In June of 1987, Adrian Rogers was elected to his third, non-consecutive term as president of the Southern Baptist Convention at the annual meeting in St. Louis. Just four months later, then-vice president George H.W. Bush announced his candidacy for president of the United States.
While an internecine war was coming to a close within the Southern Baptist Convention, the Cold War continued to rage. Many evangelicals threw their initial support behind evangelist Pat Robertson, whom they saw to be one of their own, during primary season. Robertson came in second in the Iowa caucus behind Bob Dole, and Bush placed third. It wasn’t until the next month when Bush swept all 16 primaries on Super Tuesday that he was seen as the presumptive nominee.
Southern Baptists were faced with a choice in 1988: Bush, the Republican, or Democrat Michael Dukakis. According to Richard Land, who took the helm at the SBC’s Christian Life Commission (now the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission) that same year, Bush was the clear choice for Southern Baptists.
“Politics and public policy is a comparative business, and you can’t make the perfect enemy of the good,” Land said. “You have to evaluate George H.W. Bush and his importance to Southern Baptists in comparison to the alternative, and clearly, compared to Michael Dukakis, he was a fantastic president. He was pro-life, pro-religious freedom, and he helped turned back the invasion of Kuwait in the Gulf War. All of those things had significant Southern Baptist support, and none of those things would have happened if he had lost to Dukakis.”
According to Land, much of Bush’s legacy stems from the furtherance of positions and continuation of policies enacted during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.
“He continued the Reagan legacy, and in many ways was the keeper of that legacy throughout his term,” Land said. “His chief importance was, he became more pro-life because of his association with Reagan and more sympathetic to the issues important to Southern Baptist during the eight years he served under Reagan.”
As liaison to evangelicals during his father’s campaign, George W. Bush ensured Land that he was pro-life, his father was pro-life, and that Southern Baptists would have a friend in the White House in George H.W. Bush.
In addition to overseeing the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union, one of Bush’s greatest contributions as president was his assertive leadership after Saddam Hussein led Iraq to invade Kuwait in August of 1990. In a speech delivered to the National Religious Broadcasters January 28, 1991, just a week and a half after the beginning of Operation Desert Storm, Bush assured evangelicals that the basis for the war stemmed from classic just war doctrine.
“The war in the Gulf is not a Christian war, a Jewish war, or a Muslim war; it is a just war. And it is a war with which good will prevail,” Bush said. “The first principle of a just war is that it support a just cause. Our cause could not be more noble. We seek Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait—completely, immediately, and without condition; the restoration of Kuwait’s legitimate government; and the security and stability of the Gulf.”
Daniel Heimbach, who currently serves as senior professor of ethics at Southeastern Seminary, worked at the time as deputy executive secretary of the Domestic Policy Council. He wrote the memo which prompted Bush to utilize just war doctrine to gain support for military intervention in the Gulf amid a sea of moral questions.
“I was very conscious at the time of the Lord’s hand and had a very strong sense that I was [at the White House] not to pursue my own career but to make a contribution to the Kingdom of God,” Heimbach said. “The Lord knew what he was doing.”
Later that year, convention president Morris Chapman welcomed President Bush to address the the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Atlanta.
“On behalf of Southern Baptists, I want to thank you for your commitment to cherished beliefs that we hold in common. Thank you, Mr. President, for giving high priority to your personal family and to family values and for your leadership in advocating parental choice in education and child care. Thank you, Mr. President, for standing up for the unborn, who cannot stand up for themselves. Thank you, Mr. President, for setting an example of spiritual commitment by attending public worship,” Chapman said.
Bush’s address included a call for Congress to pass a constitutional amendment that would allow students to pray voluntarily in public schools, an endorsement of school vouchers, and a commitment to religious liberty.
“Let’s put people first and allow them the freedom to follow their faith,” he said. “Putting people first also means making sure government allows people to make their own decisions, and that means giving parents and families the right to choose the kind of child care they want for their kids.
“Every family should have the freedom to choose a school for a child,” he said. “Our efforts for choice in schools seek to put power in parents’ hands. We trust them to make the right decisions for their kids. I’m confident that choice will make bad schools better.”
Come 1992, a few things stood in the way of Bush’s reelection. For one, many Americans perceived Bush to have reneged on his promise of “no new taxes” when he struck a deal with Congressional Democrats for a budget agreement in 1990 that required raising existing taxes. For another, the Democratic base was energized by Bill Clinton, his youthful, charismatic opponent in the general election.
“Sadly, I and most Southern Baptists wish he had won reelection because he would have been a much better president than Mr. Clinton was on the issues that were important to us,” Land said. “He was a man of tremendous moral rectitude, and it sets a tone that’s important. He was a gentleman’s gentleman. Most Southern Baptists lamented that in his successor.”
Southern Baptists can be grateful for the life and legacy of George H.W. Bush, a president who stood firm in protection of religious liberty, maintained a solidly pro-life stance throughout his administration, and conducted himself in a way that brought honor to his family and his country.
Chris Osborne serves as pastor of Central Baptist Church in College Station, Tex., just around the corner from the elder Bush’s presidential library.
“We love having his library here because of the integrity he showed in his life,” Osborne said. “He had no scandals, and was a man who lived well in a number of areas of service.”
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