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by Gary Scott Smith
Believer in Chief
During the last five years numerous books and articles have analyzed the faith of American presidents, focusing on one or several chief executives or considering the broad sweep of the presidency. Randall Balmer's God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush is a welcome addition to this literature. Balmer, a professor of American religious history at Barnard College, Columbia University and a leading scholar of American evangelicalism, traces how Americans moved from disregarding religion as a principal consideration for voting in 1960 to expecting candidates to reveal their religious convictions and explain their relationship to God by 2004. He analyzes and deplores both the "politicalization of religion" and the "'religionization' of politics" during these years.
Balmer labels himself an evangelical "whose understanding of the teachings of Jesus points him toward the left of the political spectrum." He censures the leaders of the Religious Right for distorting the gospel and defaulting "on the noble legacy" of 19th-century evangelical activists who worked to help the less fortunate. When faith is "aligned too closely with a particular political movement or political party," Balmer argues, it loses its integrity and prophetic voice. Religion plays a more positive role in society when it operates from "the margins of society," not the centers of power.
These presuppositions guide Balmer's thoughtful analysis of the nine presidents from Kennedy to George W. Bush. Balmer assesses the personal faith of these presidents and evaluates how it affected their work in the oval office; in a series of appendices he includes a major speech by each president to illustrate their religious convictions. Those presidents who strove to separate their faith from policymaking or used it to pursue liberal political ends are evaluated more positively.
Kennedy's pledge to divorce his religious commitments from political considerations helped ...