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by Gary Scott Smith

Believer in Chief

Faith and the presidency from JFK to George W. Bush.

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 him win the closely contested 1960 election and "demolish the shibboleth that no Roman Catholic could ever be elected president." Kennedy argued compellingly during the 1960 campaign that a president's religion should not affect how he performed his duties. This conviction, coupled with the negative reaction of many Protestants to Kennedy's Catholicism, led him to rely little on his faith in making decisions and formulating policies. Lyndon Johnson, despite exhibiting only "perfunctory, even performative" piety, was nevertheless inspired by the Golden Rule to develop his Great Society programs to help the poor and supply medical care for the elderly.

Balmer faults Richard Nixon for misusing religion, especially by holding worship services in the White House, and for hypocrisy. The stain of the Watergate scandal, the disgrace of the Vietnam War, and Gerald Ford's pardon of Nixon enabled Jimmy Carter to appear as "a kind of savior" who could lead Americans "out of the wilderness of shame and corruption to the promised land of redemption and rehabilitation." Intrigued and inspired by Carter's claim that he was a "born again" Christian, many evangelicals voted for Carter in 1976. Despite Carter's genuine piety and pursuit of numerous policies that reflected biblical priorities, most evangelicals deserted him in 1980. Initially galvanized by their desire to defend "the integrity of evangelical institutions against governmental interference," Balmer argues—rather than by opposition to abortion—evangelicals, who had generally been politically disengaged, created the Moral Majority and similar organizations in the late 1970s to support candidates and policies consistent with their values. Upset by Carter's refusal to try to outlaw abortion and his promotion of politically liberal policies, the Religious Right played an active role in helping elect Ronald Reagan, a divorced and remarried man who "had the weakest claim to evangelical faith" of the three major candidates. Preoccupied with the economy and the Soviets, Reagan neglected many key aspects of the Religious Right's agenda. Nevertheless, most evangelicals loyally supported Reagan in the 1984 election and throughout the turmoil and scandals of his second term.

In 1988, evangelicals helped Episcopalian George H. W. Bush defeat Michael Dukakis, "the first truly secular major-party candidate for president," but they embraced him less enthusiastically than Reagan. Although Bill Clinton professed to be a Christian, attended church regularly, and used evangelical rhetoric, his personal traits—especially his sexual infidelity—and liberal political policies irritated and offended many members of the Religious Right.

Evangelicals were attracted to George W. Bush's Christian testimony, "compassionate conservativism," and pledge to "restore decency and honor to the White House." The 2000 election demonstrated that candidates' faith had become important to many Americans, but voters were more concerned with the candidates' sincerity than with the particularities of their religious commitments. Aided by John Kerry's refusal to openly discuss his faith and his own frank professions of faith, Bush captured a large percentage of the votes of regular church attenders, enabling him to narrowly win reelection in 2004.

Based on this analysis, Balmer contends that no clear connection exists between a president's faith and personal morality and his policies. The record of the last four and half decades suggests that candidates' professions of faith are "a fairly poor indicator of how they govern." Although Balmer finds fault with all nine presidents, he is most critical of Republican chief executives. Reagan failed to deliver on his campaign promises that he claimed were inspired by his religious commitments, Balmer says. He excoriates George W. Bush, denouncing the "radical disjunction" between "Bush's claims of moral rectitude and his indifference to the moral ramifications of his policies," especially his "aggressive" military campaign in Iraq, which flouted Christian just-war criteria.

In light of the record of the past 45 years, Balmer concludes, it is unfortunate that Americans focus more on whether presidential candidates "pass some sort of catechetical test" than on whether they possess charisma, political skills, substantial foreign and domestic policy experience, and administrative expertise. Although voters should consider a candidate's faith because it provides insight into his character, Balmer maintains, it should only be one of numerous factors they take into account. He faults Americans for expecting the president to be "the sum total of our projections about the supposed goodness and honor and moral superiority of America" and politicians for encouraging us to "see them as embodiments of our supposed virtue."

While the presidency has been damaged by injecting religious considerations into it, Balmer insists, faith has been harmed by politicizing it. The reputation of Quakerism was not improved by its connection with Nixon, nor was that of the Disciples of Christ aided by its association with Johnson or Reagan. Moreover, Balmer asserts, the Religious Right gained very little from its active participation in the political process. Once a faith is identified "with a particular candidate or party or with the quest for political influence," it suffers.

Balmer encourages prospective voters to ask candidates how their faith affects their views of economics, social issues, and foreign policy. He protests that candidates' professions of faith are often pious platitudes or window-dressing, which provide little insight into how they will govern and divert our attention from more important considerations. Balmer complains that we permit "politicians to hypnotize us with lullabies about faith and morality" and fail to hold them accountable for the principles they profess. But the blame can't be reserved for politicians: Americans' "collective affirmations of faith are no more sincere than those of our politicians." Balmer challenges Americans to reject "the false gospel of America's moral superiority," ensure that candidates' actions are consistent with their religious rhetoric, and live by the ideals we profess.

Balmer's critique of American Christians' self-delusion and hubris is commendable. Certainly he is right to insist that the faith of candidates should only be one consideration in the electoral process. Throughout American history presidents who have claimed to be Christians have sometimes violated biblical morality and pursued policies that contradicted scriptural teaching. On the other hand, in many instances, the faith of presidents has strengthened their character, increased their courage and confidence, helped them deal with the immense challenges of their office, inspired them to exhort Americans to live up to their best ideals, and encouraged citizens to promote policies that truly embody biblical teaching.

Indeed, although the politicizing of religion involves dangers, and though presidents have often misused religious rhetoric to woo voters, win support for policies, and please various constituencies, their personal faith has generally helped them perform their duties more effectively. Moreover, at times in American history the participation of religious groups in the political process has helped make our nation more compassionate and just (such as the abolition of slavery, the promotion of civil rights, and various policies to aid the poor). Therefore, while criticizing the political misuse of religion by politicians, religious groups, and voters, we should encourage all three groups to consider carefully how biblical values and personal faith can help shape and direct the political process in ways that benefit our nation and the world.

Gary Scott Smith chairs the History Department at Grove City College. His latest book is Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush (Oxford Univ. Press).

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