In my view, humanity, not God, was the essence of U.S. President George H.W. Bush’s state funeral Wednesday in the majestic National Cathedral at Washington, D.C.
Certainly, God was liberally invoked as was Christian scripture during the elegant, moving funeral. But, as a nontheist, I experienced the odes to spirituality as peripheral to the glowing humanism that deeply informed every beautiful, heartfelt eulogy and shone forth from faces in the pews.
It was fitting, I thought, that the first and arguably most eloquent tribute Wednesday to the former president — “Poppy” to his kids and grandkids — was delivered by an acclaimed American historian, Jon Meacham, not a clergyman. Among other books, Meacham wrote Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, the definitive biography on the man.
“The story was almost over even before it had fully begun,” Meacham said in the opening words of his eulogy.
‘Hit the silk’
Meacham was referring to that moment in history, the morning of Saturday, September 2nd, 1941, when enemy flak over the island of Chichi Jima in the South Pacific exploded against the fuselage of an American fighter plane piloted by then 19-year-old George Bush, which also carried two other crewmen. After successfully dropping bombs on their Chici Jima target and as their mortally wounded aircraft fell toward the ocean, all three crew members bailed out — after Bush ordered them to “hit the silk” — but only Bush ultimately survived. He was picked up later by a patrolling U.S. submarine.
It was fate or the hand of God that saved the young lieutenant junior grade that day, depending on one’s sense of rationality. Clearly, to Bush, it was the hand of something divine. To nonbelievers like me, it was purposeless fate.
Meacham and other funeral eulogizers stressed that it was a pivotal, even foundational, moment in the life of the young U.S. Navy aviator who would be president. Recalling the former president’s memory of that day, Meacham said Bush could not see his crewmates anywhere in the broad ocean as he bobbed in a tiny raft:
“Sensing his men had not made it, he was overcome. He felt the weight of responsibility as a nearly physical burden, and he wept. … Through the ensuing decades, President Bush would frequently ask, nearly daily … why me, why was I spared? And, in a sense, the rest of his life was a perennial effort to prove himself worthy of his salvation on that distant morning. To him, his life was no longer his own. There were always more missions to undertake, move lives to touch, more love to give.”
‘Leave the world better’
Several of the speakers Wednesday said they believed God had saved George H.W. Bush for a purpose, to spread goodness, kindness, honor and love in his land and beyond, to “leave the world better than he found it.”
It’s a lovely thought. As lovely as the soaring, soulful hymns sung by a choir at the funeral. As majestic as the impossibly towering walls of the cathedral. As gorgeous as the cathedral’s stained-glass rosetta window. As moving as the beautifully worded eulogies. As hopeful as humankind can be.But, while the sentiments are powerful and valuable, their supernatural roots can only be fairly viewed as illusion. At the same time, believing that only a deity can endow human beings with kindness and selflessness and courage is an insult to humanity. I believe that all the great goodness George H.W. Bush clearly embodied was present in his genes when he was born, as such traits are present in all of us in varying degrees, which does not diminish the joy and comfort he personally found in religion and possibly enhanced it.
‘Nasty, brutish and short’?
The unavoidable necessities of survival, not divines, have “designed” humankind over eons of biological “natural selection” to be generally cooperative, socially cohesive, altruistic creatures. Otherwise, we would have likely destroyed ourselves long ago in fleeting lives that were relentlessly “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” in the words of English Enlightenment philosopher and political theorist Thomas Hobbes.
In truth, we humans are far more sublime than brutish, informed, for instance, more by good humor than selfish bad faith. Regarding humor, Meacham recalled when on a rushed day of political campaigning and shaking countless hands for votes, Bush inadvertently reached to shake the hand of a department store mannequin and ask for a vote. Realizing his mistake, he sheepishly said:
“Never know. Gotta ask.”
So human. So natural.
How to do a Bush 41 impression
Meacham recalled another amusing aside from Bush’s long public career in politics, where he was equally pilloried and praised. He repeated the classic description of Bush by comedian Dana Carvey, a hugely talented impressionist most famous for his work on the TV show “Saturday Night Live!” Meacham reiterated Carvey’s view of how to capture Bush’s essence:
“He said the key to a Bush 41 impersonation is Mr. Rogers trying to do John Wayne.”
Referring to the late president as “America’s last great soldier statesman, a 20th century founding father,” Meacham said he “governed with virtues that most closely resembled” those of George Washington, John Adams, the Roosevelts, Truman and Eisenhower. All manifestly great human beings, of whom, it’s relevant here to point out, at least three did not believe in the Providence of a personal God.
So, when we remember George H.W. Bush, it would seem appropriate, even though he was a fervent, practicing Christian all his life, to give a nod to the natural evolution of mankind that has produced such saving graces for our species.
That George H.W. Bush’s powerfully hopeful funeral for the future of our nation was held in a church, as such memorials traditionally are in our culture, should not distract us from the evolutionary roots of his deep humanity.