David L. Holmes. The Faiths of the Postwar Presidents: From Truman to Obama. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2012. See here to buy the book.
David L. Holmes teaches religious studies at the College of William and Mary. About a year ago, I blogged about a book that he wrote, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, and my review was shared in some places. Later, Dr. Holmes sent me a copy of his book about the faiths of the post-war American Presidents, from Harry Truman to Barack Obama.
The Faiths of the Postwar Presidents goes into the religious beliefs and practices of the postwar Presidents, their wives, and their parents (and, sometimes, even their grandparents!). I have been debating how exactly to write this book write-up. What I have decided to do is to say something about each post-war President (based on Holmes’ discussion).
Harry Truman: According to Holmes, Truman essentially believed in the Golden Rule and the Sermon on the Mount. He looked to Christianity primarily for its ethical guidelines, and Billy Graham could not persuade him that there was more to Christianity than that, such as the need for a born again experience. Holmes also talks about Truman’s ambivalent attitudes towards the Jews. On the one hand, Truman had a Jewish friend, and Truman cried when Israel’s chief rabbi told him that God placed Truman in the womb to give a homeland to the Jewish people. But Truman also made some anti-Jewish comments.
Dwight Eisenhower: This was actually my favorite chapter. Dwight Eisenhower was raised by parents who were involved in what would later be called the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Eisenhower acknowledged this in an autobiography, but some of his siblings tried to conceal that fact. Eisenhower’s parents allowed their kids to do what they wanted once they got older, so Eisenhower entered the military, notwithstanding the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ pacifistic stance. Because the JWs only baptized adults, Eisenhower was not baptized until he was in his 60s. Eisenhower did not seem to be overly religious when he was a general during World War II, though he does retrospectively talk about times when he relied on God and God assisted the Allies. Eisenhower saw his religion as a personal thing that did not require institutional allegiance, but someone persuaded him, as President, to go to church. Eisenhower was initially reluctant but decided to go to church to set a good example to people, since he believed that religion had a positive effect on the social order. And, after he left the Presidency, Ike kept on going to church!
John F. Kennedy: In terms of Kennedy’s religious beliefs and practices, this chapter was the least interesting to me, probably because people disagree about how religious Kennedy actually was. The chapter did provide insight, however, into the reasons that many people were afraid of a Roman Catholic President. In certain countries where the Roman Catholic church had power, the regimes were authoritarian. In some areas of the United States, Catholics were flexing political muscle, and that was influencing public policy on issues such as contraception. In addition, according to Holmes, prior to Vatican II, there was a Catholic teaching that Catholicism should be the state religion and that religious dissidents should only be tolerated “if it were practically unavoidable”, for “error has not the same rights as truth” (Holmes is quoting a summary by James Hennesey of Father John Ryan’s influential book on public policy). John F. Kennedy, however, reassured many Americans that he would not serve the pope, and that, if he found himself in any situation in which there would be a conflict between his job and his conscience, then he would resign the Presidency.
Lyndon Johnson: According to Holmes, LBJ was not always religious, but, when he found religion, he went all out! He attended a lot of churches and synagogues, even donating a lot of money to some of them. Holmes also relays an anecdote about a conversation that Johnson had with Billy Graham Johnson was afraid to die, and Graham asked him if he had ever asked Jesus to be his personal savior. Johnson replied that he had, a bunch of times, and Graham said, “When someone says that, Mr. President, I don’t feel too sure of it,” for “It’s a once-for-all transaction.” Graham asked Johnson if Johnson wanted to make that moment the definite time when he would remember receiving Christ, and Johnson did. This story stood out to me because I have had questions about how efficacious the sinner’s prayer is.
Richard Nixon: I spent 2013 reading books by and about Richard Nixon, so I was a bit nitpicky in reading this chapter. Holmes says that Helen Gahagan Douglas was the Democratic incumbent in the 1950 Senate race against Richard Nixon, and that was not true: she was a Congresswoman before that race, and the Senator Nixon would replace was Democrat Sheridan Downey. I was also surprised that Holmes did not mention Nixon’s attraction to Roman Catholicism as a religion of reason and order. But Holmes did talk about Nixon’s religious liberalism, which he displayed in some college essays that he wrote and later on.
Gerald Ford: Not a whole lot grabbed me in this chapter. Ford attended an academic religious service, which stood out to me. Ford’s son attended the evangelical institution, Gordon-Conwell. Overall, my impression is that Ford was a good man who was a refreshing contrast to his predecessor, Richard Nixon.
Jimmy Carter: Carter’s loner tendencies, and yet his warmth to those in need, stood out to me in this chapter. Carter was also opposed to segregation when it was popular in his state, though he briefly played to the segregationists to win the Governorship of Georgia; after taking office there, he let people know where he truly stood. Carter’s father was a segregationist yet was popular among African-Americans because he helped them out when they were in need. Carter was thoughtful in that he read theologians. He reached out to Reinhold Niebuhr’s widow and let her know what a profound effect her husband’s writings had on him. Carter’s wife, Roselynn, was a close adviser to her husband and even sat in on White House cabinet meetings. Some of Carter’s policies that people have seen as disastrous may have been rooted in his faith. He was not particularly aggressive during the Iranian hostage crisis, for example, because he did not want people to be killed.
Ronald Reagan: Reagan wrote about his faith when he was an actor and said he did not believe that a loving God would condemn people to hell. As President, he visited an Episcopalian church with his wife Nancy near Camp David. According to Michael Deaver, Reagan did not know what to do, so Nancy told him to follow her lead. Nancy, the stepdaughter of a doctor, did not want to drink from the same communion cup that others had drunk from, so she was told to dip her communion wafer into the cup and eat it. She accidentally dropped the wafer into the cup. And Reagan, following her cue, purposefully dropped his communion wafer into the cup!
George H.W. Bush: Bush, Sr., during World War II, was one time adrift at sea, floating on a raft, and he felt comfort when he looked up at the stars. At the end of World War II, he made sure to go to church to give God thanks. In the chapter on George W., we read that George, Sr. and Barbara opposed racism and taught their children to be against racism, even though it was popular in Texas. When W. used a racial slur as a child, Barbara washed his mouth out with soap!
Bill Clinton: Church and religion gave Clinton comfort during the turbulence of his childhood. Some people I read are rather denigrating of his mother, but she was actually a smart, accomplished woman. Clinton was impressed when, as a child, he attended a Billy Graham crusade in Arkansas, and Graham challenged segregation by having people of different races sit together. During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Graham was publicly sympathetic to Clinton because of the temptations that Clinton faced. Holmes also talks about the beliefs of the Southern Baptists regarding abortion, and how they may not have been as conservative in the past as they later became. When Clinton asked a prominent Southern Baptist about Psalm 139:13’s statement that God formed the Psalmist in his mother’s womb, the Southern Baptist replied that this was talking about God’s omniscience, not saying that life began at conception; some have disputed Clinton’s account of this interaction, however.
George W. Bush: W. did not fit in at Yale and distanced himself from it after graduating. He was upset when liberal Yale chaplain William Sloane Coffin told him that Bush, Sr. lost to the better man in a recent political race, something Coffin later said he did not remember saying (but Holmes leans in the direction of thinking that Coffin said it, and that it was rude). Ann Richards’ statement that George W. was born on third base and thought he had hit a home-run was pretty funny. W. said that he would be happy being an ex-Governor whom people recognize at the store, yet he felt that God was calling him to run for President. The story about how W. became genuinely interested in other people after his born again experience also stood out to me.
Barack Obama: Obama’s mother was a skeptic yet was spiritual, and she taught her son to appreciate life and to have values. Barack read theology in college, and he admired the ability of religion to bring about social change, so he became a Christian when he was a community organizer. He distanced himself from Pastor Jeremiah Wright in 2008 due to Wright’s controversial statements (and Holmes seems to argue that the attacks on Wright were not entirely fair), and that left Obama without a church home. Obama did not want to visit different churches because that would leave himself without roots in a religious community, and he has not attended church that much as President.
I found Holmes’ book to be fair and interesting. In some cases, I thought to myself that some of the Presidents may have been worse in their character than Holmes was presenting—-though Holmes did acknowledge corruption and womanizing among some of the Presidents. I was wondering how people could do bad things, yet be devout religiously. But that does happen. And people who do bad things may even be sincere in their religion.