George H.W. Bush and the Vocation of Politics

George H.W. Bush and the Vocation of Politics

With the passing of George H.W. Bush, I was whisked away in my mind to election night in 1988 when I stayed up late at night watching the returns on a little handheld black and white TV. I remember bits of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, but he was always the background to my life growing up. It was the election of Bush that I noticed because it was something new. Watching Bush decisively beat David Dukakis on the November evening, I gained a new awareness of national politics.

Bush was the height of Republican WASP style. Not only his life and pedigree, but his manners exuded high-class gentility at its best. John McCain, the maverick, grew up in a similarly privileged environment but always relished his role as the outsider. Bush was the consummate insider but shared with McCain the virtues of that generation: basic decency and respect for persons, restraint and sobriety, an idealistic view of America and its role in the world, and commitment to good of all Americans. The president was an Episcopalian, for Pete’s sake! The Republican Party used to be called the Episcopal church at prayer.

To some this may ring hollow as empty political slogans, but Bush, agree with his policies or not, really believed in and held to these core convictions. He embodied them well, even if he was blinded by them at times. I must confess that this gentry-style Republicanism has many virtues, but it belongs to an age of less polarization and divisiveness, when people trusted their government more.

Bush’s handling of the first Gulf War was a model for coalition building and restraint. The UN has sanctioned military action three times in its history, and the American-led war against Saddam Hussein’s aggression was the last. After pushing Saddam’s forces back into Iraq, rather than seeking to defeat the dictator, Bush held to his war aims of expelling Saddam from Kuwait and not enacting regime change, as his son would undertake years later.

To look at Bush’s life is to behold a man committed to service of his country on a scale rarely achieved. A pilot in World War II, he was shot down over the Pacific. Later he would go on to be a congressman, director of the CIA, and dutiful vice president under Ronald Reagan before serving as a one-term president.

Few careers could match the Bush’s in terms of commitment to public service. Though funerals are often given to hyperbole, the statement that there are few Americans who could match Bush’s impressive list of service seems quite accurate. As Mark Tooley notes, Bush embodied the spirit of service and idealism that marked the post-World War II era. A devout Episcopalian, he represented the best of the Episcopal Church in America’s role as steward of leaders and defender of democracy.

It was said of Bush that he viewed public service as a vocation. Though we see renewal by evangelicals and orthodox Protestants on a number of fronts, no denomination has intentionally taken up the leadership vacuum that exists in our national politics that raised up principled leaders like Bush.

Most evangelical leaders whom I listen to and follow have little interest in encouraging and sustaining leaders in public life, let alone the rough and tumble vocation of national politics. Why is that? In part, the Trump presidency has brought deep divisions within many evangelical circles about the default support for the Republican Party. Some of this is good and healthy. The church should be careful to not over-identify with a single political party, as Tim Keller as helpfully reminds us.

But the problem we face is not only over-identification with a single party, but a lack of political vision and lack of a sense of political and public life as a vocation worthy of a Christians life. Politics is dirty business. Why would a Christian looking at today’s political landscape be inclined to enter politics? Right now, the church is not giving him or her many reasons.

Reinhold Niebuhr and Billy Graham exerted immense influence among politicians and important policymakers. Niebuhr carried on extensive correspondence with George Kennan, perhaps the most important foreign policy figure of the twentieth century and the architect of the policy of containment to counter Soviet aggression across the globe.

Are there any evangelical leaders today who would be able to counsel and interact with leaders of the magnitude of a Kennan? None come to mind, in part because they do not seem terribly interested in doing so.

It is the responsibility of the church not only to raise up ministers and missionaries but also to call their congregations to a life of service, including politics. The Mainline denominations understood this well. Evangelicals seem much less equipped or inclined to be the shepherd of leaders. Sure, evangelicals want to win elections and enact their preferred policies, but that is not the same as taking up the mantle of leadership in a principled and faithful manner. Many evangelicals are overly politicized, blindly supporting President Trump, or seeking to untangle their faith and churches from a polarized political culture.

President Bush was a principled Christian politician who was devoted to public service as an outgrowth of his faith, and not in spite of it. One often hears the desire for another Reinhold Niebuhr to emerge in public life. We shall have neither Bushes nor Niebuhrs until we have a church committed to calling and forming Christians to undertake the burdens of public leadership as a vocation.

Daniel Strand, a Providence contributing editor, is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Political Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University. His scholarly interests are in the history of political thought, religion and politics, and the thought of St. Augustine of Hippo.

Photo Credit: US service members transfer the remains of former President George H.W. Bush at Joint Base Andrews, MD, on December. 3, 2018. US Navy photo by Pfc. Elijah Foster.

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