On the anniversary of D-Day in 1991, President George H. W. Bush delivered an address to the messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Atlanta, Georgia (listen above at 4:47). The speech is fascinating on a number of levels, not least of which is the part where he praises Southern Baptist military chaplains who reported over 1,000 conversions among U.S. service members during Operation Desert Storm (8:26).
I know 1991 isn’t that long ago, but it feels like a million years ago that a sitting President could stand before an evangelical Christian group and laud them for evangelizing employees of the United States government. And he didn’t do it in secret but in a televised speech. It’s quite stunning if you think about it. I don’t think there is any president from any party who would would be willing to do that today.
Another remarkable moment occurs at about the 10:26 mark. President Bush begins reflecting on praying with the First Lady when the air war began in Desert Storm. He says that as an Episcopalian, prayer had always been a “private” thing that involved no emotion. But as they knelt together to pray that night for U.S. servicemen, he couldn’t keep the tears back.
And even as he told the story, the President couldn’t keep the tears back and began to wipe them from his face during this part of his address. He said that he had always worried about crying in public, but on his knees on the verge of war he said, “I no longer worried how it looked to others… in prayer, what mattered was how it might have seemed to God.” It was a real human moment in which he expressed real humility about the decision to go to war.
Another noteworthy item occurs at 22:11, where President Bush exhorts Southern Baptists, “I’d ask that you hold fast to the Southern Baptist ideal of a free church in a free state… Hold fast to protect our most essential unit of life–the family.” Little did anyone know in 1991 how much strain would be put on both a free church and the family in the subsequent years and decades. That tension is what we live in now.
As President Bush is now lying in state at the Capitol Hill Rotunda, I think this speech is worth your time to watch, not only as a piece of history but also as an reminder of what principled statesmanship looks like.
Postscript: I really do appreciate the many gracious remarks that President Bush made to Southern Baptists during this address. Nevertheless, I wish to clarify that I am not a fan of politicians addressing the Southern Baptist Convention. I may be a part of a minority in my denomination on this particular point, but I think it sends all the wrong signals when we do this. Again, I am grateful for so much of what the President said in this particular address, and I do not want to cause a rift in my denomination over this. But I still believe that our denomination would do well not to be inviting politicians to address our gatherings.