God in the Obama Era -- Review

God In The Obama Era: Presidents' Religion and Ethics from George Washington to Barack ObamaGOD IN THE OBAMA ERA: President’s Religion and Ethics from George Washington to Barack Obama.  By Niels Nielsen.  Garden City, NY: Morgan James, 2009.   397 pages. 

    The question of Barack Obama’s faith has long been a topic of conversation.  There are those who continue to claim that he’s a secret Muslim – and thus a terrorist or lover of terrorists.  There are others who continue to highlight his relationship with former pastor Jeremiah Wright.  Some on the left are angry that Obama has continued a Bush era faith based office, and that he invited Rick Warren to pray at his inauguration.  It is likely that there will be no end to the speculations and the conversations as the nature of his faith and the way that faith will impact his presidency.

    Of course, with the President having only been in office for a little more than a year, it’s still too early to make a judgment on the impact that faith will make on his policy.  We do know that his faith is important to him.  He’s thoughtful about it – anyone who can discourse on the views of Reinhold Niebuhr isn’t your typical U.S. President.   He may not be regularly attending a local church (he apparently shares in worship at Camp David that is led by a military chaplain), but he does rely on a broad group of religious leaders for advice – including the General Minister of my own denomination.  The way he understands his faith, and the way in which it influences his understandings, is very different from his predecessor -- and yet not so very different.  Consider for just a moment that both this President and the former President looked to the same African American United Methodist pastor for advice – KirbyJohn Caldwell.   So, who is Obama and how does his faith commitments and actions fit into the broader scheme of American history?

    Niels Nielsen, a religious studies professor at Rice University, seeks to add his own voice to the discussion of Obama’s faith in God in the Obama Era, though  the title is a bit misleading.  It should point out that this is not simply a book about Obama’s faith or about how people view God at the beginning of Obama’s presidency.  The book’s subtitle offers us a better sense of the contents of the book, for its focus is on the way in which religion has influenced the ethics and actions of the nation’s Presidents, especially in the 20th century.  Indeed, two-thirds of the book carries has little to do with Obama, except for a paragraph or two at the beginning of chapters that compare Obama to one of his predecessors.  If one were to pull out the middle two-thirds of the book, you could find a a coherent discussion of presidential religion and ethics, without ever mentioning Obama’s name.  As one reads the book, one gets the sense that much of it was already written prior to the Obama presidency, and then it was modified to take into consideration the current occupant.  Only the final two chapters deal specifically with Obama and his faith.  That is not a criticism of the book, but it’s helpful to note that the book is not specifically about Obama.

    What Nielsen does provide is an overview and introduction to the relationship of religion and the Presidency, focusing largely on the presidents who have governed during the 20th and 21st centuries.  Only Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln merit attention among earlier presidents, and the choice of these three is obvious.  Washington is the founding President who set many of the precedents that have endured over time – Nielsen isn’t convinced, however, that Washington qualifies as a true Deist.  Jefferson, of course, is well known for his skepticism, and Lincoln for the depth of his faith in a time of crisis – despite not being affiliated with any specific faith community.

    The focus, then, is on more recent leaders, beginning with Woodrow Wilson.  What we discover is that these men are, for the most part, religious, though not necessarily overly so.  Wilson was fairly devout, and a bit priggish.  Herbert Hoover was Quaker, but also rather secular.  Kennedy, of course, was Catholic; something he had to overcome.  Lyndon Johnson was Disciple, but also rather crude, and Nielsen doesn’t spend much time with this connection – pointing rather to a later relationship with Billy Graham.   Jimmy Carter was, of course, a Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher, and that faith did empower his social views and commitments.  Ronald Reagan was Disciple as well, and learned from it a rejection of doctrinal dogmatism and a literal interpretation of the Bible.  That early introduction to biblical literalism, may have allowed him to embrace more conservative theological positions that fit with his conservative politics.  What we discover is that for the most part, these Presidents had a degree of piety, but their political decisions rarely followed from their faith.  There have always been other factors guiding them, though faith often provided a sense of grounding and sustenance. 

    It should not be surprising that over the past half century, one figure stands out – Billy Graham.  Graham seems to always be in the center of things – it doesn’t matter what the political position.  He was close to LBJ, Nixon, and the Bushes.  While some may have sought Billy Graham out for spiritual reasons, Nixon also seemed to  understand the political benefits of aligning himself with one who was seen as the pillar of Christian morality.   Interestingly, according to Nielsen, only Harry Truman would have nothing to do with the great Evangelist. According to an account quoted by Nielsen, Truman was known to have said of Graham:
    He claims he’s a friend of all the presidents, but he was never a friend of mine when I was President.  I just don’t go for people like that” (p. 157).

It appears that Truman wasn’t interested in Graham’s advice.   

    God in the Obama Era is an informative book, taking us through the ways in which our Presidents have grappled with faith and politics, seeking to help us understand how they either tried to bring them together or keep them separate.      As for his analysis of Obama, it’s pretty straight forward.  He notes Obama’s interest in and reliance upon Reinhold Niebuhr.  From Niebuhr he has gained an understanding of power and the way in which it should be approached.  It is pragmatic, realistic, and tough minded. 

    The primary issues here are ones of editing.  There are a number of grammatical and typographical errors.  In addition, there were several points where names were given incorrectly – to give two that stood out to me, the former Presidential candidate and Congressman from Missouri is Richard Gephardt not Gerhardt.  The other error is listing the preacher at Obama’s Inaugural Prayer Service as Sharon Watson.  It is Sharon Watkins – General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  In addition, the book would have been more useful had the author included an index.  The book is of sufficient size and scope to warrant such an addition. 

     With these few caveats that focus more on editing and format, one will find here a useful narrative of the role religion has played in the lives of our Presidents.  Since the United States remains religious in its orientation – though secularism is creeping in – it is helpful to know and understand these issues.  It is helpful to have as a guide one who seeks to help us understand the nuances, rather than simply offering critique.  In this Nielsen is successful.



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