How George W. Found God
By Aaron Latham
September 2000 George Mag.
Bush stopped drinking at 40 and began "a religious journey" that led, he says, to God calling him to be our next president. His Christian faith runs deep--so deep that it may blur the separation of church and state.
I spoke to George W. Bush shortly before W. was sworn in as governor of Texas for the second time. Family—including his mother and father—and close friends gathered in an Austin chapel and listened to pastor Mark Craig deliver a sermon. Bush recalls that it affected him more deeply than any other he had heard in his life. It was more powerful than a Billy Graham revival. More touching than an Easter sunrise service at Camp David. As Bush later recalled, the preacher said: "I am going to give each of you a huge sum, $86,400…with just one small catch. You have to spend it all, every bit, today. Use it or lose it. Right now. Buy a car or a boat or jewelry or all of the above, but you have to spend it all today."
Ah, dreams of avarice.
Then Mark Craig admitted that, sorry, he couldn’t afford to give everybody that much money, but he could hand them something even more valuable: 86,400 "nonrefundable" seconds every day. Use them or lose them.
He went on to moralize about the sorry state of politics and politicians. One of the points: A politician who would cheat on his wife would cheat the country.
Barbara Bush leaned over and whispered to her son: "He’s talking to you."
That was when it happened. W. decided to run for the presidency. But was it his mother’s voice or his Heavenly Father’s that convinced him? He thinks it was him more than her. We aren’t talking "divine right" here, but we are talking divine something. Shortly thereafter, George W. Bush called Fort Worth televangelist James Robison. He said Robison was only the sixth person to hear the news: Bush had decided to run for the highest office in the land. "I’ve heard the call," Bush said. "I believe God wants me to run for president." Could George W. Bush be the Third Coming, slouching toward Washington to be born? Well, not even he believes that. Not quite.
"But he does feel a sense of destiny," says Dr. Ed Young, the pastor at the Second Baptist Church in Houston, where W. has often preached. "It’s mystical. He will look right at you and say: ‘I’m going to be the president of the United States.’ And there’s no ego in it. He is just reporting facts." "He told me he felt a call to leadership," says Young. "A really strong call." "He felt a call to public service," says Charles Bacarrise, a close personal friend. In the language of the evangelicals, the "call" is normally God whispering in your ear: Go preach. Become a preacher. It is a word you hear often in tent revivals where fire and brimstone are preached. It is distinctly unusual to hear the term applied to a secular career. But to George W. Bush, politics is not necessarily secular. Does he believe he is God’s messenger?
"There was a call that he is trying to answer," says Bacarrise. "A call to run for president. It shook him."
"His faith," W.’s best friend, Don Evans, tells me. "That’s what defines him." Some will find this news reassuring, others won’t. Non-Christians may be given pause. Which is perhaps unfair. W. seems to have been an evenhanded governor. Yet… One day, back during the reign of George I, W. and his mother, Bar, got to arguing religion. They were debating who gets to go to heaven.
The son pointed to the family Bible and said that only Christians got to go up there. "Mom, look, all I can tell you is what the New Testament says." "Well, surely, God will accept others." "Mom, here’s what the New Testament says." "Okay," she said, and she picked up the phone. She told the White House operator: "Get me Billy Graham." "Mother, what are you doing?’’
A few minutes later, the phone rang. Billy Graham. Mother and son both held receivers to their ears. Then Barbara Bush explained the argument to the mega-evangelist. "From a personal perspective," Graham said, "I agree with what George is saying. The New Testament has been my guide. But I want to caution you both. Don’t play God. Who are you two to be God?"
So what lesson did George W. learn? That he was right that you had to believe in the New Testament to get into heaven? Or that tolerance should be your guide since nobody here on earth should be taking over God’s duties?
"This call to run for president is like something put on him," says Young. "He didn’t ask for it. It is something of a burden."
So who laid this burden on George W. Bush’s shoulders? Bush himself seems to believe that God did. Others think it was his father, George Herbert Walker Bush. "He felt bitterness and hurt at the way his dad was treated," says Young, referring to the 1992 election that W.’s father lost to Bill Clinton. "This is redemption time." Of course, redemption is another one of those loaded words most often used in a religious context.
But someone else may be principally responsible for George W. Bush’s "call" to leadership, his "call" to public service, his "call" to run for president. She is someone who died 47 years ago. Her name was Robin, and she had leukemia. She was almost four.
I know that the death of a sister can have a profound impact on one’s life because I, too, lost a sister. I have read book upon book about sibling loss. I have talked endlessly to psychiatrists about losing a sister or brother. I have just finished writing a novel about a brother who loses a sister. These are my credentials.
I can tell you with certainty that the loss of a sibling leads to survivor guilt. Why her, not me? Wasn’t she better than I am? And survivor guilt often leads in turn to callings—to use Bush’s word—of one kind or another. A religious calling. A literary calling. A political calling. The calling is strong because you are, in a sense, living for two: You have to do well! As I was leaving the cemetery after my sister’s burial 33 years ago, I promised: I’m going to write a book—something I had never done—and dedicate it to my sister. Within a year, I had done so.
George W. was seven years old when he lost his sister. He was walking down an outdoor hallway at Sam Houston Elementary in Midland, Texas, a dusty town on a pancake plain. He was carrying a phonograph, when he looked up and saw his family’s green Oldsmobile pull up in front of the school. Good, they were finally back home. They had been away in New York, where little Robin was being treated. George saw his mother and father in the front seat and his sister in back. He put down the phonograph and rushed to welcome them home. When he got to the car, he couldn’t find Robin. Where was she? Where had she gone? Was she playing some sort of hide-and-seek? His mother and father explained to him that she had died.
He saw her. Then she wasn’t there. She was taken from him forever. There was already, from its first moment, something spiritual, something mystical, about this loss.
"Those minutes remain," George W. Bush writes in his book, A Charge to Keep, "the starkest memory of my childhood, a sharp pain in the midst of an otherwise happy blur."
In the months that followed, George W. refused to go out and play. When friends invited him, he told them, no, he had to stay home and cheer up his mother. Many times, the grief of the parents has an even greater impact on a child than the death itself. Freudians will tell you that such a tragedy can somehow disrupt the normal resolution of the Oedipus complex. Whether you believe in such Freudian nonsense or not, George W. remains closer to his mother than his father. He is Barbara’s boy, from his personality to his affections. Many years later, W. came home drunk one night and challenged his dad to a fistfight. So old Freud and the old Greeks may have been on to something, after all.
Some weeks after Robin’s death, the Bush family went to a football game. The boy who had just lost a sister said, "I wish I was Robin." His parents paled. "Why?" asked his father. "Because she can probably see better from up there than we can down here." An interesting amalgam of faith, humor, and guilt: It should have been me. "Rather than making me fearful," George W. Bush writes, "the close reach of death made me determined to enjoy life, whatever it might bring, to live each day to the fullest." He didn’t know it, but he had joined a distinguished but tragic club. Jack Kerouac lost a nine-year-old brother and forever afterward claimed his books were actually written by little Gerard in heaven. Vincent Van Gogh was named after a brother who had died; routinely, he passed his brother’s tombstone, which had his name on it. No wonder he went crazy. The list goes on and on. George himself tried writing about his sister’s death. He wanted to exorcise demons by reducing them to words on paper. His essay did not impress his teacher at Andover. This cold-blooded academician gave W. an F.
In spite of the family tragedy, George W. was gregarious and fun-loving as a boy and young man. A frat boy. A country-club bon vivant. He went to church regularly, but even there he was a joker. In Sunday school one day, the teacher asked if anybody could define "prophet." W. replied: "It’s when revenues exceed expenses, and no one has seen one around here since Elijah." The oil business was in a downturn, which hurt Midland, a town that runs on oil. George W. didn’t become a wild man, but he wasn’t tame, either. Especially when it came to drinking. But as he neared 40, something happened. Actually, around 40 is when it usually happens: The real bite of survivor guilt clamps down in midlife. Or so I am told. I was 41 when it knocked me head over heels. You take stock. You ask yourself what your sister would think of the use you have made of your life. The life she never had. When George W. Bush was 39, he experienced what he calls a "spiritual awakening." In a sermon he preached at Houston’s Second Baptist Church, Bush described what happened: "I grew up in the church, but I didn’t always walk the walk. There came a point in my life where I felt something was missing on the inside. By chance—" He paused, and 8,000 worshipers leaned in.
"—maybe it was more than chance, one day I spent a weekend with the great Billy Graham. And as a result of our conversation and his inspiration, I searched my heart, and decided then and there to recommit my life to Jesus Christ."
That took place in 1985 at Kennebunkport, Maine, where the Bushes have their vacation complex. America’s most famous Christian was spending a summer weekend with the Bush family. One evening, President Bush asked Graham if he would mind singing for his supper: Would he answer a few questions about religion? The evangelist sat beside the roaring fireplace, while the Bushes crowded around. While he listened, something started happening to George W., not because of anything he heard, but because of what Graham’s life stood for, the example he set. "My heart was changed, my little old heart." The next day, Billy Graham and George W. went for a walk along the rocky beach at Walker’s Point. "Are you right with God?" asked the evangelist. "No, but I’d like to be," said W.
But it took another year before he really got down to business. Here I am at Bush campaign headquarters, 301 Congress, in Austin. I have come to talk to Evans, who is W.’s campaign chairman as well as his best friend. When I am shown into his office, I meet a man with a firm handshake who wears a white western shirt. The button-down flaps on the pockets are shaped like chevrons. I have several of those shirts myself. He calls me "buddy."
We talk about his best friend’s religious awakening. It seems that George and Don had fortieth birthdays at about the same time, and decided to have a dual birthday party at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs. George had too much to drink and felt rotten when he went jogging with Don. Perhaps he also felt guilty for squandering the life he was leading for two. So he decided to stop drinking. He told his wife, but nobody else.
When he returned to his oil business in Midland, George W. started reading the Bible. "Do you think the loss of his sister had anything to do with Bush’s religious awakening?" I ask. "Sure," says Evans. "Certainly that’s something he thinks about. Your Lord is who you look to in times of pain and suffering." Even ex post facto suffering. "I’ve heard my wife and George talk about Robin. My wife went to school with him. She was there that day. The day his parents came to tell him."
In 1986, seeing the change in W., Don Evans invited him to join a men’s Bible-study class.
"I told him, ‘It’s a good program. You ought to join us. I know how you like to study the Bible.’"
"Maybe I’ll show up," W. said. The group met every Monday night—washing out Monday Night Football—for years. It was held at the First Presbyterian Church in Midland, but all denominations were invited. George and Don were both Methodists. There were usually about 80 men present, who then broke down into smaller core groups for discussion.
"It took hours to prepare," recalls Don Evans. "Sometimes two hours, sometimes six hours. Week in and week out. We would go over the assigned passage word by word. George was always prepared. We immersed ourselves in scripture."
They studied St. Paul: "And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest.…And he, trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?" Saul changed his name to Paul and preached the gospel up and down the Mediterranean. He was the first evangelical.
"We talked a lot about Paul," recalls Evans.
George W. identified with the story. Saul met Jesus on the road to Damascus. W. met him on the road to Colorado Springs.
Laura Welch Bush was Marian the Librarian before she married W. Many credit this former librarian with being the catalyst that helped bring about her husband’s renewal of faith and his decision to stop drinking. When he married, Bush was an Episcopalian, but became a Methodist like his wife. "Laura is a lady of tremendous faith," says Evans. She grew up, like George W., in Midland, an extension of the Bible Belt. She may have absorbed her faith right out of the parched West Texas soil, but it could well have been strengthened by her own personal tragedy. For Laura Bush has survivor guilt that may even exceed her husband’s: She killed a good friend, a former boyfriend.
On November 6, 1963, at about 8 p.m., 17-year-old Laura Welch was driving her car along a lonesome country road. Guessing there was no traffic coming, as there never was, she ran the stop sign at a lonely intersection. Unfortunately, this time the crossroads wasn’t deserted. Her Chevrolet crashed broadside into a Jeep driven by Mike Douglas, 17. He was killed instantly; Laura had minor injuries. Was he coming to see her? Paying a surprise visit? The terror. The horror. Trying to help him. His blood on her hands, literally and figuratively. The anguish. The terrible what-ifs. The… Survivor guilt? Yes, it was her fault. Yes, she was alive and he was dead. As Evans says, at such times you turn to your religion.
In the summer of 1977, friends conspired to introduce George and Laura at a backyard barbecue, but nobody really expected this matchmaking to take. He was so outgoing. She was so reserved. What would they have in common? And yet several weeks later, they were married. Perhaps what they had in common was surviving while others died. And died so unfairly. Died much too young. Robin, four. Mike, 17.
Both husband and wife pray a lot. They don’t just say they do. They do. "I pray all kinds of places," George W. told U.S. News. "I may pray on an airplane. No one even knows it." He has also been known to pray with ministers around the country—including Billy Graham—using his cell phone. He reads the Bible every morning. "I’ve got what’s called the One-Year Bible, and I read it every other year all the way through. In the off years I’ll pick and choose different parts of the Bible." Every day he jogs and does a religious workout. "I understand religion is a walk, it’s a journey. And I fully recognize that I’m a sinner, just like you."
The remarkable thing about George W. Bush is that he really means what he says about religion. After the lip service paid to faith by Reagan and Clinton, it takes some getting used to. "We haven’t seen anything like this since William Jennings Bryan," says John Green, who teaches religious politics at the University of Akron. Running for president in 1896, Bryan warned workers that they were being crucified on a "cross of gold." He also talked a lot about God. He gave the impression that he was God’s candidate.
By the way, he lost.
Then Bryan, a fundamentalist, went on to make a monkey of himself as the prosecutor in the Scopes monkey trial. He wanted to put a young science teacher in jail for teaching Darwinism. Of course, he would have preferred to put Darwin himself behind bars, but unfortunately the father of evolution was both British and dead. Sometimes George W. Bush sounds a lot like William Jennings Bryan, especially when he says he isn’t against teaching creationism. "After all," he explains, "religion has been around a lot longer than Darwinism." Poor old Will couldn’t have put it better.
Of course, Jimmy Carter, the famous born-again Christian, was also a devoutly religious leader, but he did not overtly inject religion into government. After all, the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America calls for a separation of government and religion. But George Bush is a more aggressive sort of religious leader. This Texan believes faith and government should be "pardners." "You and I are here because we believe faith can change lives," George W. Bush told the congregation at the Second Baptist Church in Houston. "I know, because it changed mine."
The potential problem is that he often seems to imply that only faith can change lives. His profound belief in the power of faith is behind his proposals to make faith-based organizations the first line of defense against poverty, addiction, crime, illiteracy, and other modern evils. He is, of course, not the first to suggest that real change cannot be effected without faith. After all, the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program begins with step one, a belief in God. But AA isn’t an arm of the federal government and doesn’t have to worry about the separation of church and state. Bush spokesman Mindy Tucker says he isn’t concerned about blurring the line between church and state. "No, he worries more about the other side," she says. "He believes too often faith has been kept out of government."
"We should—we will—welcome people of faith into the political process," W. preached to the Second Baptists. "It is essential that believers enter the arena. Your involvement in politics helps determine how well our democracy works. We have finally learned that government programs cannot solve our problems. Government can hand out money, but government cannot put hope in our hearts or a sense of purpose in our lives."
The catchphrase that W. uses to denote faith-based charities is "compassionate conservatism." The father of the phrase is Marvin Olasky, a professor of journalism at the University of Texas and the editor of a Christian weekly called World. Olasky also heads Bush’s rather unusual policy committee on religion. (Most governors don’t have religion committees.)
Marvin Olasky was the son of Jewish parents, Eli and Ida Olasky. In a Boston suburb, he was raised a devout Jew. At 13, he was bar mitzvahed, and at 14, he became an atheist. He attended W.’s alma mater, Yale, on scholarship. Upon graduation, again like W., he headed west, but Olasky promptly joined the Communist party there. Then he abruptly stopped believing in atheism, which undermined his faith in communism. He became a fundamentalist, puritanical, anti-communist Christian. In 1993, Bush, who had just been elected governor, called Olasky and asked for a meeting. They talked for an hour. Bush liked what Olasky was saying about putting God back into charity. But Olasky wasn’t sure what he felt about Bush.
Olasky remained ambivalent for months until, he says, "a state agency called the Texas Committee on Alcohol and Drug Abuse tried to close down Teen Challenge." Teen Challenge, a faith-based anti-drug program, had been cited by the agency for a range of offenses, including the use of unlicensed counselors. Supporters of Teen Challenge demonstrated at the Alamo, where all the Texas good guys died. Bush went out to meet with them and listen to them. "George Bush had to make a choice: either to go along with the state bureaucracy or to defend a small organization," Olasky says. "He chose to fight his own state’s bureaucracy and keep Teen Challenge going. From then on, I’ve been a Bush supporter."
This second battle of the Alamo proved to be the beginning of what became Bush’s faith-based revolution. He put together a task force that interviewed faith-based organizations about how they had "saved" lives. Then he and his staff wrote and passed legislation that allowed churches to register as quasi-official government agencies. So far some 60 churches have signed up and may start receiving—the legislature willing—government funding next year. They mostly target child care and drug treatment. These church groups receive the backing of the state but can’t be inspected by the state. Which many feel is a very strange way to define separation of church and state. Churches have become a religious law unto themselves. One faith-based facility was caught disciplining children by tying them to their beds. Bush told the Second Baptists: "Our new faith-based laws have removed government as a roadblock to people of faith who hear the call."
George W. says people of all faiths are welcome—Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Catholics—as long as they believe in "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Which happens to be New Testament scripture. So all faiths are welcome so long as they believe in Christian doctrine. And what if you don’t believe in anything?
The Bush-Olasky brand of "compassionate conservatism" includes not only a carrot (help from the faithful) but also a stick (it has been called "tough love" or "severe charity").
"I want to usher in the Responsibility Era," W. told the Second Baptists. "Discipline and love go hand in hand." The most extreme example of this approach is the death penalty, but the problem with that sort of tough love is that the recipient doesn’t live long enough to profit from the lesson. Texas leads the nation in defying the commandment "Thou shalt not kill" (see "Greetings from Deathtown, USA," on page 56). Under Texas law, it is up to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to decide the fate of the condemned human being, but Bush has appointed each of the 18 board members and could probably lobby them effectively to commute a sentence—if he felt the call to do so.