The state funeral of President George H.W. Bush earlier this week was a study in the balance of the individual’s beliefs with the practice of religious freedom.

From service in the U.S. Navy during World War II to a long career in public service, Bush advocated for a separation of church and state. A private man, few important personal statements and family anecdotes show Bush held strong religious beliefs.

The United States espouses freedom of religion and has not instituted a religion in its nearly 250 years. Instead, to varying degrees, we have made attempts to accommodate a variety of beliefs and practices.

One example is military chaplaincy. Each branch of service includes ordained Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish and various Christian clergy. Sometimes, balance is enforced through legal intervention. This has included everything from a prohibition on proselytizing to a push for comparable spiritual guidance for atheists.

But the intersection of government and faith is a sensitive subject. Maintaining such freedom can sometimes make all parties feel as if their particular beliefs get short shrift.

Take the U.S. presidency. On the surface, it doesn’t seem to reflect our religious diversity because only Christians have held the office. However, our presidents’ personal practices and professions of faith have been a regular source of furor.

Nearly half of U.S. presidents have been Episcopalian and Presbyterian. Presidents also have been Methodists, Unitarians, Quakers and more. Jimmy Carter spoke openly about his Baptist beliefs. Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson had no formal affiliation. Three presidents were non-denominational Christians: Andrew Johnson, Rutherford B. Hayes and Barack Obama.

Bush was an Episcopalian. According to biographers and his son, former President George W. Bush (a Methodist), the elder’s life was shaped by his distinctly religious upbringing and the beliefs he held as an adult.

Yet while faith was central to his life, Bush struggled when asked to express openly what he believed. According to his son, Bush strove to separate personal beliefs from public office.

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Several founding fathers wanted this separation built into the office of the president. However, only a handful of presidents chose to keep their religious beliefs relatively private. Of that group, a few were labeled as atheists.

This includes Thomas Jefferson. While he didn’t often make public professions about his beliefs, his prolific correspondence shows he was willing to share ideas related to matters of faith, according to “Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed,” by John A. Ragosta.

Detractors called Jefferson an atheist because he argued strongly for a separation of church and state and eschewed religious practice.

In one letter to an acquaintance, Jefferson wrote that Jesus was the “first of human sages.” However, he dismissed biblical miracles as mythology and implied he doubted the efficacy of prayer, say historians at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

Jefferson even published his version of the New Testament, from which he had removed with references to miracles. His version emphasized Jesus’ teachings.

Contemporaries found such behavior unconventional and even blasphemous. Foundation historians say the third president had a “complicated” relationship with Christianity. Whatever his views, Jefferson’s copious correspondence shows he studied religion, believed in God and evolved in his beliefs as he reflected and discussed matters of faith.

As Bush later emphasized, Jefferson sometimes used a common understanding of religious faith to promote unity among the populace.

For example, Jefferson offered a prayer during his second inaugural address: “I ask you to join with me in supplications, that he — that being in whose hands we are — will so enlighten the minds of your servants, guide their councils, and prosper their measures, that whatsoever they do, shall result in your good, and shall secure to you the peace, friendship, and approbation of all nations.”

Karris Golden writes The Courier’s weekly faith and values column. Email her at onfaith@karrisgolden.com.


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