At the funeral on Wednesday, Dec. 5, of former President George H.W. Bush, to the row of other living former presidents Carter, Clinton and Obama as well as President Trump -- and their wives — former President George W. Bush eulogized his father as “a main of quiet faith,” who prayed every day of his life for his daughter Robin who died at the age of 3 in 1953.
With all the ceremony and pomp of the passing of President George Herbert Walker Bush on Friday, Nov. 30, in Houston, much has been said about his Christian faith.
Gary Smith, a retired history professor in Pennsylvania who has written two books on the faith of presidents, wrote an essay this week reminding people of George H.W. Bush’s deep faith. He includes the anecdote of an obscure moment at the funeral of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev about which Bush — but not many others — spoke.
During campaign stops in South Dakota on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 1987, in his successful quest to succeed President Ronald Reagan, Vice President George H.W. Bush spoke of seeing how he had seen expressions of religious faith at high levels even in the atheistic communist governments of the Soviet Union and China.
According to the Washington Post’s political reporters’ article on Dec. 6, 1987, during his campaign, including the South Dakota stops: “Vice President Bush, who says he does not like to wear his religion on his sleeve, has begun to weave it ever more prominently into his speeches.”
The Post reports that during his South Dakota stops that day, Bush mentioned seeing the widow of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev make a “furtive sign of the cross,” just before her husband’s casket was closed at his state funeral. It illustrated that the power of religious faith couldn’t be stamped out even by the totalitarian communism that demanded atheism, Bush said.
At the time, the Capital Journal reported in a brief note in 1987 that Bush spoke to about 1,200 at Black Hills State in Spearfish on that Dec. 2, pushing for the treaty banning intermediate nukes between the Soviets and the U.S., which President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev were set to sign later in December 1987. No mention was made in the brief about any religious comments.
Other accounts online of the 1982 funeral report that widow Viktoria Brezhnev was seen bending over the casket and kissing her late husband.
But the Washington Post reported that Bush often told the story on the campaign trail of seeing the supposedly atheist Viktoria Brezhnev seeming to show at least some faith in Christianity.
Other sources, including evangelical leader Doug Wead, who worked for Bush’s campaign, heard Bush tell the story of Brezhnev’s widow.
Gary Smith told the Capital Journal he got the story from Wead when writing his 2015 book.
Smith has written two books about a total of 22 presidents and their faith, including the 2015 “Faith in the Oval Office,” in which he wrote about George H.W. Bush. He regularly posts opinion articles on the website www.visionandvalues.org.
Smith, an ordained Presbyterian pastor who still coordinates humanities and is a fellow at the Center for Vision and Values at Grove City College, spoke to the Capital Journal on Wednesday from his home in Wilmington, North Carolina.
It was easy to not notice “Bush 41’s” faith because he was quiet about it, compared to many, including his son, “Bush 43,” Smith said.
But it was a deep part of the late president’s life, he said.
On Jan. 16, 1991, the night President Bush began the “Desert Storm,” against Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, evangelist Billy Graham was in the White House with the Bush family.
Graham was a sort of pastor to the Bush family and George W. Bush credited Graham — who died in January 2018 — with leading him to faith in Jesus Christ. George W. only knew Graham because his father introduced him.
“Graham and ‘H.W.’ talked a lot about faith matters,” Smith said. The example of George and Barbara Bush’s Episcopalian faith influenced their children and in a way, George W’s faith seemed to have an effect on his father, Smith said.
“I think seeing his son recommit his life to God had to play some role,” in President George H.W. Bush’s life, Smith said.
Smith and the Center for Vision and Values allowed the Capital Journal to publish Smith’s essay.