This is the second of three excerpts from Slate Editor Jacob Weisberg’s new book, The Bush Tragedy.
What are George W. Bush’s religious beliefs? The question, which would seem central to understanding his presidency, comes up again and again and never receives a satisfactory answer. When religiously inclined writers try to describe Bush’s faith, they invariably end up talking about how Bush uses religion, how he relates to other religious people, and what faith means to him. But they seldom say anything about its content. They described all the things his faith is not—fiery, judgmental, dogmatic, exclusive—but don’t discover positions on even the most basic theological issues that divide and define denominations, such as whether the Bible is literally true, whether Christians should evangelize, or whether salvation comes through faith alone. They overlook the curious detail that he seldom goes to church. Often, they end up projecting their own beliefs and assumptions onto his blank screen.
After reading a certain amount of what might be called Godly-President Literature—The Faith of George W. Bush by Stephen Mansfield, God and George W. Bush by Paul Kengor, A Man of Faith by David Aikman—the recognition begins to dawn that Bush’s faith has no specific theological content. When a Houston reporter asked Bush about the difference between the Episcopal Church he was raised in and the Methodist one he began attending after he was married, he replied, “I’m sure there is some kind of heavy doctrinal difference, which I’m not sophisticated enough to explain to you.” His religion has often been best described as evangelical, but in various respects it appears not to conform to the definition. Unlike most other evangelicals, Bush blithely uses profanity and as governor would play poker. He doesn’t tithe. He didn’t try to convert others—one of the central obligations in most evangelical denominations—even before he resumed a political career. He didn’t raise his daughters in his faith. On issues that divide evangelical Christians from nonevangelical Christians—and varieties of evangelicals from each other—Bush does not need to feign ecumenical neutrality. He isn’t hiding his beliefs; he simply doesn’t have many of them.
A better term for Bush’s faith is Self-Help Methodism. What Bush clearly does believe in is the personal, transforming, and sustaining power of belief in God. “Faith gives us purpose—to right wrongs, preserve our families, and teach our children values,” he told congregants at Second Baptist, a mega-church in Houston, on the Sunday he announced his presidential exploratory committee in 1999. “Faith gives us conscience—to keep us honest even when no one is watching. Faith changes lives. I know, because it changed mine.” Having a personal relationship with God, praying, and reading the Bible daily were the tools Bush used to get control of his life; they supported a transformation that made it possible for him to control his drinking, keep his family together after Laura had threatened to leave him, manage his aggressive behavior, cope with the burden of his successful father, and attain success in business and politics. Finding God made his life “easier to understand and clearer,” as he put it.
If Bush proselytizes, it is not for his denomination or even for Christianity, per se, but for the power of “faith” itself. Bush believes that everyone who prays to God prays to the same one, and that there is “truth” in all religions. He told the prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, “You believe in the almighty, and I believe in the almighty. That’s why we’ll be great partners.” He had a similar reaction to the Orthodox cross he saw hanging around the neck of Vladimir Putin on their first meeting. According to former staff members, Bush had a problem figuring out how to relate to secular European leaders like Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder. As Bush’s chief of staff, Andrew Card, told Jeffrey Goldberg of The New Yorker: “I can see him struggle with other world leaders who don’t appear to be grounded in some faith.” He added, “The President doesn’t care what faith it is, as long as it’s faith.”
This instrumental view of religion is inseparable from the way Bush came to it, through a midlife crisis on the verge of 40. Community Bible Study was an ecumenical movement just catching on in 1984, when a group of men from Midland traveled to California to learn the method. When I visited in the fall of 2007, the Bible study had grown to more than 200 regular participants, but still worked the same way: After all meeting together for a few songs, the men broke into groups of 12 or 15 to consider the passage they had read for the week. Wealthy oilmen sat side-by-side with jumpers who worked on their million-dollar rigs for $20 an hour. Each participant had filled out a questionnaire that asked him to relate the week’s verses from the Gospel of Mark to his own life and feelings. In some places, Bible study is more like a religious book group. In Midland, it is more like a support group with some business networking thrown in. When I attended, oil had just crossed the $80 level, and Midland was booming as it hadn’t since the early 1980s. But when Bush began reading the Gospel of Luke with the group in September 1985, the price of oil had just fallen to $9 a barrel. Many of the participants in his Bible study had gone bankrupt or were on the verge of doing so. Some were suffering from substance-abuse problems, and many had been through or were on the verge of family breakups.
This was Bush’s story. Laura was losing patience with her husband’s drinking and he was deeply worried about losing her and his daughters. According to various accounts, she gave him an ultimatum: me or Jim Beam. He was resistant to the change at first. Several attendees recall his sarcasm at sessions. One version of the history has Bush following his drinking buddy Don Jones, the president of a Midland bank, into the group. According to another legend, Bush’s parents asked Graham to lead an “intervention” after an episode of boorish behavior in Maine. In any case, the Midland Bible study supported the behavioral changes Bush adopted in the summer of 1986. In this sense, it functioned as therapy for someone who doesn’t believe in therapy, more A.A. meeting than religious exploration. Prayer—which, as a friend of Bush’s who is still in the Bible study told me, just means talking to God—gave him a sense of serenity and control that enabled him to redirect his stalled career.
The relevant context for Bush’s embrace of sobriety was not just Laura’s ultimatum and his 40th birthday, but his father’s run for president. At one level, finding God was an act of rebellion against the arid, high-church Episcopalism of his parents. His father said that when he was marooned in a lifeboat after being shot down over the Pacific, he thought of his family, God, and “the separation of church and state.” That principle is perhaps the last one his son would think of in extremity. Fervent, popular faith helped him establish his independent identity. But this was loyal defiance: His new religious identity also enabled Bush to become closer to his father, who needed someone to help him navigate the evangelical shoals of a Republican primary. In 1980, when religious leaders asked if he was a born-again Christian, Bush senior had made the mistake of simply saying, “No” (before learning to say that though he hadn’t had a single born-again moment, he accepted Jesus as his personal savior). With his behavior under control, the younger Bush now began to win his father’s confidence as someone who could help with the problem of the evangelicals. By outdoing his father in religiosity, he could effectively represent the family’s political interests, as opposed to being a liability for the family to manage.
Faith produced in Bush a series of positive second-order effects as well. Religion also supplied George W. with a richer emotional vocabulary, allowing him to express feelings in a way he hadn’t previously been able to do. Over time, his religious outlook tempered his aggression and made him nicer, at least some of the time. It added humility to his repertoire. A religious framework made him more accepting of others, less cutting and judgmental—something he frequently refers to with reference to the parable of the mote and the beam: “Don’t try to take a speck out of your neighbor’s eye when you’ve got a log in your own.” Bush ultimately answered his parents’ doubts about his capabilities with an exertion of sheer will. With religious help, he showed he could accomplish feats they thought him incapable of. And so willpower became his instinctive way of dealing with doubt, criticism, and opposition of all kinds. Rather than prompt him to consider or reflect, skepticism about what he could do provoked him prove his doubters wrong.