God in the White House by Randall Balmer

Christopher Martin

Americans want their leaders to have faith, but they don't generally care about the specifics of those beliefs. Balmer dissects the somewhat recent phenomenon.

God in the White House

Publisher: HarperOne
Subtitle: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush
Author: Randall Balmer
Price: $24.95
Length: 256
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 0060734051
US publication date: 2008-01

In the late summer of 1960, John F. Kennedy faced a considerable hurdle. He had a strong chance of becoming the next American president, but public concern about his Catholic background continued to loom over his campaign. A few days after Norman Vincent Peale openly questioned his fitness for the White House, Kennedy finally addressed the issue formally on September 12. In a speech to a group of ministers in Houston, he proclaimed, “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president who also happens to be Catholic”.

Compare this with the example of George W. Bush on December 13, 1999. During a Republican debate in Des Moines, Iowa, the moderator asked Bush to name his favorite philosopher and why. Bush replied with a stunner: “Christ, because he changed my heart…When you accept Christ as the Savior, it changes your heart. It changes your life. And that's what happened to me”.

How should one account for such a dramatic difference in a relatively brief period? As religion historian Randall Balmer outlines in God in the White House, two basic changes have occurred. One is that voters have come to strongly value a presidential candidate’s “religious language and faith claims”. Secondly, movements such as the Religious Right and (more recently) Religious Left demonstrate how politics play a much larger role in American religion than they did during Kennedy’s time.

But neither of these changes occurred immediately. Indeed, Kennedy’s arguments against religious criteria -- and his own lack of personal devoutness -- set a standard for the next three presidents. For example, Lyndon Johnson became a member of the Christian Church (or Disciples of Christ) when he was 15, but wasn’t outwardly religious as a politician. And Richard Nixon’s background as a Quaker didn’t play a large role in his adult life, especially considering the underhanded nature of his political tactics.

It’s this last factor -- specifically, the Watergate scandal -- that Balmer cites as a turning point. He writes that all of a sudden, “a candidate’s faith seemed to matter”, particularly after Gerald Ford’s pardon of Nixon sparked a national controversy. It was the perfect opportunity for former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter. As a born-again Southern Baptist, he was open about his faith, and was able to win key electoral support from evangelicals who had shown little interest in politics during the past several decades. With their support, Carter’s 1976 victory became, in Balmer’s view, a type of national redemption for the sins that had occurred with Watergate.

But this redemption was brief. A year before Carter entered the White House, Bob Jones University, a small fundamentalist school in South Carolina, lost its tax-exempt status. The IRS based their actions on the school’s ban against interracial dating, which was a violation of Green v. Connally. Yet evangelical leaders felt that the IRS had unfairly attacked their subculture. With the help of conservative activist Paul Weyrich, they responded by forming the Religious Right. Weyrich then placed Carter at odds with the movement by making him the scapegoat for the ruling against Bob Jones, though he was obviously not the one responsible.

The short-term result was that Carter lost most of his evangelical support to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election. Reagan was divorced, was barely a churchgoer, and had initially supported abortion rights. Nonetheless, he was talented at winning over religious conservatives, and often invoked God and faith to make his case. Even after he failed to do much about curtailing abortion -- a key Religious Right issue -- while in the White House, Reagan was able to cement the movement as a core Republican constituency.

God in the White House demonstrates that these developments during the Carter and Reagan eras continue to influence the relationship between politics and religion today. Since Carter first talked about his belief on the campaign trail, every president (and nearly every presidential candidate) has relied on faith language as a means of appealing to voters. (Sincere as it may have been at the time, Bush’s mention of Jesus as his favorite philosopher is no different.) In turn, voters “apparently…want their candidates to profess some kind of faith -- and they seem not terribly concerned about the particularities of that faith”. And while mainstream media may be eager to proclaim the death of the Religious Right, the truth is that its political legacy continues to profoundly affect both Republican and Democratic policy.

Balmer’s concluding argument is fairly simple. Presidents have historically been unable to translate their faith into effective policies; therefore, expecting them to be a moral guide for America is simply a form of “cheap grace” that deflects responsibility from voters. Likewise, faith fails to function as it should when establishment politics comprises too much of its identity. The solution to both problems, Balmer suggests, is to “hold ourselves and our nation accountable to the values we espouse”. This means that the American public needs to insist that candidates match their beliefs with their actions. Yet voters also need to reflect upon what their actions say about their own values.

It’s difficult to argue with this assessment, though it contains a bit of irony. In addition to being a writer and scholar of religion, Balmer is a left-of-center evangelical as well as an Episcopal priest. In his last book, Thy Kingdom Come, he wrote “as a jilted lover,” frustrated with how the Religious Right has overtaken evangelical subculture. The anger that shone throughout the book was undeniably refreshing. Yet his analysis lacked some of its characteristic sharpness, in part because he relied too often on standard Democratic talking points instead of original insight.

In comparison, God in the White House represents a return to form of sorts. Balmer does incorporate some of his criticisms from Thy Kingdom Come -- concerning the Religious Right, of course, as well as his (quite correct) assertion that George W. Bush’s support for torture is hypocritical. The difference is that these criticisms don’t overshadow or detract from the rest of the narrative; indeed, this is a remarkably smooth read. And he deftly highlights the contradictions and humor within the lives of his subjects. If anything, he’s fairly evenhanded, despite professing his political inclinations in the introduction.

Two shortcomings stand out. Balmer includes a major speech from every president in the book, from Kennedy’s “Catholic” address in Houston to the words of Bush on September 11, 2001. There is a definite advantage to this; after finishing a chapter, I would flip back to the associated speeches in the appendix section, thereby adding context to what I had just read. Nevertheless, after the first chapter on Kennedy, there’s virtually no mention of the speeches within the main text. That reason, plus the book’s short length (less than 250 pages), makes me question the real purpose for their presence. They’re certainly instructive and relevant, but are they filler, as well?

Another issue concerns Balmer’s claim that civil religion, which he defines as “the conflation of religious devotion with national symbols”, doesn’t add much to his study. I question this claim. For example, consider the quote I mention above about how Americans want faithful candidates but don’t press for specific details. Consider also his claim in the conclusion that they “look to the president as a kind of moral figurehead”, and expect him or her to embody “the myths we have constructed about the United States of America”.

Both of these assertions are quite truthful, and they are very important to what Balmer has to say about matching action with values. They also strongly relate to the concept of civil religion; after all, nationalism and religious beliefs are central to how American citizens view their political leaders. So why, then, is Balmer so quick to dismiss the subject? This is an area that deserves expansion.

These two problems notwithstanding, God in the White House remains a noteworthy study. It’s admirable that Balmer is able to condense this type of topic into a book that is both historically relevant and accessible to a general audience. In doing so, he addresses a need for intellectuals who can clearly emphasize to the public why history is important to their everyday lives.


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