Bush 41: A Man of Faith & Honor

Bush 41 is what the country started calling him once his son became president. Yet George Herbert Walker Bush was not just a number; my own research on him has led me to revise not only my evaluation of his presidency but my perception of him as a man of faith and honor.

I voted for him twice, yet I had reservations as to whether he was the best successor to Ronald Reagan. I continue to note his deficiencies as president: his walkback of the promise of no new taxes hurt him badly in his re-election bid; he also seemed to lack the kind of energy needed for that re-election. But I now believe he accomplished more than some people give him credit for: ousting the corrupt Panamanian drug lord Manuel Noriega and gathering a coalition of nations to beat back Saddam Hussein’s power grab in the Middle East are two of his greatest achievements.

Perhaps a review of his earlier life—which is being and will be reviewed all this week—will help highlight his overall accomplishments.

Bush was the youngest Navy pilot in WWII, flying 58 combat missions. On one of those missions, he was shot down and rescued by a passing US submarine. He easily could have died bobbing around in the Pacific Ocean. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery in action.

After the war, he moved his family out of New England to Texas and proved himself successful in business as director of an oil company and president of an offshore drilling equipment company.

Bush’s first attempt at elected office was as an unsuccessful Texas Senate candidate in 1964, but then he won a seat in the House in 1966; he lost another Senate race in 1970 to Lloyd Bentsen (who later ran against Bush in 1988 as the Democrats’ losing vice presidential candidate).

During the Nixon presidency, he was appointed as Permanent Representative of the US to the UN, then served as chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC), beginning in 1973. That had to be one of his most difficult assignments, as he attempted to right the GOP ship in the midst of Watergate.

President Ford recognized Bush’s skills and appointed him head of US Liaison Office in Communist China, then he took over as director of the CIA in 1975. That agency now bears his name.

I knew little to nothing of Bush until the 1980 presidential primaries when he ran against Reagan to receive the Republican nomination. Admittedly, I was chagrined when Reagan chose him to be the vice presidential candidate on the ticket. I thought he was too liberal.

Reagan, though, wanted Bush to publicly agree with the strong pro-life position in the Republican platform, which he pledged to do. This struck me at the time as pure politics since Bush had not been strongly pro-life prior to that time. It may have been exactly that. Yet for the rest of his life, even after he left public office, he never backed down on that commitment. I believe it became his conviction over time.

During my sabbatical year, Bush’s Library was one of my research stops. The museum was very well done, and perusing it one day at my leisure helped me to get a better measure of the man.

I also took the opportunity to get as close to the Oval Office as I ever will.

The research I conducted during the sabbatical helped me see also the Christian faith of the man. I didn’t know how close he was to Billy Graham. I was unaware that for many summers prior to his presidency, he had Graham come to the family compound in Maine to speak to the family. Bush wanted his entire family to be instructed by Graham. To his credit, Graham chose not to preach but to conduct those sessions in the Q&A mode, which was much more effective.

It was during one of those visits that George W. Bush took a walk with Graham on the beach and began his spiritual journey to Christian faith.

When Bush 41 moved against Saddam Hussein, it was Graham that he wanted by his side—not as a political advisor, but as a spiritual counselor. Graham heeded that summons. The two were close personal friends. It was a revelation to me just how close they were for those many years.

I’m teaching a new course this coming semester that I’m calling “Religion and the Presidents,” and I’m pleased that I’m now going to be able to add one more name to the number of those whose Christian faith was genuine.

When Bush gave his acceptance speech at the Republican Convention in 1988, one of the lines from that speech (authored by Peggy Noonan, but obviously approved by Bush) has stuck with people. He spoke of the numerous non-governmental volunteer organizations throughout the nation that were performing valuable services. He called them “a thousand points of light.”

Bush didn’t believe that government was the answer to all of our problems. He looked instead to all those people, usually guided by their faith, as the better solution. I believe his life demonstrated that belief. One political cartoonist, in the wake of his death, has made the point very well.

We need more men of faith and honor. We need more George Herbert Walker Bush’s.

Graham & His Presidents

Historians have a unique experience when they do research into individuals. Even though I have never met most of the people I’ve researched, I come away with the sensation that I know them anyway.

My master’s thesis was on Yale president (and clergyman) Timothy Dwight and American geographer (and clergyman) Jedidiah Morse, the latter being the father of Samuel F. B. Morse of telegraph fame.

My doctoral dissertation was on Noah Webster, the premier educator of early America and the compiler of America’s first dictionary, which bears his name.

Reading everything I can get my hands on that relates to Whittaker Chambers, Ronald Reagan, and C. S. Lewis has been an ongoing joy.

I can testify the same about Billy Graham, since I’ve not only researched at Wheaton’s Billy Graham Center, but also have looked into his correspondence and relationships with all the post-WWII presidents.

Graham built a reputation as a friend and counselor for many of these presidents, although his first attempt was a little rocky. He received an invitation to speak with Harry Truman in the Oval Office. He prayed with Truman at the end of the meeting. When he and his associates emerged from the White House, reporters wanted him to reenact that prayer. He obliged.

Although Graham was undoubtedly sincere in his action, Truman was incensed that something private would be made into a public spectacle. Graham, young and inexperienced in dealing with the media, learned a valuable lesson that day.

The young evangelist made a connection with a much older man, Dwight Eisenhower, when Truman left office. In one way, it’s rather amazing that Eisenhower, the general who successfully conducted the D-Day invasion, would find a spiritual guide in such a young man. Yet he asked Graham for suggestions of Biblical passages to use in his first inaugural.

As Eisenhower lay in bed at Walter Reed hospital, knowing he was going to die soon, he asked Graham to come see him and tell him one more time how to make sure he was ready to meet the Lord. If not for Graham, Eisenhower might never have made his peace with God.

Graham didn’t know Kennedy that well, but at the latter’s urging, they met after the election and before the inauguration, because Kennedy, as the nation’s first Catholic president, sought to show that the leading evangelical Protestant voice was not opposed to his presidency.

It’s noteworthy that at a time when many Protestants were concerned about having a Catholic for president that Graham accepted the invitation and was willing to stand publicly with Kennedy. He wanted to help heal that division between Christian denominations.

What may not be as well known is that Graham, in November of 1963, had a strong urge to call Kennedy and tell him the Lord had impressed upon him that the upcoming trip to Dallas might be dangerous. He never reached Kennedy; others in the administration put him off. We all know what happened next.

Lyndon Johnson was a profane man with whom one might think Graham would want nothing to do, but that was not the case. The two developed a close friendship, and Graham even got involved to some extent in some of LBJ’s initiatives on racial reconciliation and other policy issues.

Interestingly, LBJ tried to convince Graham to run for president. He demurred, knowing that God had given him a different calling. In my opinion, after reading through quite a bit of material on their relationship, I see LBJ wanting Graham to be close to him because he suffered a deep insecurity about his own spiritual state—an insecurity that he definitely should have had, given his low standard of morality. Perhaps he perceived Graham to be his “security blanket,” spiritually speaking.

In the public mind, Graham is most often associated with Nixon. It’s true that they were very close. It was during Nixon’s presidency that Sunday morning services were arranged at the White House, and Graham spoke at many of them. Although he never officially endorsed any president, there was little doubt that he supported Nixon’s reelection in 1972.

Then came Watergate. When the tapes revealed language from Nixon that Graham had never heard him use in his presence, he was deeply disturbed. On Nixon’s part, because he didn’t want the controversy swirling around him to impugn Graham’s ministry, he conscientiously avoided meeting with Graham once the Watergate investigation went into high gear.

What’s most touching, to me, is that nothing Nixon did pushed Graham away from him. Even in the disgrace of resignation from the presidency, Graham remained his friend and spiritual advisor. He was not seeking power with the high and mighty; he simply wanted to share God’s love with them. He was the friend of presidents even when they were no longer in office and had nothing to offer.

His close brush with a possible taint on his ministry led Graham to rethink his associations with presidents. It’s not that he sought to distance himself spiritually, but he never again wanted to be so public in his relationships with them that the ministry would be discredited.

So when Ford took over from Nixon, while he did speak with the new president on occasions, he deliberately took a step back from a too-public connection.

The same is true of his relationship with Carter. Prior to his presidency, Carter had even shared the stage with Graham in Georgia at one of his crusades.

Yet, the relationship was never very close. Carter considered himself his own spiritual advisor, some would say. He didn’t reach out much to Graham during his tenure in office.

Ronald Reagan and Graham had been friends for a couple of decades before Reagan won the presidency, so the link between them already was firmly established. According to some sources, Reagan was the president Graham was closest to, but, in the wake of Watergate, Graham was intent on keeping their communication as private as possible.

That’s kind of a frustration for a historian like me. Whereas I found a lot of correspondence between Graham and LBJ and Nixon, the Reagan Library yielded far less.

Reagan’s esteem for Graham was shown in his decision to award him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

When I interviewed Reagan’s pastor, Donn Moomaw, back in 2014, he lent me this photo that I downloaded into my own files. I’ll always appreciate his willingness to do that.

George Bush the elder also had a long-standing friendship with Graham, to the point that he invited him to the Bush compound in Maine annually. He wanted his family to hear from Graham on spiritual matters. His initial idea was to ask Graham to speak to them—like a sermon—but Graham instead just opened it up each year to questions, which was a much more personable approach.

It was on one of those occasions that a walk along the beach with George Bush the younger led to his commitment to follow the Lord.

Have I omitted anyone? Oh, yes, there was another one.

This is further evidence that Graham was willing to be a friend to anyone occupying the highest office in the land.

I hope this travelogue through the history of Billy Graham’s relationships and connections with presidents has been worthwhile for those of you who made it through this entire blog.

I thank God for using this man in our nation’s history. May many more rise up and be His spokesmen for truth.

Billy Graham’s Coronation Day

Billy Graham was ready to go. He had been ready for many years. Even though his passing was not a shock—after all, he was 99—just the fact of his death makes the world stop for a moment and consider a man who was faithful to His Savior and who made an enormous impact for Him.

I remember watching Graham crusades on television when I was a teenager. I read a number of his books at that relatively young age. I guess I wasn’t your typical teen.

As time went on, the Lord directed me to many other Christian writers, speakers, and spiritual guides, but I will always be grateful that Graham was the one who first got my attention.

In my book on C. S. Lewis, I mention the one time these two men met. Lewis had this to say afterwards:

I had the pleasure of meeting Billy Graham once. We had dinner together during his visit to Cambridge University in 1955. I thought he was a very modest and a very sensible man, and I liked him very much indeed.

The Oxford/Cambridge intellectual having a meeting of the minds and hearts over dinner with a Baptist revivalist. Why did that work? Both believed genuinely in what Lewis called “mere Christianity.” They shared the same Savior and recognized that in each other.

Four years ago, during my sabbatical, I not only researched and wrote a book on Lewis but I began work with a colleague on another book that aims to analyze spiritual advisors to presidents post-WWII. Graham naturally figures prominently, as he was the only Christian leader/pastor who knew each president personally, starting with Eisenhower.

It was a joyful experience going to the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College to research him. Then I did the same at six presidential libraries. Graham’s commitment to offering spiritual counsel to any president who asked, regardless of the label of Republican or Democrat, is a lesson to all of us today.

Our book is still in the works, with a great hope that it may be picked up by a publisher who sees its value. Yesterday, we were interviewed about Graham and the proposed book by a local television news outlet. We were glad for the opportunity to showcase what Graham has meant to so many.

While it may be a cliché among Christians, it is nonetheless true that yesterday was Billy Graham’s Coronation Day. He is now in the presence of the Lord he served for most of those 99 years. May his life inspire the rest of us to be just as faithful.

Fruits of the Sabbatical

My 27th year of teaching at the college level begins today. I’m a little out of practice, though, after a year’s sabbatical. I’ll have to change my mental outlook and reorient myself.

The sabbatical year was a real blessing. When some people picture a sabbatical, they probably think of someone relaxing for a year, playing golf, etc. Well, I haven’t played golf since I was 18 (that was at least a couple of years ago) and for me, relaxation consists of reading, researching, and writing.

And that’s what I did for those many months.

What did I accomplish?

20141025_095359I researched at six presidential libraries—Eisenhower, LBJ, Nixon, Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton—and at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College for a collaborative effort with a colleague on what we hope will be a book (books?) on spiritual advisors to presidents.

That research resulted in a mass of information in the form of letters, memos, etc., that still need to be examined more closely to decide what to use. Once a book contract for this is achieved, I’ll gladly let you know.

C. S. Lewis 5While at Wheaton, I delved into papers on C. S. Lewis at the Wade Center and came away convinced that a book should be written on Lewis’s influence on Americans. That turned into a major research project in which I read and took notes on all letters Lewis wrote to American correspondents.

As I was nearing completion of the book, I found an agent who is now working to place it with a publisher. As of this date, there is a bright prospect that one publisher is serious about it, but I’m still awaiting final approval.

Just last week, another breakthrough occurred. I had finished a book-length manuscript comparing the optimism of Ronald Reagan with the pessimism of Whittaker Chambers back in 2010. At one point, I had a publisher but had to withdraw from that contract. Now I have another contract on that one, and the book should be ready for the market either late September-early October.

El PradoSo, all in all, this has been a wonderful year of devotion to scholarly pursuits. I will always be grateful to Southeastern University for its confidence in me and the funding it provided for all those research trips.

My research deepened my own knowledge significantly. One of the fruits is a new course I will be teaching this semester on the influence of C. S. Lewis. That will be fun. Is it okay to have fun as a university professor?

So it’s back to “normal” life now. My spirit has revived and I’m ready to accept the teaching challenge once again. I thank God for the opportunities He provides.

The Eisenhower Decade

I am in Abilene, Kansas, researching at the Dwight Eisenhower Presidential Library. Spent all day there yesterday and will finish my research today.

Ike Library

It’s rather sad that Eisenhower is practically a forgotten president for the current generation. Of course, I’ve often commented that students today know next to nothing about American history, but what they do know spans only their lifetime, or a portion of it.

Ike StatueThe Eisenhower decade was really rather prosperous for America, and he kept the peace as we squared off with a hostile Soviet Union determined to bring us down. They knew they had to be careful dealing with Eisenhower because he was no fool. He had successfully navigated the plans for D-Day and brought Nazi Germany to its knees. He knew an enemy when he saw one, and he also knew what to do to keep an enemy at bay. Unfortunately, he was followed in office by a man with little to no experience on that front, leading to the Bay of Pigs, the building of the Berlin Wall, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Eisenhower, although not very religious throughout most of his life, became more attached to the Christian faith in his later years. Billy Graham played a central role, as did Eisenhower’s Presbyterian pastor in D.C., Rev. Edward Elson. Before he died, Eisenhower called Graham to his bedside one more time to be sure he understood the essence of salvation through Christ. I trust he died a convinced Christian.

This is my final presidential library stop for my sabbatical. It’s been quite a journey: the Reagan and Nixon libraries in California, the LBJ and George H. W. Bush libraries in Texas, and the Clinton library in Arkansas were my other destinations. I’ve amassed a ton of information in the form of personal correspondence between these presidents and the ones they looked to for spiritual guidance. Now it all needs to be manifested in a series of books. Please pray for my collaborator and me on this mission to publish this valuable information.

That’s the Country We Used to Live In

Sweet CakesAbout two years ago, a bakery in Gresham, Oregon, Sweet Cakes by Melissa, was the first to suffer from the demand that the Christian owners bake a cake for a same-sex wedding. It went to court, and now the owners, Aaron and Melissa Klein, have been fined $135,000, a sum that could bankrupt them.

But there’s no antagonism toward Christians in our nation.

The Kleins were ostracized from the community as photographers and florists who used to work with them broke all ties with the bakery. They had to close the shop and operate out of their home instead. Their car was vandalized and broken into twice.

Yet we need not fear that Christian beliefs are under attack.

As with the pizzeria in Indiana, people started a GoFundMe account to help them cover the cost of the fines. Homosexual groups objected vociferously and put pressure on the website to disallow the funding. The pressure worked, as the site caved, declaring that the campaign violated its policy against raising money “in defense of formal charges of heinous crimes, including violent, hateful, or sexual acts.”

As one commentator noted,

Seriously? Not baking a wedding cake for a couple who would have been perfectly welcome to come in and shop for cupcakes, donuts or any other treats in the store falls into a category with murder or rape? That one fails to pass the smell test by a country mile. What they really didn’t want to do was run afoul of a powerful political lobby from the Left.

Apple Watch Launch

I’m glad Christians are still free in this country to act on their faith without penalty.

Franklin GrahamFranklin Graham has now come to their aid, pledging to help them through his Samaritan’s Purse charitable organization. He is one Christian leader who has been bold in his declarations to stand by Biblical standards.

Anyone willing to venture a guess that Samaritan’s Purse will now be the subject of homosexual vengeance?

Fortunately, we live in a country where our government recognizes liberty of conscience and freedom to exercise religious beliefs without interference.

Well, that’s the country we used to live in, at least.

Sabbatical Update: Wheaton College

I’ve written previously in this blog about the blessing I’ve received for the coming academic year: a sabbatical to do research and writing. I also promised to provide updates. For the past week, I’ve been at Wheaton College in Illinois, delving into the papers of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) and also materials relating to C. S. Lewis. I’ll talk about Lewis in tomorrow’s post; today, I’ll focus on Graham.

As a reminder, one of my projects during this sabbatical is to examine the relationship of presidents with their spiritual advisers. An obvious starting place for that is the life and ministry of Billy Graham, who has known each president from Dwight Eisenhower to George W. Bush. Wheaton is the repository for the records of the BGEA. Those records are housed in a magnificent building called the Billy Graham Center.

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I want to offer my sincere thanks for all the help I received while burrowing through the mass of material for more than three days. The staff members are excellent. Their spirit of service is greatly appreciated.

The Center has a very interesting museum depicting the history of evangelism and how America fits into the overall picture of the spreading of the Gospel. It also has some valuable artifacts, such as a copy of the first Bible printed in America during the American Revolution:

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I was also gratified to see a prominent display on the significant contribution of Charles Finney to evangelism in the nineteenth century:

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Naturally, the last half of the museum concentrated on the ministry of Billy Graham, but the spirit of it was excellent, as the focal point was not really Graham himself, but the message he preached and the lives that were changed. The Gospel message was central, as can be shown by this beautiful crystal display of the crucifixion with the poignant Scriptural message underneath:

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My attempt to capture the solemnity and grandeur of the room with the crystal display doesn’t do it justice. There is a sense of awe as you enter that room. The sacrifice of Christ on the cross goes directly to the heart. If you are ever in Wheaton, you must visit this museum and come away inspired by what the Lord has accomplished through so many who have been faithful to His calling.