The old adage, "never discuss religion and politics," is roundly rejected in this incisive exploration of presidential history and religious faith.
This newly updated 2016 edition of The Presidents & Their Faith is a fascinating and informative look at how all U.S. presidents exercised their personal faith, exerted presidential power, and led a religiously diverse nation.
Has there ever been a stranger prayer than Truman's, offered upon America's successful development of the atom bomb: "We pray that He may guide us to use it in His ways and for His purposes"?
At the nation's founding, Northeast Presbyterians demanded explicit mention of Jesus in the Constitution. George Washington refuted them, saying that religious piety "was a matter best left between an individual and his God; religious instruction was the responsibility of religious societies, not the civil state." What drove Washington to make that argument, and what if he had lost?
Who wouldn't feel like the exasperated FDR when he said, "I can do almost everything in the 'Goldfish Bowl' of the President's life, but I'll be hanged if I can say my prayers in it. It bothers me to feel like something in the zoo being looked at by all the tourists in Washington when I go to church...No privacy in that kind of going to church, and by the time I have gotten into that pew and settled down with everybody looking at me, I don't feel like saying my prayers at all."
But even more importantly, what's real, what's a show, and why does it matter when it comes to faith and politics?
These questions and more are unpacked and examined, leading to a whole new understanding of how religion and politics interfaced through America's history, and how they will play out in our future.
In this climate of religious and political tensions, The Presidents & Their Faith casts a civil, entertaining and insightful spotlight on the unique mix (and frequent mix-ups) of politics and religion in America.
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About the Author
Dr. Darrin Grinder is Chair of the English Department at Northwest Nazarene University and Associate Professor of American Literature. He has a Doctorate of Arts in English from Idaho State University. He and his wife attend Cathedral of the Rockies United Methodist Church in Boise, Idaho.
Dr. Steve Shaw is Professor of Political Science and Director of the University Honors Program at Northwest Nazarene University. He holds a PhD degree in Political Science from the University of Oklahoma. He has taught at NNU since 1979, and he and his wife attend Holy Apostles Catholic Church in Meridian, Idaho.
Table of Contents
1 George Washington 1789-1797 13
2 John Adams 3797-1801 19
3 Thomas Jefferson 1801-1809 23
4 James Madison 1809-1817 31
5 James Monroe 1817-1825 37
6 John Quincy Adams 1825-1829 43
7 Andrew Jackson 1829-1837 47
8 Martin Van Buren 1837-1841 55
9 William Henry Harrison 1841 57
10 John Tyler 1841-1845 61
11 James Knox Polk 1845-1849 65
12 Zachary Taylor 1849-1850 69
13 Millard Fillmore 1850-1853 73
14 Franklin Pierce 1853-1857 77
15 James Buchanan 1857-1861 81
16 Abraham Lincoln 1861-1865 85
17 Andrew Johnson 1865-1869 91
18 Ulysses Simpson Grant 1869-1877 95
19 Rutherford Birchard Hayes 1877-1881 99
20 James Abram Garfield 1881 103
21 Chester Alan Arthur 1881-1885 107
22 Grover Cleveland 1885-1889 111
23 Benjamin Harrison 1889-1893 117
24 Grover Cleveland 1893-1897 111
25 William McKinley 1897-1901 121
26 Theodore Roosevelt 1901-1909 127
27 William Howard Taft 1909-1913 133
28 Woodrow Wilson 1913-1921 137
29 Warren Gamaliel Harding 1921-1923 143
30 Calvin Coolidge 1923-1929 147
31 Herbert Clark Hoover 1929-1933 151
32 Franklin Delano Roosevelt 1933-1945 157
33 Harry S. Truman 1945-1953 163
34 Dwight David Eisenhower 1953-1961 169
35 John Fitzgerald Kennedy 1961-1963 175
36 Lyndon Baines Johnson 1963-1969 181
37 Richard Milhous Nixon 1969-1974 187
38 Gerald Rudolph Ford 1974-1977 193
39 James Earl Carter, Jr. 1977-1981 197
40 Ronald Wilson Reagan 1981-1989 203
41 George Herbert Walker Bush 1989-1993 209
42 William Jefferson Clinton 1993-2001 213
43 George Walker Bush 2001-2009 219
44 Barack Hussein Obama 2009-2016 225
About the Authors 275
We have had forty-four presidencies and forty-three presidents. The oddity, of course, is caused by Grover Cleveland, the only president to be elected to two non-consecutive terms in U.S. history. All have been white, save for President Barack Obama, males, and all have been Protestant (more or less), save for President John Kennedy, our country’s first and to this point only Catholic president. In the words of Howard Fineman of Newsweek, “Every president invokes God and asks His blessing. Every president promises, though not always in so many words, to lead according to moral principles rooted in Biblical tradition.”
All of our presidents have spoken of (and most claimed to have spoken to) a higher power of some sort, from Supreme Being or Divine Legislator to a more personal Lord or Savior. Almost all quoted from or claimed to have read the Bible (either regularly or when Congress perhaps was in session). Some presidents were religiously devout; others, apparently not. Some presidents attended church services with utmost consistency; others, seldom, if at all. Some presidents were convincingly orthodox in their religious thought and practice; others were held either in high suspicion or low esteem because of questions or misperceptions or downright unfounded conclusions about their faith. Almost all of our presidents have viewed the United States as having some kind of special (they may or may not use covenantal language) relationship with God and yet few were deep or disciplined students of religion and theology, or perhaps even our own national history. In short, most presidents reflect what Alexis de Tocqueville concluded about Americans in the early nineteenth century during his brief but highly consequential trek across the young Republic: we embrace religion and try to keep theology at arm’s length.
In his masterful account of the presidential election of 1960, in which the Catholicism of Senator John Kennedy of Massachusetts figured prominently, Theodore White concluded, “The Presidency hovers over the popular American imagination almost as a sacerdotal office, a priestly role for which normal political standards are invalid.” Similarly, Michael Novak argues, “Every four years Americans elect a kingbut not only a king, also a high priest and prophet.” Novak adds that the election “of a president is an almost religious task; it intimately affects the life of the spirit, our identity.” The Constitution prohibits, as we all know, any religious test for holding political office in the United States; however, it clearly is (or at the least appears to be) the case that no serious candidate for the White House can even run the risk of violating our religious/political norm that one be (or to the cynic, at least appear to be) religious. And moreover, the candidate should be not just religious, but acceptably religious, for it does appear to be the case that we do have a religious litmus test concerning the American presidency.
The last Unitarian president was William Howard Taft, who faced allegations of heresy during the 1908 campaign. Reverend Timothy Dwight, president of Yale University, warned Americans, “If Jefferson is elected, the Bible will be burned, the French ‘Marseillaise’ will be sung in Christian churches, and we may see our wives and daughters the victims of legal prostitution; soberly dishonored; speciously polluted.” Some in the American electorate still question the religious bona fides of President Obama, in spite of his numerous and public statements about his Christian beliefs and religious journey. And the presidential election of 2012 already has engendered at least a conversation about the prospects of the country having as president a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Randall Balmer, professor of American religious history and student of the American presidency, cautions against seeing the election of any candidate (especially our own) as a harbinger of the Second Coming. “The introduction of religious language and faith claims into presidential politics,” Balmer argues, “raises an important question: So what? Does a candidate’s faith or even his moral character make any substantive difference in how he governs?” Does ethical earnestness translate into an effective presidency? Do spiritual disciplines make one a great president? According to Balmer, “If we persist in vetting the faith of our presidential candidates, we must find a way to reinvest both religion and the political process with a profundity befitting the importance of both.”
That is the challenge facing us as authors of this brief and so we hope (and pray?) informative book on presidents and their religious faiths. And we think it is the challenge facing you, the reader, especially if you vote, or are thinking about voting in the race for the White House. On the eve of another presidential election, we find ourselves once again confronting questions about our national identity and national purpose. We hope this book persuades you to think carefully about the connection between faith and presidential leadership.