The Doubtful Faith of George W. Bush

This is the first of three excerpts from Slate Editor Jacob Weisberg’s new book,  The Bush Tragedy.

In his 1999 campaign autobiography A Charge to Keep, George W. Bush describes a soul-searching conversation with the Rev. Billy Graham that prompted him to re-evaluate his life, accept Jesus, and give up drinking. In the summer of 1985, as Bush tells it, his father, the vice president, invited the famous evangelist to Kennebunkport for a weekend visit. Graham spent an evening taking questions from members of the family about faith. The next day, Graham took a walk along the beach with Bush’s eldest son and asked if he was “right with God.” Bush said he wasn’t, but that he’d like to be.

“Something was missing in my life, and Billy Graham stimulated my heart—I would like to say planted the mustard seed which grew, and started me on a journey, a walk, to recommit myself to Jesus Christ,” was how George W. put it in one interview during the 2000 campaign. The terms “heart,” “walk,” and “mustard seed” occur in every telling. The mustard seed is a parable from the Gospel of Luke. Jesus tells his disciples that the kingdom of heaven is like the tiny mustard seed that grows into a huge plant. According to Bush’s story, the conversation with Graham took a year or more to germinate. But it was this conversation that prompted his change of heart, which in an evangelical Christian context means accepting Jesus as his personal savior. This born-again experience led him to begin “walking,” or leading a righteous life. Finding God enabled him to quit drinking, gave his life meaning and direction, and made possible the successful political career that followed.

Graham and Bush surely did have conversations in Maine that subsequently took on meaning for George W. But on closer examination, this story too turns out to be a parable, crafted to convey an idea about the subject rather than to relate the literal truth of what happened. Like almost every other detail about his spiritual life that Bush has chosen to reveal, it shows evidence of being shaped and packaged.

A version of the Billy Graham story first appeared in 1988, in a book called Man of Integrity, which was distributed by his father’s presidential campaign of that year. It was compiled by Doug Wead, an Assemblies of God minister whom Vice President George H.W. Bush began using as an emissary to evangelical leaders in 1985 and who grew close to the younger George Bush around the time of his religious conversion. In that book, which George W. helped write, the story goes somewhat differently:

I remember one night when Dad asked Billy if he would sit around with the family and answer questions and just talk about his life and his view of things, his spirituality. It was one of the most exciting nights I have ever spent in my life. The man is powerful and yet humble. That combination of wisdom and humility was so inspiring to me individually that I took up the Bible in a more serious and meaningful way.As you know, one’s walk in life is full of all kinds of little blind alleys. Sometimes life isn’t easy, and so Billy redirected my way of thinking in a very positive way. He answered questions of all types.The next year when he came, he made it a point to call me aside and ask how things were going. He took a real interest in me individually, and for that I am forever grateful.

In this version, there is no walk on the beach, no pointed question about the son’s relationship with God, no admission by Bush that he felt “lost.” The private conversation with George W. happens a full year later, which would have been in the summer of 1986—after Bush had spent nearly a year attending a weekly men’s Community Bible study group in the basement of the First Presbyterian Church in Midland every Monday night.

Other evidence suggests that Bush’s religious turn really began 15 months earlier. If someone planted a mustard seed, it was likely not Billy Graham in 1985-6 but Arthur Blessitt in April 1984. Blessitt—yes, that is his real name—is an evangelical preacher who has walked throughout the world lugging a 12-foot tall, 70-pound cross. His website boasts that he holds the Guinness World Record for the world’s longest walk, most recently tallied at 37,352 miles.

Blessitt keeps a careful diary. On April 3, 1984, he noted: “A good and powerful day. Led Vice President Bush’s son to Jesus today. George Bush Jr.! This is great! Glory to God.” Over the previous week, thousands of people had been coming to hear Blessitt tell stories of dragging his cross through the Amazon at a sports stadium in Midland. Bush heard Blessitt’s sermons, which were carried live on local radio, while driving. Though he didn’t feel comfortable coming to the Chaparral Center, Bush arranged through an oilman friend named Jim Sale for the two of them to meet with Blessitt and talk about Jesus. In an empty restaurant at the Midland Holiday Inn, Bush looked Blessitt in the eye and said: “I want to talk to you about how to know Jesus Christ and how to follow Him.” According to Blessitt’s account:

I slowly leaned forward and lifted the Bible that was in my hand and began to speak.”What is your relationship with Jesus”? I said.He replied, “I’m not sure.”“Let me ask you this question. If you died this moment, do you have the assurance you would go to heaven?””No” he replied.”Then let me explain to you how you can have that assurance and know for sure that you are saved.” He replied, “I’d like that.”

After telling him how to know Jesus, Blessitt asked:

“Would you rather live with Jesus in your life or without Him?””With Him,” Bush replied.”Would you rather spend eternity with Jesus or without Him.””With Jesus.”

The three men held hands and prayed together. Blessitt proclaimed, “You are saved!” Jim Sale attests that he remembers this event precisely the way Blessitt does.

There are other discrepancies in the “official” version of the 1999 tale. When Bush related the story in public, a religious reporter contacted Graham, who had no memory of a meaningful encounter with George W. Graham later did his best to get onboard with the story that laid the cornerstone of his relationship with yet another American president but even so seemed unable to confirm it. “I don’t remember what we talked about,” he told Time journalists Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy in 2006. “There’s not much of a beach there. Mostly rocks. Some people have written—or maybe he has said, I don’t know—that it had an effect, our walk on the beach. I don’t remember. I do remember a walk on the beach.”

Something is going on here beyond the tricks memory plays. Years later, in 1999, when the political purpose was the son’s own, rather than the father’s, George W. reshaped the anecdote to give it greater resonance and political value. Multiple encounters are telescoped into a single one, a process that took place over at least two years is collapsed into a single “defining moment,” the setting is made more dramatic (the beach in Maine rather than a living room) and more personal (a one-on-one conversation, rather than a family question-and-answer session). And the dialogue that two eyewitnesses remember taking place with Blessitt—”What is your relationship with Jesus”—”I’m not sure”—is transmuted into a dialogue with Graham—”Are you right with God”—”No, but I’d like to be.”

One can understand why a mainstream politician might wish to do this. Blessitt, a kind of madman-Messiah, comes out of hippiedom’s Christian branch, the Jesus people or “Jesus freaks.” In the 1960s, the “psychedelic evangelist” began preaching in a strip club in L.A. and ran “His Place,” a ministry-coffeehouse-nightclub, with appearances by bands like the Eternal Rush. Blessitt’s book Life’s Greatest Trip includes some of his poetry: “Get loaded on Jesus,/ 24 hours a day,/ you can be naturally stoned/ on Jesus!” In 1969, Jesus told Blessitt to start walking. He has kept on truckin’ ever since. In 1976, he declared that he was running for president, though it wasn’t clear which party he belonged to.

Finally, the “mustard seed” reference in the later version is calibrated to resonate with evangelical Christians without sending the wrong signals to the Biblically ignorant, who might pause to wonder why it’s not a more common herb or vegetable or just an unspecific “seed.” Often, the precision of Bush’s religious language cuts in the other direction, making references more generic. He avoids such evangelical terms of art as “born again” and “saved” in his journey-to-faith narrative—and even “Jesus” as opposed to “God.” He similarly avoids using the specific terminology “evangelical” or “alcoholic” in reference to himself. The vagueness frees Bush from the assumptions people make when they hear the more conventional terms. According to Doug Wead, Bush’s break with the bottle came after he and Laura read an Alcoholics Anonymous pamphlet that emphasized the need for help from a higher power. “The tract brought a lot of things together,” Wead said. Bush has never spoken of reading A.A. literature; following 12-step guidance would make him sound like an alcoholic.

What his faith stories have in common is the way they put George W. Bush’s religious experiences to political use. The beliefs themselves may be entirely genuine. But Bush does not appear to surrender himself to the will of God in the way a conventionally religious person does. If we look closely at his relationship to religion over a period of two decades, we see him repeatedly commandeering God for his exigent needs. His is an instrumentalist, utilitarian faith that puts religion to work for his own purposes. Faith made it possible for Bush to order his life and emerge as a plausible leader. Once he became president, it helped him cope more effectively than his father had with the monumental pressures of the job.