Review: God in the White House

God in the White House

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”.

4 thoughts on “Review: God in the White House

  1. An intriguing quote in Balmer’s “Preface” may set the tone:

    “I offer a narrative that tells the story not only of the politicization of religion in the final decades of the twentieth century, but also the “religionization” of our politics.” (pg. 4)

    Once it is understood what the author is targeting when he refers to “religion,” and how one sided his narrative is, the question is on the table as to how trustworthy his story is.

    I have two major issues with this book, and the premise driving its author.

    1. My first major issue is that Balmer’s narrow focus is historically shortsighted, perhaps intentionally so.

    Balmer mentions in his “Preface” what his book is not about (pp. 3-4). He also confesses that he is “…no fan of the Religious Right…” (pg. 4) That is what this book IS about!

    The first sentence of the review reveals the shortsightedness inherent in Balmer’s predispositions which determined the parameters of his book:

    “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.”

    For a “longer look” at the the influence of religion on presidents outside of Balmer’s narrow focus, i.e., from Washington to Kennedy, see for example the following:

    “God in the White House From Washington to Obama — the presidents’ religious beliefs and their impact on politics,” on God in America at http://www.pbs.org/godinamerica/god-in-the-white-house/ [accessed 9 MAY 2016].

    David Masci, “Almost all U.S. presidents have been Christians” (12 FEB 2016, rev. ed.; 12 FEB 2015), on PewResearchCenter at http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/02/12/almost-all-u-s-presidents-have-been-christians/ [accessed 9 MAY 2016].

    Gary S. Smith, “Does the Faith of Presidents Matter?” (4 MAR 2015), on The Center For Vision & Values (Grove City College) at http://www.visionandvalues.org/2015/03/does-the-faith-of-presidents-matter/ [accessed 9 MAY 2016].

    Alison Lesley, “The Religious Influence on American Presidents” (19 FEB 2015), on World Religion News at http://www.worldreligionnews.com/religion-news/christianity/presidents [accessed 9 MAY 2016].

    2. My second major issue with this book is that even within Balmer’s narrow focus another side of the coin is not under his lens.

    Somehow the influence of the “Religious Left” – included those who claim a seat at the “evangelical table” (term used loosely as they do, including the author, pg. 4) – gets lost in the shuffle, especially when considering 1976-1981, 1992-2001, and 2008 to the present.

    A final quote from the Balmer’s “Preface” may ice the cake!

    “My reading of American religious history suggests that religion always functions best from the margins of society, not in the councils of power.” (pg. 5)

    Once this opinion which undergirds Balmer’s premise is understood, and put together with his opposition to the “Religious Right,” then it becomes quite clear what he prefers to see marginalized. Any Biblical Christian convictions on moral and ethical issues commonly lumped under the rubric of “social conservatism” have no place in the “councils of power.” The bottom line becomes one of the margin and the power!

    Soli Deo Gloria,

    John T. “Jack” Jeffery
    Pastor, Wayside Gospel Chapel
    Greentown, PA

    • John, thanks for your comment. I think your assessment of Balmer is correct. However, there are many of us evangelicals, particularly from Anabaptist traditions who would agree that the best place historically for Christians is the margins, where we speak prophetically by our life and witness as the church to left and right, neither of which fully reflect kingdom values. I cannot help but see the political captivity of evangelicals to the right as nothing but harmful and fruitless.

  2. Pingback: Review: Ask The Question | Bob on Books

  3. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: May 2016 | Bob on Books

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s