"Christ, because he changed my heart," George W. Bush, governor of Texas and presidential candidate, declared before an Iowa debate audience late last year. That response answered a reporter's question about which philosopher had most influenced the candidates' lives. But far from being the glib reply of an aspiring politician, Bush's telegraphic disclosure about his relationship with Jesus packed a powerful punch among conservative Christians:
Did they finally have a presidential candidate who shared their faith experience and their conservative values, and—importantly—who could win in November?
"Wow" was Southern Baptist Richard Land's one-word reaction on hearing Bush's comments in Iowa. Land, President of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, is among a broad spectrum of Christian conservatives who support Bush's candidacy, although many are not free to endorse a candidate formally.
Acting out his faith
Despite Bush's certitude about Christ, he has yet to fully describe in public his own spiritual development. During that Iowa debate, Bush was asked a follow-up question about his Christian commitment. But Bush declined to elaborate his views of how Christ changes an individual's heart:
"Well, if they [voters] don't know, it's going to be hard to explain."
"I'm getting a little nervous about writers snooping around my heart," he said on another occasion.
The content of candidate Bush's faith is not easily discerned. But close associates of Bush, interviewed by Christianity Today, paint a complex spiritual portrait. That picture reveals a man who not only wrestled with the legacy of his famous father (former president George Bush) but also overcame personal and professional failures. Emerging in midlife as a self-confident leader, Bush seems to be someone more likely to act out his faith than to reflect on it.
Bush seems to share with many conservative Christians a commitment to stick with mainline Protestant denominations despite the progressive leanings of many mainline leaders. Tarrytown United Methodist Church in Austin, which the Bushes attend, has a reputation among Methodist Texans as moderate to liberal in its theology and social concern.
Jim Mayfield, senior pastor at the church, preaches a nonjudgmental brand of Christianity. "There are those who want to focus on the primacy of Scripture, but our Methodist heritage focuses on the primacy of God's grace. … and the primacy of God's love [which] we don't deserve," Mayfield told CT.
Bush himself has downplayed the role of the church, saying it is "only one part of a religious experience." Staff members say he has no one home church and on occasion listens to African-American pastors Tony Evans and T. D. Jakes, both of whom are based in Texas.
Not bagging the elephant
A theme emerges from Bush's spiritual biography: he has embraced the theology of salvation through Christ, leading to repentance, reconciliation, and finally to preparation for God's plan and purpose for his life.
Bush's relocating to his childhood hometown during the 1970s is a milestone in his spiritual narrative. Midland, Texas, was then a booming oil town. The town was riding high from 1973 to 1981, an era when one of 45 Midlanders became a millionaire. Bush wasn't one of them. His company couldn't "bag the elephant," oil-speak for finding an oil strike. Jokes circulated that his company, Arbusto, should be called "Arbusted."
With public service a long tradition in the Bush clan, he ran for Congress in 1978. But he lost to a Democrat from Lubbock. And his halting political debut added to public perceptions of Bush as a failed oilman and wannabe politician.
Ernie Angelo, mayor of Midland at the time, says Bush had the family values of a Midlander but that those values were not deeply rooted.
But in time, those Midland values took root as Bush grew in his Christian experience. Bush has told family and friends, "I don't know what percentage of me is Midland, but I would say people—if they want to understand me—need to understand Midland and the attitude of Midland."
Bush's childhood years in Midland have a storybook quality and have shaped his worldview well into adulthood. He was the boy who lived on Easter Egg Lane—the nickname of a street on which all of the bungalows were painted in pastel colors, Angelo says. Bush remembers this period as one of the happiest times of his life, except for the death of his sister, Robin.
Midlanders kept their doors unlocked and their eyes on each other's children. People helped one another when things went sour. Although considered a school prankster, Bush was popular and beat a rival for seventh-grade president.
Later in life, Bush came to realize his identity as a Midlander gave him a means to separate himself from his world-famous father. "The biggest difference between me and my father is that he went to Greenwich Country Day [an elite boarding school] and I went to San Jacinto Junior High," he says.
Bush did leave Midland for an Eastern prep school before attending Yale and Harvard. But Bush says those experiences were ill-fitting, writing much later that Andover was "cold and distant and difficult."
Oil and alcohol
As the oil boom faded by the mid-1980s, Bush and his friends were experiencing the grinding fears and tensions of owning businesses on the rocks. Some, including Bush, began drinking heavily.
Bush began an intense time of introspection. He dropped the name of Jesus into a causal conversation with his Bible-study leader, Bruce Robertson. "Man, you have really changed," Robertson recalls thinking at the time. "Here was this fellow, who made everything into a joke, all of a sudden turning serious."
The Bible study itself began as an unlikely substitute for Monday-night football. Bush and his friends were not eager to replace their hallowed football ritual, but their wives encouraged them.
"For the first time, they weren't just spending their time sitting around kicking back with hamburgers and beer," Laura Bush recalls.
For Bush, it was an initial step toward finally overcoming his drinking habit. As it turned out, the mid-1980s were decisive years in his spiritual development. A potent factor was his interaction with evangelist Billy Graham. Graham preached one summer at the small seasonal church, St. Ann's by the Sea, that the Bush clan attends while at the family's retreat house in Kennebunkport, Maine.
Later, at the instigation of the elder Bush, Graham gathered the younger Bushes around the fireplace to answer their spiritual queries. Bush does not remember Graham's words in that setting, but he felt impressed by "the power of his example, his gentle and loving demeanor." Graham later stood with the young Bush on the beach and asked if he was following up his spiritual interests.
"Are you right with God?" Graham asked.
"No," Bush replied, "but I want to be."
Bush had cause to reconsider Graham's question at an expensive watering hole in Colorado Springs. At Bush's 40th birthday party, with the wine flowing freely, he once again "couldn't shut it off," says Don Evans, Bush's friend and campaign finance chairman.
Bush had been attempting to curb his drinking for much of the previous year. "I think for a year at least he'd been thinking, 'I really need to slow down or quit,'" Laura Bush recalls. "Of course, it didn't really work."
At least he had been able to confine his drinking to after-work hours. Yet the pressures of business were weighing him down and alcohol at first seemed to give him that burst of energy to see him through. His oil company, Spectrum 7, was under a crushing debt, and Bush was working without pay.
On the morning after that birthday binge, Bush jogged through the scenic setting in Colorado. The view was spectacular, the feeling lousy.
But Graham had planted the seeds of renewal in that brief talk. Without thinking through all the implications, Bush quit drinking cold turkey. He told his wife but no one else, perhaps to see if he could hold to his decision. His Midland friends couldn't help noticing when Bush stopped hitting the bar at social events.
Bush's recovery was not easy for a man born to a pampered position. Bush's spiritual recovery was "a long struggle up a steep hill," says Don Jones, a Midland friend.
Even after his recommitment to sobriety, Bush's temper, his worry over his future, and his past mistakes took time to sort out.
In the meantime, his father was elected president. After serving as senior campaign adviser during the 1988 election, George W. Bush asked White House staffer Doug Wead, "What is gonna happen to me?"
Wead wrote a sobering 44-page memo, "All the President's Children," that detailed a depressing litany about presidential children: "higher than average alcoholism, divorce, suicide and lost opportunities."
Wead says that Bush read the memo and groaned, "Oh, great."
Hearing the call
Bush's business career took a sharp turnabout by 1989—into Major League baseball. As managing general partner of the Texas Rangers, Bush began rebuilding his professional and his personal life. His father's 1992 electoral defeat set the stage for Bush's return to politics in 1994 when he defeated Democratic Gov. Ann Richards, organizing his campaign around the message of "Take a stand for Texas values."
But Bush's reinvigorated spiritual values were not to undergo a severe test until early 1998.
At 7 a.m. February 3, Bush was headed for the governor's office in Austin. It was to be a day when hours would seem like days to him. He would sign the death warrant of a recent Christian convert, prisoner No. 777, Karla Faye Tucker.
Broadcaster Pat Robertson and other religious leaders pressed Bush not to authorize Tucker's execution. Tucker herself wrote to Bush, asking for clemency so that she could use her Christian faith to help other prisoners to "change before they walk out of this place and hurt someone else." Bush's daughter told her father over dinner that she opposed Tucker's execution.
Tucker was guilty of the heinous crime of using a pickax to murder two people. She showed no remorse until after she accepted Christ in prison. Bush recalls that announcing his decision was "one of the hardest things I have ever done."
"I have sought guidance through prayer," he said at a news conference at the time. "I have concluded judgments about the heart and soul of an individual on death row are best left to a higher authority." Just before the execution, Bush "felt like a huge piece of concrete was crushing me as we waited. Those remain the longest 20 minutes of my tenure as governor."
Despite the acute pressure on Bush to weaken his stance on capital punishment, his popularity within Texas soared, leading him to a landslide reelection in November 1998. It also boosted Bush's standing in 1999 as a strong Republican candidate for this year's presidential election and gave him a more secure platform to articulate his new trademark message of compassionate conservatism.
Bush began meeting two years ago with notable ministry leaders around the state of Texas. In early 1999, he started inviting national evangelical ministry leaders and potential donors to rehearsals of his faith declaration. He would point to a portrait of Texas hero Sam Houston and recall that Houston had wrestled with a drinking problem too. Then Bush would say he had a renewal of faith and a sense of dedication to bring God's compassion into the public arena.
He also hired campaign strategist Ralph Reed, formerly of the Christian Coalition, for Reed's extensive knowledge of evangelicals. Bush published his book A Charge to Keep, titled after the hymn by evangelist Charles Wesley that describes a Christian's determination "to serve the present age, my calling to fulfill. … to do my master's will."
Bush says that as he listened to Mark Craig, pastor of Highland Park Methodist Church of Dallas, preach before his inauguration for a second term as governor in 1999, he was deeply moved and he felt "the call." Hearing Craig comment on Moses' reluctance to lead as recorded in Exodus 3, Bush felt that God was directly answering his own wariness of running for president. Bush soon called Fort Worth televangelist James Robison. "I've heard the call," he said. "I believe God wants me to run for president."
Bush's declaration of a call resonated with African-American pastors like John Dennis, president of Guadalupe Bible College and Seminary in San Antonio. "God will bother you if you get a call and don't heed it," Dennis says. "The Lord will get on you hot and heavy. But a call is a great blessing that we pastors respect."
Bush spoke about his call at a Houston Baptist church. Ed Young, a leading Southern Baptist pastor in Houston, says Bush has a spiritual conviction that God has reclaimed him for public service. "He told me he felt a call to leadership—a really strong call."
Was this staged? For years, Bush has been struck by how the apostle Paul received his own call from Jesus on the road to Damascus. In 1999, Bush intensified his daily Bible study using the One-Year Bible. He wrote his staff that the slogan of his second term would be "a charge to keep because we serve one greater than any of us."
But the wellsprings of Bush's agenda as a presidential candidate date to the beginning of his first term as governor. He faced an imminent test of his commitment to support faith-based social ministry. In 1995 the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse tried to shutter Teen Challenge in San Antonio for staff training that did not reflect the state's psychiatric standards. Supporters of the evangelical ministry gathered at the Alamo and Bush listened.
He sided with Teen Challenge against his own state agency. From this moment was born Bush's efforts to enhance faith-based social outreach. He passed laws protecting faith-based groups from state interference with their religious approach; forbidding lawsuits against medical personnel who donate their services to the needy; and starting a trial voucher-aid program to private religious schools.
"Government can do certain things very well, but it cannot put hope in our hearts or a sense of purpose in our lives," Bush says.
Whether George W. Bush wins the presidency in November may depend on whether the electorate shares his vision for a more cooperative relationship between church and state. Bush personifies that relationship.
Bush, sitting governor of the nation's second-largest state, has little difficulty saying, "I am a sinner, just like you." In a few weeks, American voters will decide if that common touch should translate into a mandate for Bush to govern.
Copyright © 2000 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.