The Soul of an American President, Alan Sears and Craig Osten with Ryan Cole. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019.
Summary: Traces the spiritual heritage and growing religious faith of Dwight D. Eisenhower, especially through the years of his presidency and later life.
Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first president I remember hearing about as a child. To be honest, he seemed kind of bland, and mostly I remember reports of him golfing. Recent historians and biographers have raised the estimation of Eisenhower as they consider his Cold War policies, how he kept the U.S. out of “hot” wars, presided over a boom of economic growth, and took some of the first, perhaps somewhat tentative, steps toward recognizing the civil rights of Blacks and other minorities, since the failed efforts of Reconstruction.
What the authors of this work discovered in examining other studies of Eisenhower’s life was that little or no account was give of his religious faith, a neglect that flies in the face of an increasingly regular, yet not publicized pattern of religious practice, interactions and expressions of faith with religious figures from Billy Graham to Pope John XXIII, the testimony of his pastors, and a number of public acts and utterances. Furthermore, these patterns continued after his presidency up to the time of his death in 1969.
The authors trace Eisenhower’s religious journey. He was born of parents deeply devoted to a branch of the Brethren in Christ that moved to Kansas. Later they left this group, and Ida, his mother was especially devoted to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. While not entirely orthodox, what marked his upbringing was a strong pattern of Bible-reading and piety, as well as involvement in pacifist religious groups.
Ike broke with his parents in going to West Point and entering the military. And we hear relatively little of his religious faith during his military career, even when he lost his son “Icky,” an event that strained his marriage. Only in World War II do we find him sharing prayers and expressing “There is nothing we could do but pray, desperately.” From here on, Ike expresses more of his faith publicly, though reticently, including contributing the words of “Lead, Kindly Light” to a prayerbook for servicemen in Korea, and more about the connections between America’s religious faith and democracy.
As was the case with so many others, a key influence in his life was the ministry, and in particular, personal conversations with Billy Graham in early 1952. Graham encouraged Eisenhower’s church attendance, referring him to the ministry of Dr. Ed Elson at National Presbyterian Church. Eisenhower had previous associations with Elson as a chaplain with the military. One of the things that stands out is that Eisenhower did not join the church, including being baptized (the only President to be baptized in office) until after the beginning of his presidency. His baptism was a private affair, witnessed by an intimate circle, and he was upset when word of his joining the church leaked to the press. He did not want attention called to his attendance, but both Elson, and his pastors at the Presbyterian Church in Gettysburg, where the Eisenhowers owned a farm, reported Eisenhower attended regularly, and frequently engaged in discussions of the content of sermons, They also quietly contributed monetarily and in other ways to the ministry of their churches.
The other part of Eisenhower’s faith focused on in the book were his ideas about the importance of religious faith, whether Christian or not, to America’s response to the atheist communist threat. He saw the fundamental difference between the two countries to be spiritual and not simply economic or political, which drove things like his support for the U. S. Information Agency. He publicly encouraged religious worship, began the practice of National Prayer Breakfasts, and served during a period when America’s attendance at religious services was at a peak. The authors highlight how religious conviction informed Eisenhower’s efforts with religious leaders across racial divides to break down segregation, albeit far more gradually than civil rights leaders would wish.
The latter part of the book describes Eisenhower’s post-presidency, marked with continued involvement with his church, even as his health declined. During his final hospitalization, he invited Billy Graham to share the scriptures of how he might be sure of his salvation. At the end of the conversation, he said, “Thank you, I’m ready.” One of the last things he said to his family was, “I want to go. God take me.” He died shortly after.
Two of the authors (Sears and Osten) are associated with a conservative religious liberty organization, so I found myself reading with a certain skepticism. However, I thought that on the whole, they offered a balanced account of Eisenhower’s life, and made a case for the genuineness of Eisenhower’s Christian faith. They don’t gloss over his mother’s involvement in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the lack of religious expression through his early career, including his marriage difficulties with Mamie (they discount the possibility of the Kay Summersby affair, although evidence exists for an emotional, but unconsummated affair between them). The fact that Eisenhower waits until after election to be baptized and join his church argues strongly for his not using religious affiliation for political ends, as well as the persistence of his religious practice for the remainder of his life. It also struck me that one may see evidence of religious principles in his policies without engaging in culture wars or litmus tests.
If I might raise any issue, it would be with what seemed an uncritical account of a “God and country” vision and the language of civil religion that seems to appropriate religious faith to national aims (e.g. fighting Communism) that does not seem to recognize a kingdom that transcends national borders. I grew up internalizing that vision and it wasn’t until I began to truly understand God’s love for the world, and the priority allegiance of the Christian to God’s kingdom purposes, that I began to recognize the danger of “God and country” language. In Eisenhower’s administration, this was not egregious. Eisenhower acknowledged God’s providence, and supported the language of “under God” in the pledge of allegiance, acknowledging that God, not the state was ultimate. Yet it is so easy to turn this to an ideology of God existing to sustain American greatness, and the manipulation of religion for political ends.
The value of this work is that it redresses a balance in documenting the religious faith of Eisenhower, that has been neglected in other accounts. The account actually suggests that there is further work to be done in studying Eisenhower’s faith. The writers establish that Eisenhower was deeply thoughtful about his faith and sought to act upon that in his presidential leadership. Others around him, like John Foster Dulles, and George Kennan, also had religiously informed visions of the world. It also seems that Eisenhower was thoughtful about how one exercises religious belief in a pluralistic society and might well be studied for this. Lastly, one wonders how the pacifism of his upbringing and his religious faith may have informed his farewell address warning of the “military-industrial complex.” The authors have made a case that far more research in this aspect of Eisenhower’s life and leadership is well-warranted.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.