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How faith guided former President George H.W. Bush, according to his pastor

Rev. Russell Levenson, Jr. of St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Houston with former first lady Barbara Bush and former President George. H.W. Bush after a morning worship service. Levenson details his friendship with the Bushes and what he learned from them and how they lived their faith in his new book <em>Witness to Dignity: The Life and Faith of George H.W. and Barbara Bush.</em>
St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Houston
Rev. Russell Levenson, Jr. of St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Houston with former first lady Barbara Bush and former President George. H.W. Bush after a morning worship service. Levenson details his friendship with the Bushes and what he learned from them and how they lived their faith in his new book Witness to Dignity: The Life and Faith of George H.W. and Barbara Bush.

In the years since former President George H. W. Bush and his wife Barbara's deaths, a number of books have come out about the couple's lives and political careers. But Rev. Russell Levenson, Jr. believed one large part of the couple's lives was missing: their faith.

Levenson serves as the rector at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Houston and got to know the couple over more than a decade, as the Bushes regularly attended Sunday services. He has reflected a lot on his relationship with them and decided to chronicle not only their lives and deaths but also what he learned from them in his new book, Witness to Dignity: The Life and Faith of George H.W. and Barbara Bush.

"As their priest, as their pastor...I felt like that was an important story to tell because I saw in them what I felt like was a true and earnest faith that really did shape who they were and shape the way in which they lived their lives," he said.

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Levenson stays away from politics for the majority of the book, but he does admit the political climate is part of what motivated him.

"The current climate in which we are living and the way in which politics and public leadership has, I think, in so many ways become so difficult, so challenging, so divided," he said, "we have now a season in our nation and perhaps even our world when people forget that it's really important for people in positions of leadership to find ways to work together for the greater good."

Levenson spoke with NPR's All Things Considered about how the Bushes lived their faith, what lessons from them he's thinking about for the new year and providing a roadmap for people to serve one another.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

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On how the Bushes interacted with those of differing views

From my observation at least, I never saw the president or Barbara talk about people with whom they might disagree on politics as their enemies. They might have said, "Well, we disagree on that." Certainly when he was in office, he had an agenda and he had goals and dreams for the nation that he wanted, but if he stood in opposition to somebody, I don't think he thought they were the enemy.

Former president George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush greet runners participating in the Houston Marathon on Jan. 13, 2008. The route took participants past the Bushes church, St. Martin's Episcopal.
St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Houston
Former president George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush greet runners participating in the Houston Marathon on Jan. 13, 2008. The route took participants past the Bushes church, St. Martin's Episcopal.

I think he and Barbara sought out people that were very different from themselves and were able to accomplish remarkable things because they really sought the greater good. And I think a lot of that was shaped by their faith. I don't think they used their faith to further their policies or get out front. You know, you never saw them kind of wear it on their sleeve. But I'm clear that their faith shaped who they were. And so they believed in things like civility and decency and character and integrity. I'm not saying that they were saints or perfect. That's my boss's job. But I think they saw the important qualities of human decency.

On people turning away from religion and what the book can offer those who aren't religious

One of the challenges that we face now, one of the reasons many people have stopped going to church, or particularly, I think young adults, they look at people who profess faith in the public square but don't live in a way in which that faith is authentic.

I know we are not electing theocrats. We're not looking for people to be "theologians-in-chief". We're looking for people who lead as presidents and senators and congressmen and judges and governors. But I do think we want people who are good and decent. From my role, I think those qualities come from having a relationship with God and understanding God's image in those we encounter. And so [if] we begin to treat other people as if they were God's children, then we're going to live in a more authentic way.

So I think if you pick up the book, I tell people toward the end, you know, I think it provides a roadmap for people to understand how to serve one another and serve the causes that they believe in. Because I think the president and Bar did that in such a wonderful way and such that really they were giving up till the last minute

On whether or not the U.S. is becoming "kinder and gentler" as the former president wished

I'm not sure we've made a lot of progress on that. Regardless of your party, Democrat or Republican, Independent, whatever it is, I think the key is how do we work together for a greater good? And in order to do that, you're going to have to put aside what appears to be, to me, a visceral response to those with whom we disagree.

You see again and again, when leaders work across the aisle to do good things, better things through understanding and through a shared common goal of a better world, a better nation, better state, better city, then good things do happen.

On what lessons from the Bushes he is taking into the new year

Often when I would leave a visit with them at the house or watch them with other people or see the way they acted in the public square ... I would walk away and think, "I need to be a better person." And I'm in the role of a priest and pastor. But, you know, I'm a work in progress like everybody else.

They would use those opportunities to make other people's lives better. And so, one of the lessons I would take away and hopefully, people would take away from the book is, you are given one life to live. And no one knows how long that life will be. And all kinds of opportunities to make a difference in the world around you face you on a regular basis. And if you could live the way they lived, I think you would get to the end of your life and feel like I've done what I've been called to do.

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