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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.