The Faiths of the Postwar Presidents: From Truman to Obama

  • David L., History Holmes
  • University of Georgia Press
  • 296 pp.
  • August 23, 2012

Biographical sketches illuminate the religious beliefs of the 12 U.S. presidents since World War II.

Reviewed by David G. Winter

As the 2012 presidential election approaches, questions about the candidates’ religion make their quadrennial appearance, especially among conservative voters. For example, in the absence of any evidence whatsoever, 18 percent of Republicans nevertheless believe that President Obama is a crypto-Muslim. The Roman Catholic hierarchy complains that by insuring women’s health, the president’s health-care reform impinges on their religious liberty. And many evangelicals ponder whether Romney’s Mormonism is a “denomination” or a “cult.”

Such a focus on a president’s personal properties probably reflects Americans’ national habit of viewing politics in terms of individuals, rather than political and economic structures, or history. A president’s professed religion is important to voters — except when it’s not. On the one hand, a profession of religious faith is essential for any presidential candidate. Thus polls consistently show atheism to be a greater candidate liability than any other personal quality of a candidate (including marijuana use or homosexuality). Apparently it is better to believe in the “wrong god” than in no god at all. Beyond that, though, the specifics of belief are not very important: for most voters, “faith in faith” — at least within the Judeo-Christian tradition — will do.

Comparative studies of U.S. presidents range on a continuum from serious scholarly research — Fred Greenstein’s The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to Barack Obama is one example — to factoid-laden books on view at Washington, D.C., airport bookstores about White House pets, the presidents’ favorite sports, or presidential use of Air Force One. Where does The Faiths of the Postwar Presidents fit on this continuum? On the one hand, its scholarship seems exhaustive and impeccable. David L. Holmes, Professor of Religious Studies Emeritus at the College of William and Mary, has scoured the archives to trace each of the 12 post-World War II presidents’ religious backgrounds and beliefs as they evolved from childhood to the presidency, including where and when he attended which religious services, with which religious leaders and preachers he met formally and schmoozed informally, and assorted anecdotes and tidbits about presidential religious (and nonreligious) behavior.

Some gleanings: Dwight Eisenhower’s parents were members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses; in his mid-20s, John F. Kennedy may have considered renouncing Catholicism (and continued to be pro-birth control and pro-choice); Richard Nixon stage-managed White House church services in the service of his wider political purposes; and Reagan felt he was in God’s temple “when I’m out in his beautiful forest and countryside.”

The evangelist Billy Graham comes and goes: shut out of the Kennedy White House, back in favor with Johnson, Nixon and Reagan. By having a Methodist bishop, a Jewish cantor and a Roman Catholic archbishop participate in his inauguration, Jimmy Carter established an ecumenical fashion. There is an extensive and nuanced discussion of Jeremiah Wright’s theology and the attacks on him by Obama’s opponents in the 2008 campaign. Readers with an intrinsic interest in presidential religion will find this book a welcome compilation of information from diverse sources. Even so, it is not clear that there is enough specifically religious data on these 12 presidents to constitute a book, so Holmes wisely set his observations within broader self- contained biographical sketches of each president.

Many readers, however, will be looking for links between the presidents’ religious faith and their actions as president. Put bluntly: does a president’s religion, either its intensity or its specific denomination, make any difference in presidential performance and outcomes? Such readers may be disappointed in this book. To be sure, it is not easy to determine whether and how Harry Truman’s Baptist religion affected some of his most significant decisions as president, from dropping atomic bombs on Japan, to recognizing Israel, to integrating the U.S. military, to pushing for universal health care. During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis — in the words of one historian “the most dangerous moment in human history” — there is no evidence (in this book or any other source I know of) that religion played any role at all in Kennedy’s thinking or the deliberations of his advisors.

George W. Bush’s conversion to evangelicalism in his early 40s undoubtedly helped him curb his drunken ways and settle down to a career and family life. In 1999, when asked about his favorite philosopher, he replied, “Christ, because he changed my heart.” But Jesus preached that “blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God,” and he exhorted his followers to “turn the other cheek.” It does not seem possible to reconcile these preachings of Bush’s favorite philosopher with Bush’s actions as president (e.g., an invasion of Iraq, based on false premises stacked like a house of cards) or earlier as governor of Texas (signing execution warrants for more prisoners than in any other state during that time, and more than any other Texas governor in history). Thus from Bush’s performance in office, how could we tell that Jesus was his favorite philosopher?

After the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Jimmy Carter ordered financial and later military assistance to mujahedeen groups that later morphed into al-Qaida. What might this action — intended (in the words of his National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski) “to make the Soviets bleed for as much and as long as is possible,” and so consequential in unforeseen ways on September 11, 2001 — have to do, positively or negatively, with Carter’s born-again Baptist faith? And Holmes writes that “in Eisenhower’s arsenal of democracy, religious participation provided another weapon against Communism.” Older readers might be reminded of a line from Battle Cry, Leon Uris’s novel about the Marines that was published in the year of Eisenhower’s first inauguration: “Don’t belong to a church? Well, you belong to one now. Take your pick. The Corps says you need religion.”

In the end, does the faith of the president really matter? Perhaps its importance is primarily a matter of symbolism and identity: by showing up at prayer breakfasts and invoking the familiar formulas of mainstream faith, a president is seen as “one of us.” What the president actually believes in private, and above all whether these beliefs relate to actual presidential decisions and actions, may well be another matter.

David G. Winter is Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan.

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