The Faiths of the Postwar Presidents -- A Review

THE FAITHS OF THE POSTWAR PRESIDENTS: From Truman to Obama (George H. Shriver Lecture Series in Religion in American History).  By David L. Holmes.  Athens, GA:  University of Georgia Press, 2012.  Xiii +396 pages. 

            Americans take great interest in the religious affiliations and views of their presidential candidates.  When I was only two, Americans wondered whether a Roman Catholic could be safely elected President.  They breathed easier after John Kennedy was elected and Rome didn’t take control.  I cast my first presidential vote for Gerald Ford in 1976, while many of my Christian friends chose Jimmy Carter, because he was “Born Again.”  My claims that Ford was a good Christian fell on deaf ears.  Ironically, four years later most of my friends abandoned Carter for Ronald Reagan, apparently because they didn’t think his politics matched his faith.  So, what should we make of our seeming obsession with the religious beliefs of our Presidents, even though the U.S. Constitution specifically rules out religious tests for holders of Federal offices? 

The task of sorting out these questions has fallen to historian David L. Holmes, the Walter G. Mason Professor of Religious Studies Emeritus at the College of William and Mary. Holmes is an Episcopalian, who grew up Congregationalist – the two denominational traditions preferred by many of the nation’s founders.   In an earlier book, Faiths of the Founding Fathers, (Oxford University Press, 2006), Holmes explores the faiths of six founders – the first five Presidents and Benjamin Franklin.  He argues that these leaders highly valued religion, but tended toward deism on a personal level.  Although they weren’t radical deists, neither were they theologically orthodox.  (See my review here). 

Although we tend to see modern America as becoming increasingly secular, many of our most recent Presidents have been relatively orthodox in their beliefs and practices.  America may seem more secular, but its Presidents appear to be more openly religious than ever before, including the current holder of that office, Barack Obama. 

Holmes examines the religious backgrounds and faith expressions of the twelve post-World War II Presidents, from Truman to Obama, giving each President a chapter of his own.  Martin Marty writes the Introduction.  Holmes provides us with a broad personal and historical narrative that brings into the conversation family, social, cultural, and political dynamics.  What we learn about some figures might surprise us, especially those whose presidencies have faded into the recesses of our memories.  But, as we read this excellent book, we can gain a better understanding of who these men were or are, not just religiously, but as human beings.  One of the things we learn is that it's not easy being President and a person of faith!  Often Presidents make decisions that may conflict with the views of their faith communities. 

Some of these men were, to quote from Harry Truman, “lightfooted” in their religious views.  That is, they believed in God, had a religious heritage, but were not exactly fully observant.  Truman, for instance, was Southern Baptist, but not a hard-edged one.  Some Presidents, such as Dwight Eisenhower, had to distance themselves from the religious views of their upbringing and adopt something more mainstream as they entered politics.  Eisenhower grew up River Brethren and Jehovah’s Witness – two extremely sectarian faith communities -- but left them behind as he entered the Military Academy and took up a distinguished military career.  Unattached to any faith community, he chose to be baptized as a Presbyterians just days prior to his inauguration.  He seems to have concluded that the President should be connected to a religious community – as an example to the people.  Although not hard-edged in his beliefs, he joined many Americans in seeing religion as an essential bulwark against godless communism.    If Truman and Eisenhower were “lightfooted,” John Kennedy, the lone Roman Catholic, could be best described as a religious skeptic.  Though there was considerable worry at the time about his loyalties, there was need to fear.  His brother Bobby was much more committed to the family’s faith than was he.  Then there was Lyndon Johnson, who joined the Disciples of Christ as a youth, and then married an Episcopalian.  He enjoyed going to church, but he wasn’t especially observant.

In many ways the first post-war Presidents to be truly engaged spiritually was Gerald Ford.  As Holmes shows, the 1976 election pitted two very devout evangelically-inclined candidates against each other.  One was an Episcopalian and the other was a Southern Baptist.  Carter was more overt in his faith, but both were genuinely faithful Christians, so apparently I was correct.  Turning to Ronald Reagan, we find a more complicated figure.  Raised Disciples of Christ, he went to a Disciples college, and was a member of a Disciples church for much of his life.  In his later years, after his marriage to Nancy, who was not nearly as observant as he had been, he generally worshipped in Presbyterian churches.  While his convictions were genuine, mixed in was a degree of superstition and even attraction to astrology, something he shared with Nancy.  Then there are the two Presidents named George Bush.  The father grew up in a rather formal Episcopal Church setting, and remains strongly committed to that church.  The son, however, would become a United Methodist, but of a very evangelical sort.  Although George W. was in many ways a fun-loving, hard drinking good old boy, he eventually embraced a conservative evangelical version of the Christian faith.  As he ran for President and as he served as President, he saw himself called of God to this post.  Holmes writes that George W. Bush in many ways became the leader of the Religious Right, and his sense of divine calling hardened his positions on a variety of issues. 

The two Bush presidencies alternated with those of two Democrats – one being Southern Baptist (Bill Clinton) and the other one who grew up in a religiously unaffiliated family.  Only as an adult did Barack Obama become a Christian, and that was after he became a community organizer and saw the value of faith to social justice.  Being of mixed heritage, Obama ultimately joined a large Afro-centric congregation affiliated with the United of Christ, a choice that benefited him spiritually, but would prove politically toxic when he ran for President. 

There are several threads that run through the book.  One is the role of family in one’s religious understandings.  Some, like Eisenhower, left behind his family’s faith.  Others, including Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton, made their own choice of a church.  Johnson joined the Disciples because it was the most rational, least emotional, faith community in his town.  Clinton looked to the church to provide a sense of order to an otherwise chaotic family life.  Then there are people like the elder Bush, Carter, Ford, Nixon, Kennedy, and Reagan, whose formative religious experiences were shared with their families.  And then there’s Obama, who had no real religious background.  His father and step father were Muslims by background, but not by practice, while his anthropologist mother was a free spirit who introduced him to a variety of religious expressions.

Another thread is the role that Billy Graham plays in these stories.  When Harry Truman became President in the midst of World War II, Billy Graham was just getting started.  He approached Truman, seeking to be a spiritual advisor, but Truman saw him as a phony.  But with the exception of John Kennedy and to a degree Jimmy Carter, Billy Graham was a rather constant participant in the lives and presidencies of these men.  For some, like Richard Nixon, he was a close friend, and to others he was more a distant but visible advisor.  As time went on Graham’s rise in stature could provide religious cover for Presidents, while he gained a certain power from his connection to figures of such importance.  Sometimes this worked well for him, but at other points, especially with Nixon, it could back to haunt him.  Graham is fading from the scene as he no longer is active in ministry, but he has been a rather constant presence.

A third thread has to do with the way in which each President has tried to balance their religious activity with the Presidency.  As President Obama may have discovered, there is a desire by the populace to see the President go to church.  Attendance is important to many.  But attending church can be problematic.  Some have found ways of navigating this problem better than others.  Jimmy Carter, for instance, would teach Sunday school as President, while Lyndon Johnson loved to fool the press corps by changing regularly his places of attendance.  Richard Nixon, who grew up Quaker, but who was far from being a Quaker, decided to set up “church” in the East Room, and invite safe preachers.  Clinton and George W. regularly attended church, while Barack Obama has yet to find a church home. 

Our current President came into the Presidency having had to leave his home church – the only faith community in which he’d ever really found a home – because his pastor had become a liability.  Finding a home church has proven difficult, in part because as he tried to establish himself as President of all Americans the theology and the politics of the Black church have proven controversial.  Most White Americans fail to understand the liberationist aspects of Black theology and view it as subversive.  But even before this, Barack Obama wasn’t regular in his attendance.  While a deep reader of theology – especially Reinhold Niebuhr – Obama is in many ways part of the modern American context that moves in and out of faith communities.  He values community, but in many ways he’s closer to the “spiritual but not religious” expression of faith than his predecessors.   All of this has kept him from finding that home, and likely will keep him from finding one, at least as long as he is President.

Holmes’s book is a fascinating read.  It’s insightful, authoritative, and revealing of the spiritual dimensions of American political life.  We may try to separate church and state, but faith and office are less easily separated.  If one seeks to understand the complexities of these relationships, there is no better guide, in my mind that David Holmes.  He is fair, judicious, and as a person of faith himself, he understands the dynamics involved.  Too often these complexities are missed by historians who lack a faith involvement.  Perhaps by reading this book, one will discover that simple profession or even attendance doesn’t mean one is devout or that one’s faith influences one’s actions.  It did for Jimmy Carter, but in no way influenced the practices of John Kennedy or Richard Nixon.    


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