Listen To Article

Apparently, millions of evangelicals believe the Christian faith is greatly imperiled in America, more than it has ever, ever been. I don’t share their fears, but if, this weekend, they still believe that’s true, then they didn’t witness the funeral of President George Herbert Walker Bush. At some moments on Wednesday afternoon, that memorial felt almost embarrassingly Christian.

From Michael W. Smith to a public recitation to the Apostle’s Creed, from “Praise My Soul, the King of Heaven,” to his son’s wonderful spiritual tribute; from readings of scripture (Isaiah 60, Revelations 21), to “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” and “The King of Love My Shepherd Is,” the length and breadth of that commemorative service, broadcast on major network television, resounded with the Word, and even the Word Made Flesh.

And that wasn’t all. During the celebration of his life back in Houston, the Oak Ridge Boys sang “Amazing Grace,” just as America’s 41st President ordered.

Conservative evangelicals may well claim that their heartfelt opposition to same-sex marriage or legal abortion means they suffer derision and worse in what they say is the pervasive secular humanism of the cultural and the times.  They may well believe the confession and profession of that funeral celebration was a sham.

For that matter, purists on the Christian left might well complain that the ceremony exuded a potent concoction of faith and politics, zeal for God and country, a treacherous mix.  Some, I’m sure, considered that commemoration to be just another manifestation of American Civil Religion. I get that. Maybe my glasses are too rose-colored, but I couldn’t help feeling the recitation of the Apostles Creed, from Washington to LA, from Miami and Seattle was a national blessing.

“What does it tell you that the feel-good events in Washington these days are funerals?” Susan Glasser asks in the opening line to her article in the New Yorker titled, expansively: “George H. W. Bush’s Funeral Was the Corny, Feel-Good Moment That Washington Craves.” To me, it wasn’t just a “corny, feel-good moment.” Not at all. Nor was it, finally, to Glasser, who by the end of her piece seemed to admit she couldn’t help but feel more than a little comfy with corny.

Unlike the earlier McCain funeral in the very same National Cathedral, yesterday’s solemn proceedings carried no mention of Donald Trump. The Bushes wouldn’t have it. Nothing. His name was not spoken, no one drew comparisons, he was never cited, not once. Speakers flailed the Prince of Orange during the McCain funeral; on Wednesday nobody said a word.

However, the man still managed to create a presence, even in his stoic silence–by neglecting to shake hands with anyone other than his immediate neighbors, the greatly hated Obamas; by being the only one who didn’t recite the Apostles Creed or sing the hymns; by sitting in that characteristic, stifled straight-jacket he creates himself when his beefy arms circle his beefy self; by not responding warmly to anything. His very first tweet after the service trumpeted new poll numbers up at fifty per cent approval.

The man dominates our lives and our world so fully that it was impossible to listen to any of the preaching or eulogizing without doing presidential comparison/contrast, without thinking of the man who was and is and forever shall be the polar opposite of George H. W. Bush. After all, Bush was cited by all who knew him as a man humbly devoted to God, his family, and his people. No one named Trump, and he said not a word. Still, he hovered over the National Cathedral like something from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

Way back at the start of the Republican primaries in 2016, we all saw a strange phenomenon grow into something truly extraordinary. Early on, right here at Dordt College, he proudly announced, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot a man and I wouldn’t lose any voters,” an assessment abundantly more true than anyone could have guessed. A score of men and one woman were running for the Republican nomination, sometimes all of them on the debate stage at once, even a Bush, a “low-energy” ex-governor. Didn’t matter. Donald Trump sucked all the oxygen out of the room just like people said, left nothing for anyone else to breathe.

Wednesday, in a wonderfully enriching ceremony, a commemoration that had nothing to do with him, a presidential funeral at which he neither spoke nor was spoken of, his massive shadow still lay over every square inch of that immense, beautiful cathedral.

But it was only a shadow. I don’t know about you, but on that blessed afternoon he wasn’t the big story. Faith was, and that’s enough reason for me for thanksgiving.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

28 Comments

  • Gayla Postma says:

    Thanks, Jim. On Wednesday, faith outshone the shadow. Somehow fitting fit Advent.

  • Mero says:

    What started out as a good morning read had to end using this platform to slam evengelicals and the president. Very sad indeed.

  • Tom says:

    Trump does not “dominate” my life. It’s up to you whether he dominates yours.

    • James Schaap says:

      Thanks. It’s probably overstated, although I meant it in a national sense, as if to say, he dominates discussions like no one else in the political scene has done for years, if ever. How can I be dominated by Trump? I’ve got a 10-month old granddaughter who surprised all of us who love her.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    Thanks, Kames. My feelings echoed yours. A few qualifications though. The priest, who surpassed any reasonable expectation of pastoral care was great until he misquoted Jesus. He said, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Eternal into your eternal home.” That is not what the gospel says – it says, “Enter into the joy of your master.” We were left with no doubt that 41 would be hugging his young daughter who died at a tender age and holding Barbara’s hand. But Jesus didn’t seem to play much of a role in heaven. How American! Also, your article would have been just a little bit better without the criticisms of Trump’s appearance. No one has a lower estimation of our current president than I, but we stoop to his level when we mock his appearance. We are better than that and I am coming to believe that we of the church are going to be the guardians of kindness and civility. By the way, how disappointing that the only major US government leader who is “one of ours” (Marble Collegiate Church where he attended and Presbyterian membership) was the only President or spouse who failed to recite the Apostles” Creed! Back to confirmation class you go, Mr. President.

    • Eric Van Dyken says:

      “We are better than that” No. No, we’re not. James helpfully illustrates that again here. Those obsessed with Trump tend to become like him. It’s an odd thing to observe.

    • James Schaap says:

      You’re right about the beefy arms and beefy self especially. My wife said this guy Mueller really nailed you, and I told her I thought I could get away with it because I’m built exactly the same way. She didn’t laugh about that either. You’re right.

    • Tom Ackerman says:

      Perhaps you are right that we could have done without the particular adjective, but I think it is appropriate to comment on the body language of President Trump, his personal isolation, and his inability to engage socially with his presidential colleagues in any meaningful way. As one gazed along the other presidential couples seated in that row, it was jolting to realize that the only person among them who had not been personally denigrated by President Trump over his or her appearance and/or intellect was Rosalyn Carter. (And the Bush sons on the other side of the aisle experienced similar denigration.) This is not to justify unkind remarks about President Trump’s appearance, but to lament the lack of civility and charity that so marks his words and to emphasize the contrast with his predecessors.

  • Jessica A Groen says:

    The funeral for President Bush was nationally broadcast for this purpose: to encourage white US citizens to keep holding on to our faith in something. That something is the Great White-ASP Hope. Our faith in its past glories, as our selective memory curates a human biography into hagiography, and our faith in seeing its future iterations, which would, even if marred by a bit of um, [shrugs shoulders] bigotry, provide us more of that special breed of leaders like Bush, who are trained to perform the classy “virtues that their successors have failed to inherit or revive” (quote is Ross Douthat, 2 days ago).

    I think this is more toxic than that WWII-flavored flag&faith Civil Religion, because turning a burial of the dead rite into a celebration of life gathering (of a greatest generation patriot, good father, and polite president) coopts a rite which exists to focus us upon our real dread of mortality and our real hope in Jesus’s resurrection. It puts the Christian message into use for keeping us all warm and fuzzy about the glorious past and the future possibilities of White Supremacy and White Nationalism, encouraging us to keep our Jesus-speak adjacent as we achieve our own immortality: a nationally reified reputation that is accomplished by patriotic, economic, and paternity performances.

    • James Schaap says:

      Maybe. You push it farther than I would, but I know the argument because I hear it–and it resonates–in the conversation of the 99-year-old Lakota woman I see quite a bit (I’m helping her write her life story). She tells me Christianity is something Native folks needed during the time of transition, but not since. May I say I struggle with that idea, really struggle.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    I thank you for putting this out there, James, all the same.

    • James Schaap says:

      You know, all you’ve got to do is write in that five-letter word and you a crowd forms, just like that. If I was smarter and younger, I’d write a book.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks James for this article that would have us think Christianity is not dead, but alive and well in the U.S.A. For me the events of George Bush’s passing brings home the U.S. tenet of freedom of religion. Even publicly we can profess any religion, including Christianity, without fear of reprisal.

    What frustrated me with your article, James, is that you are not especially fond of our freedoms. You believe Donald Trump should have professed his faith in a Triune God by saying the Apostles Creed, whether he personally believed it or not. I suppose Thomas Jefferson, like Trump, would have refused to confess this Christian creed, although he was quite willing to drastically edit the Bible. Of course it was Jefferson who upheld freedom of religion when he penned the Declaration of Independence.

    I think your article this time showed a failure to think through your thoughts before writing. Thanks, anyway, for sharing your insights, if they are indeed what you meant to say.

    • James Schaap says:

      It’s always fair, I guess, to say I didn’t think enough. But I’ve partially believed Jeffries and Graham and all the other evangelicals who claim he’s some kind of “baby Christian.” Maybe they’re wrong too. You know, when James Joyce’s mother was dying, she asked him to participate in the mass. She said it would mean so much to her. He thought about it and declined because, he said, he couldn’t profane a sacrament that had so much meaning to some, which meant, oddly enough, that he may well have been more of a believer than any of a dozen others who took the host that day without really thinking much at all about it. It’s an odd couple–Donald Trump and James Joyce–but you may be right.

    • Tom Ackerman says:

      I am nearly the same age as Jim Schaap and have been reading and admiring his writing for more years than either of us would probably care to admit. I do not understand how you can read his words and come to the conclusion that he is “not especially fond of our freedoms”. In my estimation, nothing could be further from the truth. Claims like this have the (intended) consequence of elevating yourself to a higher plane of virtue because you have a greater fondness for freedom(s).

      President Trump has the right to refuse to recite the Apostle’s Creed. However, then neither he nor his supporters have the right to claim that he is a Christian and a member of the evangelical community. And while I agree that Christians may and should pray for their leader, they have no right to identify President Trump as more Christian than President Obama, President Clinton, or President G. W. Bush. I suspect that President Jefferson might not have recited the Apostle’s Creed, but I am also quite sure that he would not have invited a group of ministers into the White House to pray for him.

  • Rowland Van Es says:

    For Bush, as for Calvin, serving the Government was a “most holy service” and he did it honorably as best he could. Calvin worried about having pure democracy as it could put government in the hands of the ‘worst’ if the majority voted for him. That is what we have now with Trump. The only one who should be paying attention to his every word and deed is Robert Mueller. In time the truth will come out and God and history will judge all men…

  • Karl Westerhof says:

    This Schaap piece and the comments together form a perfect example of how very difficult it is to have dialog among followers of Jesus. As I read Jim, I thought, Yes, this puts into words exactly what I was feeling. Except I had a twinge about the descriptions of President Trump. Then as I read the comments, I began to think, Yes, it was an uncomfortable mix of church and state, religion and politics, and a noticeable absence of any personal expressions of faith in Jesus. And then I meandered on in my thinking about all the twists and turns of the conversations about politics and faith that I’ve had with fellow believers in the past couple years. I confess I don’t know how to do better without pausing to nuance every phrase and then failing utterly to say anything at all that anyone wants to listen to. Yet I want to speak up for dialog rather than the exchange of verbal bomb-lets. Could we as fellow Jesus-followers make it a practice always to assume the best or check it out? Could we take a bit more pains to demonstrate that we are hearing and understanding, and appreciating, and then questioning or differing? Could the church be the body that bends over backwards to model loving dialog and handling differences in a really safe way? I love the TWELVE, and I long for kindness, gentleness, patience, long suffering, to be modeled here. Thanks to all of you who write and respond regularly! The TWELVE is a blessing and a sweet fragrance in my life.

    • James Schaap says:

      Thanks, Karl. That means a ton to me and to all of those who regularly contribute. I can’t tell you how long I sat here last night wondering if I should put those sentiments up on the screen. I don’t often write about our political mess, but I couldn’t help thinking that that commemoration of 41’s life–and all of its attendant features, so many so beautiful–was not only surprising but a blessing. I’ve been on a keyboard for more than forty years now, but it didn’t take me long to figure out that there’s no accounting for taste. Thanks again for the good words!

  • Cory Van Sloten says:

    Thanks Jim.

  • Fred D Mueller says:

    Ha, ha, ha! You’re wife is spot on – aren’t they always? This is “Mueller,” Fred not Robert. I too fit the description – beefy (I prefer that to fat), not orange.

    What a great string of comments. Well done for that, James! So, just because it is ongoing – I am a pacifist and I squirm when we celebrate a warrior. I know it was a different time. Nevertheless, there is no such thing as a good war. An argument can be made for justifiable. Perhaps.

    But 41 turned a bunch of very young Japanese men into pink mist with his bombs. That was celebrated even as the red carpet was laid for his entrance into heaven.

    That makes me uneasy. I would not say a warrior goes to hell for killing – after all, Jesus had the highest praise for the Roman commander. Nevertheless, I don’t think being a good American soldier is an especial qualification for eternal life.

    This funeral was definitely not the place for working that out, but I believe we should feel some discomfort when the list of accomplishments in a eulogy includes the successful killing of the enemy.

    And my dear friend and mentor Howard Hageman taught me, and my classmates NOT to do eulogies anyway. But we won’t get into that.

    James, you got a wonderful string of good thoughts and faithful disagreements going here. Keep it up.

    The other Mueller

  • Fred D Mueller says:

    Your, not you’re. My twentieth mistake today.

  • Rika Diephouse says:

    As I watched George HW Bush’s funeral, I gave thanks to God: for the love of family demonstrated by the Bush’s , for the freedom that allows Biblical truth to be televised nationally, and for five US presidents to sit together peacefully, setting aside political differences for a moment, to celebrate the life of a former president. It saddens me to see Christians name-calling, and judging people by their appearance and demeanor. It diminishes our light in the world.

  • John van staalduinen says:

    Not a word about President Trump during the funeral was perhaps the correct thing to do. However this author felt it necessary for some reason to belittle his President by name calling and humiliation. Perhaps this author could explain to the audience why this was an appropriate Christian maneuver.

  • Douglas Ditmar says:

    I’ve never seen a funeral quite like 41’s. By the time it was finished he qualified for sainthood. While running for his first term he ran one of the dirtiest campaigns ever up to that time by demonizing his opponent. While he loved his family unconditionally, he chose to blow Iraq off the face of the earth rather than send in special forces to take out it’s evil leader. In response to the author’s article, the current President clearly indicated that he would have reached out to the rest but Hillary Clinton wanted none of it. Perhaps you missed that part. The Bush family praised him and stated that he couldn’t have been nicer. So you’re impressed with the Obama’s, Clinton’s, and Carter’s reading the Apostles Creed? Didn’t you think it was rather strange that as professed Christians they needed to read it? Franklin Graham has clearly stated that this President has been perhaps the most faith friendly President ever. No one has said he is anything but a new believer. I know Mr. Graham has the authority and experience to make that claim. The President has also chosen a devout Christian in Mike Pence to be his Vice President. President George H W Bush was never known for having a deep meaningful faith life. He was a member of perhaps the most liberal of Protestant denominations the Episcopal Church. This denomination has openly gay clergy and approves of same sex marriage. All evidence available at the time he served clearly showed a man with a nominal if not shallow faith life who continued to privately be pro choice while expressing publicly that he was pro life. So while President Trump tests our patience with his behavior and words more often than any of us would like, there were other Presidents present who tested us in other unacceptable ways.

Leave a Reply