God in the White House, Randall Balmer. New York: Harper Collins, 2008.
Summary: Traces the history of the religious faith and presidential politics from the election of John Kennedy as the first Catholic president up through George W. Bush and the religious-political alliances by which he was elected to two terms as president.
One of the most surprising discoveries in reading this history of religion and the White House was how the religious lives and views of the Presidents were not a significant issue, with few exceptions until the 1960 election campaign between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy. In this history, written in 2008, Randall Balmer traces the changes that occurred in presidential politics where religion became a bigger issue and religious voters, particularly evangelicals, became an important factor.
Balmer begins with the fears aroused in the 1960 campaign that Kennedy, by no means a fervent Catholic, would take orders from the Vatican. On September 12, 1960, Kennedy gave a speech [The text of this and other key presidential speeches referenced in the text are included in a series of appendices] at the Rice Hotel in Houston, Texas, that helped put this issue to rest. In it he said:
“I believe in an America that is neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish, where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source–where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials–and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.”
What Kennedy did was preserve the understanding of the relation of religious faith and politics that had been the status quo. Yet Balmer notes, a group of evangelicals led by Norman Vincent Peale, Billy Graham, and Harold Ockenga, convened first in Switzerland and then at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., to organize opposition to Kennedy. Kennedy’s speech, and the resultant backlash against this group’s efforts may have made the difference in this closely run election.
Later Graham mended fences and called on Kennedy and thus began a history of Graham’s involvement with presidents. Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford were all friends with Graham, even while the role of religion in their presidencies remained subdued. Johnson’s Great Society and civil rights efforts certainly conformed to deep religious impulses even while his involvement in, and deception of the American people in Vietnam contradicted those impulses (even while being couched in language of “moral uplift”). Nixon held regular services in the White House, passed landmark environmental legislation, brought an end to the war, yet also perpetrated a great deception in the Watergate scandal, that embarrassed Graham who supported him and brought down his presidency. Gerald Ford was not a man to wear religion on his sleeve but his pardon of Richard Nixon may have reflected deep conviction and not mere politics, and that, along with the contrast between him and an openly evangelical Carter, probably cost him the election of 1976.
The Carter presidency led to the rise of the evangelicals as a political force as Carter spoke openly of his own faith. Balmer portrays Carter’s deeply principled faith combined with his ineffectual presidency. He also traces the rise of the religious right, galvanized initially, not by abortion, but by threats to the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University because of civil rights violations, laid at Carter’s feet even though it was during the Ford administration that these actions began. Only in 1980, as Ronald Reagan adopted a pro-life stance, did the religious right adopt this issue in alliance with Reagan against Carter, which became a litmus test for Republican Party candidates and cemented an alliance between evangelicals and the Republican Party, carrying through the administration of George H.W. Bush.
The Clinton administration simultaneously welcomed evangelical leaders to the White House, including various personal counselors like Bill Hybels and Tony Campolo during the Monica Lewinsky affair, yet pursued a decidedly non-religious agenda. The narrative then concludes with the George W. Bush presidency, marked by his open appeals to faith, his affirmation of Jesus as his favorite philosopher, his embrace of religious right culture wars issues, even while he countenanced water-boarding and other forms of torture in post 9/11 America.
In his concluding chapter, Balmer turns from the religiosity of the presidents to what it is that the American people look for, and what they overlook, in their presidents. It is clearly, at the end of the day, not moral rectitude. Jimmy Carter was probably the most morally upright of all, evidenced in his concerns for human rights, the Camp David accords and environmental efforts, yet we repudiated him after four years. We re-elected Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush despite personal flaws and deep moral issues raised by their policies. Balmer proposes that a more significant question than what a candidate’s religious faith is, is how does that faith inform their thinking on the national and international issues in which a president must lead. Is faith just a window dressing or does it provide a moral compass? This is a form of questioning that takes significant thought and attention, that cannot be summarized in a soundbite. Yet to do less, Balmer argues, is cheap grace.
Balmer exposes both the dangers of “religious bodies trying to impose their will” and becoming politically captive, and of politicians who pander to these bodies for their votes, even while pursuing their own ends. What is troubling as one reads Balmer is that it appears to me that we are even worse off today than in 2008. Religious groups are still trading support for influence even while candidates with deep moral and lifestyle inconsistencies appeal to religious groups for their support. Given the sorry history of these entanglements, I wonder when people of faith will repent of these political captivities to pursue a more thoughtful engagement with office holders and seekers. Sadly, it does not seem that 2016 is the year where we say, “enough”.