Barbara Bush: Last old-school mainline Protestant to serve as America's first lady? (updated)

At least once a month, I pop open a search engine and go fishing on the World Wide Web, looking for a quotation or some other reference that I remember from the distant past. Just because you remember something -- as an aging religion-beat scribe -- doesn't mean that you are going to be able to find a reference online (or in the boxes of notes and clippings that line a wall in your basement).

So let me share what I remember about a First Things article I read just before the birth of the Internet. It focused on the differences, in terms of faith and personal style, between President Bill Clinton and the recently ousted President George H.W. Bush.

The basic idea was that Clinton, as a Bible Belt Baptist, was much more comfortable talking about his faith than the more reserved Bush, a Yankee Episcopalian. At one point there was a footnote to a press-conference transcript from the Bush campaign.

As I recall, Bush was asked what he thought about during the hours in which he floated in shark-infested Pacific Ocean waters after his fighter plane was shot down during World War II.

The transcript indicated that Bush said that he thought about Barbara, this family and God -- then there was a strategic pause before he added -- and "the separation of church and state."

Now there's a man who is a mainline Protestant's mainline Protestant.

I thought about article (if anyone can find it online, I'd love a URL) this morning while reading lots of news and commentary about the death of the 92-year-old Barbara Bush, the Bush family's beloved "Silver Fox" who had become a quirky, candid grandmother figure for millions of Americans. Good luck trying to find insights into the family's faith -- which can be sensed in between the lines, but that's as far as journalists were willing to go.

My main question: Were Barbara and George H.W. Bush the last old-school mainline Protestants -- in terms of low-key style and quiet faith -- to occupy the White House?

I mean, George W. Bush was a United Methodist, but he adopted a more outspoken, evangelical style after the religious rebirth that helped him defeat alcohol. Bill and Hillary Clinton? A Southern Baptist married to a liberal Methodist whose soul stayed in the north. Barack Obama was part of the much more politically progressive and theologically liberal United Church of Christ, the bleeding left edge of oldline Protestantism. Donald Trump? Who knows?

In terms of commentary on his mother's faith, the hometown Houston Chronicle turned to an insight from George W. Bush:

"My dear mother has passed on at age 92," former President George W. Bush said in a written statement. "Laura, Barbara, Jenna, and I are sad, but our souls are settled because we know hers was. Barbara Bush was a fabulous first lady and a woman unlike any other who brought levity, love and literacy to millions.
"To us, she was so much more. Mom kept us on our toes and kept us laughing until the end. I’m a lucky man that Barbara Bush was my mother. Our family will miss her dearly, and we thank you all for your prayers and good wishes." 
An old-line Republican who hewed to a more civil time, she made no secret during the presidential campaign of her contempt for Donald Trump’s treatment of women, once saying in a television interview, "I don’t know how women can vote [for him]."
Bush played the obliging spouse over 73 years of marriage to the man she met at age 16. With a string of pearls around her neck and her white hair elegantly coiffed, she accompanied him on frequent outings to the theater and to cheer on the Astros. The two often could be spotted dining out in Houston or among the pews at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church.

Much of the mainstream coverage went out of its way to demonstrate ways in which Barbara Bush didn't fit into the conservative Republican era in which her husband served as vice president and president.

That's a totally valid and important topic. I especially liked this passage from a New York Times commentary by writer Jon Meacham, one of the all-but-official chroniclers of the liberal Protestant establishment.

Barbara Bush was the first lady of the Greatest Generation -- a woman who came of age at midcentury, endured a world war, built a life in Texas, raised her family, lost a daughter to leukemia, and promoted first her husband’s rise in politics, and then that of her sons. ... 
It’s neither sentimental nor hyperbolic to note that Barbara Bush was the last first lady to preside over an even remotely bipartisan capital. She and her husband were masters of what Franklin D. Roosevelt once referred to as “the science of human relationships.” ... 
Born in New York City in 1925, raised in Rye, N.Y., and long shaped by the WASP code of her mother-in-law, Dorothy Walker Bush, Mrs. Bush was reflexively hospitable. The elder Bushes governed in a spirit of congeniality and of civility, a far cry from the partisan ferocity of our own time. In her White House -- and at Camp David and at Walker’s Point, the family’s compound on the coast of Maine -- Democrats and Republicans were welcomed with equal frequency and equal grace.

Several of the obituaries also stressed the degree to which the Bush's kept quiet about their many charitable efforts to help friends and the needy. That's the way the old mainline world handled things like that.

In this world, religious faith was real, but ultimately private -- unless one is linked in the public eye to the cultural changes that led to President Ronald Reagan.

As a rule, the Barbara Bush obituaries stress the progressive causes that she backed, painting her as a solid, old-school Republican surrounded by conservatives. It would have been interesting to know, for example, examples of conservative causes that she backed, with her husband, as well as those she was assumed to oppose.

For example, in the New York Times:

The Bushes had celebrated their 73rd wedding anniversary in January, making them the longest-married couple in presidential history. ...
There were rumors that she favored abortion rights, but she made it clear that she supported her husband and would not say whether she was comfortable with his anti-abortion stand.
“What not everyone always understood is that Barbara revealed as much as she wanted to but seldom more,” Donnie Radcliffe wrote in a 1989 biography, “Simply Barbara Bush: A Portrait of America’s Candid First Lady.” 

it's very clear to all that the 1953 death of their daughter Robin Bush, lost to leukemia when she was only three, had a profound impact on Barbara and her husband, as well as their son George -- whose bond with his mother became especially strong as he helped her struggle with her grief.

This Washington Post essay -- " ‘One last time’: Barbara Bush had already faced a death more painful than her own" -- is especially moving, but again totally free of faith content.

The White House "41s" -- a nickname to distinguish the older Bush duo from the "43s," George W. and Laura -- appear to have kept their faith in their pew and in their family. As a result, most of the news coverage of this remarkable woman's death is haunted by quite a few religious ghosts, both large and small.

UPDATE: I am still reading and searching. There is a new sidebar at The New York Times that includes additional material from George W. Bush -- who is clearly the family member, at this stage before the memorial service, is speaking openly about faith issues.

Note this section of the story, which ran under the headline, "In Barbara Bush’s Final Days, Faith, Courage and a Little Last Needling":

“It’s the end of a beautiful life,” Mr. Bush told Maria Bartiromo on Fox Business Network on Wednesday morning in his first interview following Mrs. Bush’s death. “She truly believes that there’s an afterlife, that she’ll be wonderfully received in the arms of a loving God and therefore did not fear death. And as a result of her soul being comforted on the deathbed, my soul is comforted.”
He appeared beside his wife, Laura Bush, who noted that she learned how to be first lady from her mother-in-law. “She was a great role model for me,” she said.
The former president said his two daughters -- Barbara Bush, who was named for her grandmother, and Jenna Bush Hager -- were dealing with the loss of Ganny, as they called her. “They’re emotional but as I explained to them, we ought to be joyful that we had such a wonderful woman in our lives and, two, that she passed with such strong beliefs. She truly was peaceful.”

FIRST IMAGE: Photo by Bobby Ross, Jr., at the University of Central Oklahoma in 2000. 

Please respect our Commenting Policy