10th Nov 2010

God and W.

by Kathryn Jean Lopez 

Former president George W. Bush’s new book, Decision Points, tells the story of a faithful Christian man of discernment.

There is a sense of peace that emanates from the pages of his book and from many of the interviews he’s given in recent days. The peace that comes with ultimately leaving the judgment of history in the hands of a merciful Savior.

Decision Points, and his interviews thus far, don’t suggest a man who uses Christ as cover, but one who seeks His aid, tries his best to listen – even at moments of anger and emotion – and walks away from decisions with a sense of peace when he knows he’s done these things – when he was honest about his deliberations and his prayers.

There’s even a humility in his approach to the memoir-writing process, which, having been one of 44 men who has had the privilege to serve as president of the United States, he believes he owes contemporary readers and history. The point of the book, Decision Points, is to recount the decision-making process in a series of key moments of his life and presidency. On stem cells. On war. On domestic-policy successes, failures, and mixed tries. He tells us what he knew. What people advised. What he was thinking. He did what he did. What comes of that is a bit of a picture of a man’s discernment process. Not everything he did during his eight years is covered. Not even all of the big things. It’s not meant to be a definitive history.

We also get a clearer portrait of his deep appreciation for human life, which goes back to his childhood. “I could have sworn that I saw Robin’s blond curls in the window,” he tenderly writes of the day his mother and father showed up at school in Midland after the seven-year-old George W.’s three-year-old sister, Robin, died. He writes of driving his mother to a hospital after she suffered a miscarriage, acknowledging and recognizing the loss of a sibling he would never know. And he tells us that no matter how exciting life would get for him, the most memorable and exciting moment of them all was the birth of his twin daughters.

He writes in Decision Points about his respect for John Paul II and recalls visiting him at Castel Gandolfo in 2001:

He understood the promise of science – the Holy Father himself was stricken with Parkinson’s. Yet he was firm in his view that human life must be protected in all forms. I thanked him for his example of principles leadership. I explained that the Catholic Church’s steadfast support of life provided a firm moral foundation on which pro-life politicians like me could take a stand. I told him I hoped the Church would always be a rock in the defense of human dignity.

It was in the summer of 1985 during which Billy Graham “had planted a seed” in him, making “the soil less firm and the brambles less thick,” the former president writes in his early chapter on how he came to quit drinking – after routine and heavy drinking deep into adulthood. He would soon take to reading the Bible daily. As his faith grew, so did his doubts, he recalls. “Surrender to an Almighty is a challenge to the ego. But I came to realize that struggles and doubts are natural parts of faith. If you haven’t doubted, you probably haven’t thought very hard about what you believe.”

He writes that “that realization freed me to recognize signs of God’s presence,” and that “prayer was the nourishment that sustained me.” And although he tells the story during a chapter on becoming a better man, he is clear that “self-improvement is not really the point of the Bible. The center of Christianity is not the self. It is Christ.”

Governor George W. Bush famously – infamously in some quarters – once responded during a primary debate that Jesus was his favorite philosopher. I guess you could say that he doubles down in Decision Points when he tells us that in the days after 9/11, he “found solace in reading the Bible, which Abraham Lincoln called ‘the best gift God has given to man.’” He presents faith and his “understanding of Christ” as a lifelong “journey.”

He became a laughingstock among some. He probably should be a role model.

Yes, this is the man who, about 9/11, writes: “My blood was boiling. We were going to find out who did this, and kick their ass.”

But this is also the man who, shortly after writing that, tells us:

I stepped into the presidential cabin [on Air Force One] and asked to be alone. I thought about the fear that must have seized the passengers on those plans and the grief that would grip the families of the dead. So many people had lost their loved ones with no warning. I prayed that God would comfort the suffering and guide the country through this trial. I thought of the lyrics from one of my favorite hymns, “God of Grace and God of Glory”: “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of this hour.”

He writes of a prayer service two days later at National Cathedral: “As I climbed the steps to the lectern, I whispered a prayer: ‘Lord, let your light shine through me.’”

Some of his most underappreciated accomplishments involve AIDS and Africa. In his chapter on this, “Lazarus Effect,” President Bush writes of being inspired in Uganda in 2003 during a visit to The AIDS Support Organization (TASO) in Entebbe:

I left the clinic inspired. The patients reaffirmed my conviction that every life has dignity and value, because every person bears the mark of Almighty God. I saw their suffering as a challenge to the words of the Gospel: “To whom much is given, much is required.”

During his administration, the United States not only increased our foreign aid to Africa, but based what we gave to with what works on the ground.

Of his final trip to Africa, he tells a story of meeting a grandmother with her granddaughter at a hospital in Tanzania that opened with support from PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief). He came to talk to the elderly woman when he saw her with a little girl sitting on a bench in a courtyard. The girl was smiling, even though she was nine and HIV-positive. She received it from her mother, who had died, as had her father.

Likewise, her grandmother’s outlook was one of gratitude, as she explained to Bush that Catholic Relief Services had been paying for her granddaughter’s treatment at the PEPFAR clinic. “As a Muslim,” she told the American president, “I never imagined that a Catholic group would help me like that. I am so grateful to the American people.”

In Decision Points, Bush adds that during time in Rwanda in 2008, he and the First Lady visited a school where many orphan teenagers “were taught about HIV/AIDS prevention. One lesson focused on showing girls how to reject the advances of older men, part of the abstinence component of PEPFAR.”

He walked by a group of students, he recounts, and announced, “God is good.” In unison, they responded, “All the time!”

“Here in Rwanda,” he writes, “a country that had lost hundreds of thousands to genocide and AIDS, these children felt blessed. Surely those of us in comfortable places like America could learn a lesson. I decided to say it again. ‘God is good.’ The chorus responded even louder, ‘All the time!’”

Indeed. And thanks be to God, powerful men continue to try to listen, and not get too in the way of letting His light shine through them. You don’t have to agree with every decision Bush made to have some respect for and even take some inspiration from how he came to make them. His is ultimately a message of humility that’s worth a read. It’s a good reminder to newly elected political officials as they head to statehouses and Washington. It’s a reminder to all men and women of faith that real power and peace comes from God.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a nationally syndicated columnist. She speaks frequently on faith and public life.

(The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Catholic Pulse or the Knights of Columbus.)