Faith and Twelve Presidents
Since the founding of the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies in the early seventeenth century, religion has powerfully affected American society and life. Many Europeans came to escape religious persecution, worship God as they desired, establish communities based on biblical norms and values, and spread the gospel. Ever since William Bradford and John Winthrop led their respective colonies, many Americans have expected their political leaders to have a strong faith and exemplary character.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the faith of American presidents has been an important (and often controversial) issue since George Washington first occupied the office. Some pundits and scholars claim that a president’s faith has little effect on how he governs, but the evidence contradicts this contention. The faith of many presidents has been deep and meaningful and has helped shape their worldviews, character, policies, and relationships. Presidents, like other politicians and most other people, use religion to further their purposes—e.g., to gain the approval of various groups, win elections, enhance their popularity, increase support for their policies, and bolster their claim to be people of integrity. Polls consistently report that Americans want their presidents to have a robust faith in God, which also encourages chief executives to accentuate their religious convictions and practices.
Many Americans feel more comfortable when they know (or at least believe) that their presidents pray about the decisions they make and the policies they adopt. Because the United States has no national church but a strong Judeo-Christian heritage, our civil religion demands that presidents serve as our civic chief priest to sanctify America’s dominant institutions and values and provide comfort and consolation in times of crisis and tragedy. Custom, Congress, and current events all require presidents to play this role.
When I began research in 2001 on my book, Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush (Oxford University Press, 2006), little scholarly examination of the religious convictions of presidents had been done. Few historians or political scientists had investigated the rich materials available in the archives of presidential libraries or had carefully explored presidents’ use of religious rhetoric and biblical passages and principles to gain votes, support their policies, and enhance their image as men of character. Nor had they evaluated the influence of presidents’ faith on their philosophy of government, policies, electoral campaigns, or relationships with religious constituencies.
During the last eleven years, however, the situation has changed dramatically as numerous books have explored the nature of the faith of presidents and how their faith helped shape their worldview, performance, and policies. One of the most recent and best is David L. Holmes’s The Faiths of the Postwar Presidents: From Truman to Obama. Holmes, an emeritus professor of religious studies at the College of William and Mary, provides a lively, engaging, interesting appraisal of the influences upon and nature of the faith of the twelve men who have served as America’s chief executive since the end of World War II. Holmes carefully examines the role that each president’s upbringing, education, friends, mentors, and clergy confidants played in his spiritual formation and religious beliefs. His book is especially helpful in explaining the religious background and commitments of the grandparents, parents, and wives of these presidents.
Holmes also focuses on the presidents’ church attendance and use of religious rhetoric. He shows that their faith was important to all of these presidents except John F. Kennedy, a point most of their biographers have ignored. Although Kennedy “remained in good standing” in the Catholic Church, Holmes argues, he had “what might best be seen as a tribal loyalty” to this church. Kennedy is best described as a “detached Catholic” or a “practicing non-Catholic” because he rejected some of the church’s key teachings, violated some of its moral norms, and remained a Catholic primarily because leaving the church “would have been tantamount to political suicide.” Ronald Reagan is an example of a president whose strong Christian commitment was long neglected by academicians and journalists. Prior to his funeral in 2004 at which many eulogists emphasized his devout faith and the publication of Paul Kengor’s God and Ronald Reagan that year, few scholars paid significant attention to Reagan’s faith. Holmes concludes that many Americans “underestimated the genuineness of his Christian convictions.”
Holmes’s book is well researched and documented. However, it is primarily based on biographies, articles about, and interviews of the presidents, as well as their autobiographies, and makes little use of archival materials or presidential addresses. The book would benefit from an introduction and conclusion that delineated its major themes and discussed some of the significant similarities and differences in the faith of these post-war presidents and compared how they expressed their religious convictions. Holmes also pays little attention to how the faith of these presidents helped shape their political philosophy or the policies they devised and implemented.
Nevertheless, Holmes provides thoughtful, engrossing portraits of the twelve men who led the United States through periods of great political, economic, and social upheaval. He analyzes many interesting topics, including several religious controversies of the Harry Truman years (over the use of atomic bombs to help end World War II, U.S. recognition of Israel in 1948, and the campaign of Senator Joseph McCarthy to root out communists in American government and society), the religious revival during Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency, and Kennedy’s ability to keep his health problems and sexual liaisons hidden from the public. Holmes also discusses the decision of Cotesworth Pinckney Lewis, the rector of the Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, Virginia, to use his sermon to criticize Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam policy when the president worshipped there in 1967, as well as Gerald Ford’s decision to pardon Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter’s troubled relationship with many evangelicals. Finally, Holmes explores Reagan’s interest in astrology, explanations of why some of Bill Clinton’s practices differed markedly from his Christian profession, and Barack Obama’s relationship with Jeremiah Wright.
Readers will profit from Holmes’s judicious, balanced, insightful, and illuminating assessment of our most recent presidents. His book is timely in light of the current presidential campaign where once again religion has been a significant factor. Both President Obama and Governor Mitt Romney are connected with religious traditions that are not part of mainstream American Protestantism. Both have testified that their faith is important in shaping their character and some policies. Both have Catholic running mates, although Joe Biden and Paul Ryan represent different ends of the Catholic theological spectrum—the more liberal social-justice focus and the more conservative pro-life, conventional-morality emphasis respectively. Although most American voters still want a president who has a strong personal faith and seeks God’s guidance in his or her work, they seem less concerned with whether a candidate’s religious convictions align with Christian orthodoxy.
Dr. Gary Scott Smith chairs the history department at Grove City College and is a fellow for faith and the presidency with The Center for Vision & Values. He is the author of Faith and the Presidency From George Washington to George W. Bush (Oxford University Press) and Heaven in the American Imagination (Oxford University Press).
Posted: October 14, 2012
Is the Use of Religious Rhetoric by Presidents Effective?
Gary Scott Smith