriate and even interesting.

    Here it is just trolling.

  20. No, but I’m sure at least one of your many aliases did.

  21. American political mentality tends to say that a politician can`t be irreligious. I`m not sure about Barack Obama religious beliefs or if he is or not an atheist. He seems not to be really religious. Of course, I doubt that he could have been elected if he had been openly an atheist or agnostic.

  22. you said the ten commandments are moral religious law. I said the OT where they are was not written by god or supposed to be true. it goes to your statement nicely. You said they were true, I gave you the reason I think they are not.

  23. “and 30% believe the bible has some authority”. Like I said.

  24. Bernie Sanders almost got elected, and he openly worshiped the god of WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER.

  25. CORRECTION: “[George H.W. Bush’s] brand of faith offers a [un]needed antidote to some of the [non]toxins of our time. … There is much [less than zero] to inspire us from the [globally destructive] life of this man. There is … the eagerness to do [nothing] good in the world.” See my footnotes.

    (1) Parry, Robert, “George H.W. Bush, the CIA and a Case of State-Sponsored Terrorism”, Consortium News, September 23, 2000.

    (4) Heyes, J. D., “Rare film clip shows George H. W. Bush plotting with Monsanto to use US government to spread GMO imperialism”, Natural News, September 15, 2015.

    (5) Chossudovsky, Michel, “George W. Bush: ‘My Dad Was Meeting with the Brother of Osama on September 11’, 2001. Does That Make Him a Terror Suspect?”, Global Research, March 17, 2015.

    (7) Johnstone, Caitlin, “If You Murdered A Bunch Of People, Mass Murder Is Your Single Defining Legacy”, Medium, December 1, 2018.

    (8) Hasan, Mehdi, “The Ignored Legacy of George H.W. Bush: War Crimes, Racism, and Obstruction of Justice”, The Intercept, December 1, 2018.

    (9) Chin, Larry, “Political Succession and ‘The Bush-Clinton Nexus’: Permanent Criminal State: The Legacy of George Herbert Walker Bush: Permanent Revolving Door”, Global Research, September 26, 2016, updated December 2, 2018.

    (10) Chossudovsky, Michel, “The Bin Ladens and the Bushes: On 9/11 George Herbert W. Bush Meets Osama’s Brother Shafiq bin Laden”, Global Research, December 3, 2018.

    (11) Chediac, Joyce, “George H.W. Bush’s Complicity in the 1991 ‘Highway of Death’ Massacre: A ‘statesman’ and ‘American hero’? What a lie!”, Global Research, December 4, 2018.

  26. Two things come out of his answer about being born again. First, he is now, and the second is; if he had a supernatural experience and tried to explain it, well, like all these types of claims, they can’t be proven and it would not be beneficial to relate the incidence. It would be a detraction. Obviously he was a student of wisdom.

  27. “If GHW Bush had been a founder we would have been a christian privileged nation that tolerated non christians but expelled atheists according to what he said out loud. All our schools would teach christianity, gays would be second class citizens, and women’s place would be in the home.”

    Regardless of what our Constitution stated, that’s exactly how our nation began and remained until recently.

  28. nope. all states had disestablished religion and had separation of church and state by 1833. The early theocracies had failed and the people revolted and demanded religious freedom. It was done at state level. Most states had stopped teaching christianity early on in schools, the few remaining waited for the courts to stop them in 1963. Our founders, wash, adams, jeff, madison, were not believers in jesus deity. God was voted out of the constitution early on.

    There was a backlash by the churchies, the second awakening, after the constitution was ratified. christians trying to take back the country. Halted by the civil war temporarily, they kept trying with jim crow laws and eventually the KKK. In the 50’s communism gave them new life and they put god in the pledge/money/motto because they couldn’t get a constitutional amendment to be able to through non christians out of the country.

    If you want to live in a country were they have religious inquisitions and executions I feel sorry for you.

  29. We’ve been doing it from the start. Who else thought of the notion of God and created him in the image of man.

  30. You would actually have to be following the exchange to answer that.

  31. Not all; only the arrogant.
    For your sake I hope you figure it out sooner rather than later.

  32. Apparently reading with comprehension, then, is not your forté.

  33. He was a secular Jew. He would have done better if he had runned as an independent.

  34. to a christian/jew there is only one god, and that ain’t it. to them he’s an atheist. so am i.

  35. I would add… standards of behavior were vague 4000 years ago and thus kings and rulers made laws… death for violations… 10 commandmen’s were the attempt to establish minimum standards for behavior and punishments .. crude but a start …Jesus changed the rules.. and u are right the true Christianity is with the heart and soul with compassion and love with justice …
    we Americans took that and put it into fairness for all people .. justice with mercy = the law .. how does anyone legislate fairness and mercy for all? .. that is part of the American struggle and experience… justice and love for all… including people not like us !!
    JESUS WAS A JEW NOT A “CHRISTIAN” .. romans started calling them Christians long after jesus

  36. The first four commandments have nothing to do with behavior, just belief. the rest are from older laws of UR. They were written by a few men in a room drinking wine, because the water was undrinkable, in Babylon around 700 BC, writing a text so Judaism could be legally practiced in the roman empire. No where in the hebrew text does it say it was written by god or even true. Since there is no reference to moses or abraham outside the text we have to assume they are fictional, since other bible figures are referenced.

    Romans called them christians in the first century. Roman leaders wrote letters to each other asking if they should continue to charge them with crimes against society, those letters exist today.

    A few of the people mentioned in the bible are provable outside the bible, but not the major ones. Some of the places have been found, some not. Some were occupied during the appropriate times some not (nazareth/jericho). Some of the battles took place and are mentioned on stelas, some not.

    But NONE of the major characters in the old or new can be proven outside the bible, none of the stories about yahweh or el, and many can be disproven (the exodus).

    If you are going to hang your hat on something, make it the love in your heart and the way you treat people. It’s the only thing we know for sure exists.

  37. They were not vague at all. we have the 152 laws of ur and other places that outline the laws very clearly, what the punishments were, what the rights of the citizens were. what court procedures were. the commandments are there almost word for word. the eye for an eye tooth for a tooth is there too, and it really means just a poke in the eye and a tooth knocked out. It doesn’t mean a life for a life.

    This area of study is ongoing, it didn’t end with the assembly of the bible.

  38. Why the arrogant? I’m don’t know if there is or isn’t a god but to suggest that man didn’t have a hand in fashioning their gods doesn’t make sense.

  39. Now you’re calling Parker12 “arrogant”?

    “(T)o suggest that man didn’t have a hand in fashioning their gods doesn’t make sense.” IS arrogant.

  40. We are after all made in the image of god, I’m sure we can do a little creating ourselves.

  41. It was a statement posed as a question, so no response was needed besides an equally snarky response. If you have a real question, please ask.

  42. Snarky?

    YOU have the chutzpah to call any one else’s comments snarky?

    Look in a mirror.

  43. Yes…I did in fact make snarky comments, as do you on a regular basis. No hypocrisy.

  44. There was no Roman Empire in 700 BC. There wasn’t even a Roman Republic then.

    The first commandment is about belief; the others are about behavior,

    The preface of the Ten Commandments was “And God spoke all these words.”

    Please put a lid on the phony history.

  45. It’s crapola too.

    The phrase “the word of the Lord came to…” appears 92 times in the OT

    “Thus says the Lord” appears 1700 times in the OT.

  46. I obviously got under your skin and we were never going anywhere with our chat so… A gutn tag.

  47. And then you posted another to me.

    Btw, it is “guten Tag” and is a greeting, not good-bye.

  48. Phonetic spelling for goodbye in Yiddish. It seems like you like Yiddish. However, I’m sure you will fact check it and find that I’m somehow wrong.

  49. Just 2 words for Stephen Mansfield on the Religions of Winston Churchill, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, Abraham Lincoln, George H.W. Bush:




  50. some guy wrote, and god spoke these words, and you believe it? I guess you’ll believe most anything.

  51. Belief is beside the point. The point is that the facts you assert as history are wildly incorrect.

  52. It might have been egypt or somewhere that had the requirement, but there was a requirement for a text.
    You will have no other gods before you is an order from government, because it would have been punished by govt. remember the sabbath is a jewish law, not the law from any other belief, so non jews didn’t have to and didn’t in practice. Judaism was never widely practiced till govt enforced it.

    History can be interpreted many ways since we don’t have all the facts of any of it, and we don’t know what is really history and what is not. I know the bible stories didn’t exist outside the bible and no one knew of them till the stories were written and distributed. after that it took centuries for it to take hold. I don’t believe any of it unless it can be confirmed from non biblical sources. take care now.

  53. “Egypt or somewhere?” LOL!

    “we don’t know what is really history and what is not.” Ok, I suppose that’s a comfortable enough viewpoint for someone who knows no history. It suits you well. Bye.

  54. A true believer in Christ Jesus will not deny Christ the LORD of all. Christ stated if we deny Him, He will deny us before the Father. Romans 10:9-10 from the Bible: “That if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.”

  55. Christians should NEVER be ashamed of their faith. It was different 30-60 years ago, but now we are called by our LORD Jesus CHRIST to proclaim his word. Ask God for the Holy Spirit to live within you ( such a crucial step when you feel the spirit inside of you). No matter if it affects the votes or not, you stand STEADFAST in your faith and as the Bible clearly says, we must PROCLAIM our faith, let others know that Jesus Christ is the ONLY WAY to salvation. Our LORD made a huge sacrifice, listened to his father and came down to this dying society as the 2nd covenant in order to show everyone that there is no “religion”. To love one another, to remember to abide by the fruits of the Holy Spirit. As long as you believe in Yashua, Christ Jesus as the only way to live in eternity in the Kingdom of Heaven, ask for forgiveness of your sins, strive to walk in Jesus’s footsteps everyday, believe in the 2nd resurrection of Jesus Christ, and AS LONG AS YOUR HEART IS IN THE RIGHT PLACE, YOU WILL enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Of course, our heavenly father, God almighty,is the only one who can judge.He has the ultimate say. To all those who live with the holy spirit inside, you know how it’s changed your life forever!!! Spread the “good news” !!!

Leave a Comment