George H.W. Bush

Faith, Presidency, and Public Theology

by Kjell Lejon (Author)
©2014 Monographs 253 Pages


This book is the first to explore the religious dimension of President George H. W. Bush. Also, the author re-conceptualizes the common use of civil religion in order to understand more fully the religious dimension of Bush’s presidency, and thus argues for the need to highlight the religious rhetoric of President George H.W. Bush as a public theology, or more specifically, a presidential public theology.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Chapter 1: Introduction: The Lost Spiritual Dimension
  • Chapter 2: Beginnings: From Milton to Houston
  • Chapter 3: Political Journey from Houston to Washington
  • Chapter 4: Public Presidential Theology: Foundations and Influences
  • Chapter 5: Domestic Policies: Influence of Faith in Public Life
  • Chapter 6: Foreign Policies: Moral and Religious Arguments for War
  • Chapter 7: Presidential Election of 1992: On High But Still Losing
  • Chapter 8: Bush Sr. and the Civil Religion Debate: A Re-evaluation
  • Appendix 1: Examples of Primary Source Material
  • Appendix 2: Direct or Indirect Quotations from the Bible by President Bush
  • Bibliography: Sources and Literature
  • Index

| 15 →

Chapter 1 Introduction: The Lost Spiritual Dimension

The Religio-Political Phenomenon

This book explores the religious dimension of George H. W. Bush, the 41st President of the United States. In order to understand this dimension and Bush’s religious rhetoric during his presidency, one has to understand Bush’s background, upbringing, profound life-changing experiences, and the American political culture that in many ways influenced him from its earliest days up till today.1 In fact, religion and politics have always been intermingled on the American political scene, even though church and state have been separated at the federal level since the days of the implementation of the Constitution—though not always at the state level.2 This intermingling is evident among other documents and addresses in the First Virginia Charter (1606), the Mayflower Compact (1620), ← 15 | 16 → the Declaration of Independence (1776), Washington’s First Inaugural Address (1789) and his Farewell Address (1796).3

All individuals are shaped by a broader culture as well as in a more specific political culture. And since America has a deep and broad religious history, which has not only coexisted but also intermingled and interacted with the political history, an understanding of the religious history, including the impact of the religious life in the nation, is an essential part of understanding the history of politics—and also of the American presidency.4

Alexis de Tocqueville observed that Americans “repeatedly and constantly [have] been told that they are the only religious, enlightened, and free people” in the world and therefore hold “an immensely high opinion of themselves,”5 a sentiment that may still hold some truth among elites and the masses. From time to time this notion is also transformed into the political realm and portrayed as “American exceptionalism.”6 The notion of America as a free nation that has been blessed by Almighty God is alive and well despite also being one of the most religious nations in an otherwise heavily secularized Western world. Even though most Americans affirm a secular outlook, they are not hostile to religion and the number of atheists and agnostics has remained relatively small, so much so that in 2012 only 1.6% described themselves as atheists. However, the number of “unaffiliated” increased in recent years.7 The influence of religion and faith in American life is evident in the formulation of public policy, both domestic and foreign.

American culture, including its political culture, has drawn on long established tropes and slogans that go all the way back to Jonathan Winthrop’s Puritan notion of America as a “City on a Hill” that should be a “Light to the Nations” in old Europe, with its political corruption and its Crown-controlled Anglican Church ← 16 | 17 → to do the King’s bidding. This kind of language of God’s plan and providence for America and its people has been cited by virtually all American presidents from Washington down to Barack Obama. It is also particularly evident in the rhetoric of a president often considered by many to be one of America’s most secular, the Episcopalian George H. W. Bush.

Many theorists describe this religious dimension of civil society as “civil religion.” Scholars have defined it as “an institutionalized set of beliefs about the nation, including a faith in a transcendent deity who will protect and guide the United States as long as its people and government abide by his laws.”8 Some suggest that “the virtues of liberty, justice, charity and personal integrity are all pillars of this religion,” and that it lends “a moral dimension to its public decision-making processes,” different from plain real-politics, which is based primarily on power and on material and practical considerations.9 Thus, it can be argued that civil religion is one useful analytical tool among others by which to also understand the American presidency.

Secular or Spiritual?

It is interesting to note that George H. W. Bush is viewed as a fairly secular person, both in private life and as President of the United States. This picture has been emphasized both by biographers and scholars in fields such as political science and history. One of many examples of this is The Bush Presidency. First Appraisals (1991), a book written solely from a political science perspective and leaves out religio-political perspectives.10 I contend that a closer look at the source material reveals just the opposite: instead we find a man referring to religious experiences, stressing the importance of personal faith and prayer, and using countless religious references, both in private and officially. In fact, both on the domestic and foreign policy scenes, Bush Sr. repeatedly used religious rhetoric with traditionally classical Christian components, particularly articulating them in their conventionally American evangelical form. In this book, I will also explore how Bush’s civil religious rhetoric differs from those described in French and German sociological civil religion theories, all of which ← 17 | 18 → will lead to a new portrayal of Bush that challenges earlier scholars’ image of him as fairly secular or even almost irreligious.

Earlier Portrayals of Bush Sr.: The Overlooked Spiritual Dimension

Why is the religious dimension of Bush Sr. important? First, because this dimension is lacking in the current biographies on Bush. Nicholas King’s George Bush. A Biography (1980), John Robert Greene’s The Presidency of George Bush (2000), Herbert S. Parmet’s George Bush. The Life of a Lone Star Yankee (2001), John Tom Wicker’s George Herbert Walker Bush (2004), and the more recently published George H. W. Bush by Timothy Naftali (2007), all essentially stress nonreligious themes, and several of these leave out important spiritual experiences of Bush, such as those during the Second World War and the time of the illness and death of his daughter Pauline—often called “Robin”—from leukemia. A typical approach is that of John Robert Greene, the general editor of the American Presidency series, who writes that a broad perspective is necessary in order to understand the presidencies, and includes among those perspectives “economics, international relations, law, morals, public administration, religion, and thought.”11 However, there is no mention of religion and very little on morals, thus leaving the reader to conclude they simply weren’t very important to George Bush. However, as this book will show, Bush drew on religious rhetoric, symbols, and metaphors to promote his domestic and foreign policies to the nation and the world.

None of the mentioned biographies cover The China Diary of George W. Bush (published in 2008 and edited by Jeffrey A. Engel), which contains many important insights about religion. Also, none of the biographers participates in the civil religion debate. In fact, some of them even belittle the religious aspects. An example: Tom Wicker calls Bush Sr.’s daughter Dorothy’s christening in China “trivia” in Bush’s “day-to-day personal life,” even though it was the first official baptism of an American in China since 1949 and even though it was an event of great importance to the Bush family.12

Second, there is also a dearth of coverage on Bush in religion and politics. This is evident in Gary Scott Smith’s Faith and the Presidency from George ← 18 | 19 → Washington to George W. Bush (2006) and Mark J. Rozell and Gleaves Whitney’s Religion and the American Presidency (2007), neither of which include a chapter on Georg H. W. Bush.13 The only major work that presently includes a chapter on Bush Sr. is one this author wrote for Gastón Espinosa’s Religion and the American Presidency: George Washington to George W. Bush with Commentary and Primary Sources (2009).

A reason why Bush Sr. is seen as fairly secular might be that, rightly or wrongly, he is superficially compared with presidents known for their public displays of religiosity or heavy use of religious language, such as Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Bush Sr.’s own son, George W. Bush. Many books, including spiritual biographies, have been written on them, but not a single one in English on George H. W. Bush.14 I wrote a book on him in Swedish in 1994, “God Bless America!” President George Bushs religio-politiska budskap, and considered the first ten quarters of Bush’s presidency, and for obvious reasons the political biographies, autobiographical works, commentaries and interviews published after 1994 were not used or commented on. Neither does it include a thorough theoretical discussion of the implications of the civil religion debate even though I do explain the roots of the American type of civil religion and undertook a careful examination of the official White House sources.

George H. W. Bush has lived in the shadow of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.15 Bush has been described as one of the worst rhetoricians among the ← 19 | 20 → American presidents, preceded and succeeded by two rhetorically competent presidents who held office for two terms—Reagan and Clinton. He has further been described as an incrementalist, a person who takes small political steps in order to gradually reach his goals, instead of a person who generates great visions. Thus, he is described more as an administrator than a visionary.16 These kinds of descriptions might have resulted in a lack of interest in the Bush presidency.

In conclusion, there is no doubt that the religious and religio-political dimension of George H. W. Bush’s presidency and its consequences either have received far less interest than those of Reagan or Bush Jr. or for various reasons have been highly neglected in both popular and scholarly works. Interestingly, and maybe a little bit contradictory to the above, at least one observer, Stephen L. Carter, briefly includes a serious dimension of Bush’s religiosity in The Culture of Disbelief where he claims that “candidates who appear to take their religion seriously are viewed suspiciously by the media, but only with regard to those candidates they do not like (usually those on the Right).” Carter shows that news reports described Bush Sr.’s speeches to religious organizations as “pandering,” while Clinton’s speeches to religious groups were characterized as “shrewd.”17

← 20 | 21 →

On a Way to a More Complete Understanding of Bush

The main purpose of this book is to analyze the religious dimension of Bush Sr. and his presidency and thereby create a more complete, balanced, and nuanced understanding of Bush Sr.—the man and the president—than what appears in previous works. In addition, and as a natural consequence, in light of my findings I will give special consideration to Bush’s invocation of civil religious language and how it challenges past theories about American civil religion.

This book will not seek to answer the theological question of whether or not he was evangelically orthodox in all of his views. Rather, it will seek to analyze and problematize how and why he invoked religious rhetoric, images, and symbols and how this invocation challenges past interpretations of him and the role of religion in modern presidencies. From my perspective, the first and main point of interest is to discuss how the primary sources and people that have known and worked with him make clear that a religious dimension exists in Bush’s policies and that there is a continuous faith dimension throughout his life that has particular characteristics. Furthermore, I work from the theoretical standpoint that Bush Sr. is a rational and reflective person, in this following the British sociologist Anthony Giddens’ theory of structuration, which means that he as an individual agent has a goal with actions and a capacity to reflect on the consequences or effects of his actions. What is of interest in Giddens’ theory, as well as in this work, is not (only) specific actions, but “the continuous flow of conduct.”18 So my interest here is neither Bush Sr.’s economic nor political career plans, goals, or achievements. Instead, I apply Giddens’ theory to the religious dimension of Bush Sr., a dimension that is always present and is characterized by particular content and actions of faith. This means that although my main interest is to demonstrate, contrary to the previous literature, that a religious dimension clearly exists in his life and work and it expressed itself through various political statements. I am also interested in the fact that there is some sort of continuation, a “continuous flow,” of faith statements in the life of Bush Sr. from his early childhood on, and that this faith was quite naturally expressed in the relatively generous American political culture.

In line with this, I argue that even if so called ghost writers have written some of the official material I have researched, Bush’s faith position is reflected in these official statements since he had the freedom to edit at any time. This means that ← 21 | 22 → I take for granted that Bush has been, and still is very well aware of the content of his statements and that they have been written to match his own viewpoints. Furthermore, he has a goal in mind with these statements and is able to reflect on the consequences or effect of the message in these statements. But even if this were not the case, the fact that a specific set of faith-marks is emphasized in the policies of the most influential political leader in the United States, and most likely in the world, makes this research worthwhile. Even if Bush Sr. had not believed a single one of the religious statements he made during his presidency, these statements are nonetheless of interest; they still include a religious content that is not in line with a more vague notions of civil religion à la French sociological theory or with more traditionally German influenced sociological theory on civil religion, which stresses religious nationalism. Instead, Bush’s invocation of civil religion is aligned with an American type that can be described as public theology, something I’ll discuss later.

Civil Religion or Public Theology?

As pointed out, I would like to underline that in the case of George H. W. Bush, I will argue for a more specific description of the civil religion dimension than the above-mentioned French or German types. I contend that it is more correct and meaningful to describe the civil religious dimension during his presidency as a public theology. By this I mean that it is an officially announced and proclaimed adherence to and reliance on a transcendental reality, one that is largely in line with the vocabulary and content of Christianity in a traditional American-Mainline/Evangelical form.

I describe it as a public theology since it is public, and not private; it addresses all and it is concerned with the wellbeing of the society as a whole; and it is perceived as having relevance for all citizens. Both the message of the nation and the presidential messages can be characterized as theology since they deal with a transcendental dimension which clarifies that the nation is a nation under God; both messages emphasize that the motto of the nation In God We Trust relates to God in foundational national documents such as the Declaration of Independence, and both describe God and God’s work, God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ, and other quintessentially Christian aspects in various ways through presidential addresses, remarks, proclamations etc. Theology means literally “words (or knowledge) about God,” and in the national documents we find plenty of messages that include descriptions of who God is and what God does, etc. These are also examples of ← 22 | 23 → theology in a broader sense, since theology can be seen as a foundational base, not least ethically, for ordering the civil society and morally guiding the nation as a whole as well as the individuals of the society. In addition, a religious dimension is included in the outlined purpose and visions of the nation and its individuals—including the president.

In short, since Bush Sr.’s civil religion is heavily infused with ideas from classical Christian Protestant and Catholic traditions and is expressed in traditional theo­logical terms, we can describe it as theological. Since it is used in situations such as Bush’s official White House rhetoric, it can accurately be described as public.

Bush’s Critics

Some critics have portrayed the Bush family in dark colors, not least of all George W. Bush. Kevin Phillips, a long-time political and economic commentator and a former White House strategist, argues that power at almost any cost is a dominant theme in the Bush family. In his American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush, Bush Sr. is portrayed as a member of a family “hungry for power and practices of crony capitalism with a moral arrogance and backstage disregard of the democratic and republican tradition of the U.S. government,” a family “great in power, not morality.” Phillips further fumes “deceit and disinformation have become Bush political hallmarks.”19 Phillips juxtaposes George H. W. Bush with his son George W. Bush when it comes to their relationship to what he calls the Religious Right, and argues that Bush Sr. “lacked underlying credibility [so] that between 1985 and 1988 (and again in 1992) he had to fawn on the Religious Right”—whereas the son’s personal ties and connections were believable.20 We also quickly note that Bush Jr. (and to a degree also Reagan) is described in terms of black/white view of the world, an aggressive attitude, being un-nuanced in his foreign policy depictions, and using simplistic black/white rhetoric,21 but that this description is seldom used to characterize Bush Sr.

Journalists Michael Duffy and Dan Goodgame made the same kind of argument when they described Bush as a “ruthless” campaigner who was “remorselessly deceitful when it served his purpose.” But at the same time as they characterize Bush in this way, and argue that there is a “gritty ruthlessness” in Bush, they also portray ← 23 | 24 → him in more positive terms: “Bush is exceptionally well mannered, modest, restrained, generous, and considerate of others. He has always been, even in the White House, attentive to his friends and devoted to his family.”22 They also mention that he is quick to sympathize, “at least in words,” with the disadvantaged. He is, “at bottom, a difficult man not to like,” but also a man who “always [has] done whatever he thought was necessary to win.” They also add that when Bush faced a decision, he “often concluded that the best course was to do as little as possible.”23 The picture of him thus becomes complex. Their book Marching in Place: The Status Quo Presidency of George Bush is called a “critical assessment.” Without doubt, it is strongly critical in tone. Its publication during the election campaign of 1992 did little to encourage voters to join the Bush camp.

Stephen R. Graubard, history professor emeritus at Brown and a long time editor of Daedalus, describes Bush Sr.’s “Iraqi action as one of ‘naked aggression’” in his Mr. Bush’s War: Adventures in the Politics of Illusion.24 Another critic of the Bush family, journalist and author Craig Unger, includes criticism of Bush Sr. in his book The Fall of the House of Bush. Like Phillips, Unger generalizes Bush Sr.’s relationship with the Evangelicals to the degree that his statements lack credibility or even become false, something explored in greater depth later. He is also portrayed as a person lacking rhetorical skills and political vision.25

Sources and Method


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (March)
Presidential Rhetoric Religious Rhetoric Civil Religion Debate Civil Religion Political Theology
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 253 pp., 1 coloured fig.

Biographical notes

Kjell Lejon (Author)

Kjell O. Lejon received his PhD from the University of California at Santa Barbara and his ThD from Lund University (Sweden). Currently he is Professor of Religious Studies at Linköping University (Sweden). He has authored several books and guest lectured extensively on the topic of religion and politics with a special emphasis on modern U.S. presidencies.


Title: George H.W. Bush
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
256 pages