For all the wonderful stories about President George H. W. Bush and how he lived, the story that most reveals the man may be the one about how he died.
The story is told by James A. Baker, the late president’s longtime friend, campaign manager, and secretary of state, who arrived at Bush’s bedside just hours before his death. The president’s eyes opened when he heard Baker’s voice.
“Where’re we going, Bake?” he asked.
“We’re going to heaven,” Mr. Baker replied.
“That’s where I want to go,” Bush said, and closed his eyes again.
This was not pious deathbed banter, much less a sudden burst of faith on the part of the 94-year-old Mr. Bush. This was straight talk between two old friends who had accomplished much and who also shared an abiding religious understanding of life. They knew that the arc of one man’s life, whatever his success, was inscribed in the larger arc of God’s eternal purposes and grace.
The 41st president of the United States was a lifelong Episcopalian, the kind who sang the creed because he believed it, and who regularly attended Sunday services because that’s where Christians come together as a community to worship their Lord. As a politician, though, he loathed advertising his religious convictions in order to capture “the religious vote.”
Unless he had to, that is. As his biographer Jon Meacham has written, Bush was also a fierce competitor and not above weaponizing religion once Evangelical Protestants became a major constituency of the Republican Party. Thus, at the outset of his failed reelection campaign in 1992, Bush declared to a group of Religious Right leaders in Dallas that the Democrats had to be defeated because their party platform left out “three simple letters, G-O-D.” As a reporter, I was close enough to the podium to see the discomfort on his face as he read that line. Like another Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, he did not think that God was on one side or the other.
George H. W. Bush was shaped by a different America. As we were reminded frequently on television this week, he was the last U.S. president who belonged to “the Greatest Generation”—the young men and women who fought and died for their country in World War II. In fact, Bush enlisted in the Navy at age 18 instead of attending Yale—which his parents would have preferred.
But he also came of age during what I describe in Getting Religion: Faith, Culture, and Politics from the Age of Eisenhower to the Ascent of Trump as the most religious period in American history. After World War I, victory and affluence cooled the fervor of those who had prayed in the trenches just to survive. Who needs God when the winners can provide for themselves?
The Greatest Generation, however, was also a grateful generation. Over the course of the postwar era (1945–1965), Americans built more houses of worship than at any time before or since. And they worshipped in them too: For Gallup and other hunter-gatherers of the public’s opinion, postwar membership in the nation’s churches and synagogues became the statistical benchmark against which the religious commitments of every subsequent generation would be measured—and found wanting. The Protestant Sunday School was a national institution and by 1960, half of all school-age Catholic children were enrolled in parochial schools.
How distant that era seems today. According to survey data compiled by political scientist John Green, only about 18 percent of Americans today place religion somewhere near the center of their lives. We’re not talking about Mother Theresas, here. We’re talking about folks like Bush who express their religious commitments in demonstrable belief, behavior, and belonging. This accords with a recent Pew Center poll which found that only 20 percent of Americans look to religion to provide meaning in their lives.
Indeed, more than a third of Americans now identify as “Nones”—those who profess no religion at all. As for the remaining 45 percent or so, they range from once-a-month Christians to once-a-year Jews, from those who get their religion fix solely from television preachers to those who create a personal religion out of yoga classes and meditation therapy.
As was evident from Bush’s two Episcopal funeral services—the one at the National Cathedral in Washington, the other at Bush’s parish church in Houston—faith and family were twin pillars of George H. W. Bush’s life. That, too, was part of his generation’s commitment to be committed. Two thirds of postwar marriages lasted until the death of one of the spouses. One of these marriages was that of George and Barbara Bush, who were married 73 years until her death last year. That’s hard to imagine in an era when every year sees as many couples divorce as marry.
Throughout the many and often humorous tributes to George H. W. Bush, “love” was the word most often uttered by friends and family members from the pulpit. “I love you too,” were the last words he spoke, responding to his son George W. Bush. It figured. As his pastor explained, George H. W. Bush believed that God’s love for sinners like us required us to love others in return. That didn’t make him a great president—history will decide that. But it made him something he prized more: a grateful Christian.
Kenneth Woodward was religion editor of Newsweek for 38 years.