The 'Religionization' Of The Oval Office

Read an excerpt of God in the White House.

Scholar Randall Balmer explores the interplay between religion and American politics in his book, God in the White House. Balmer is a professor of religious history at Barnard College, and the editor-at-large for Christianity Today.

Church Meets State in the Oval Office

Randall Balmer

hide captionAuthor of the Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism and editor-at-large of Christianity Today, Randall Balmer was ordained as an Episcopal priest in 2006.

Courtesy Barnard College

In 1960, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy asked the nation to disregard his religion. In 2000, George W. Bush informed the nation that Jesus was his favorite philosopher.

In his new book, God in the White House, Randall Balmer explores the interplay between religion and politics in America, tracking the "religionization" of the Oval Office across the last half of the 20th century. How did faith become such an important criterion for the presidency?

Balmer is a professor of American religious history at Barnard College and the author of several books on the evangelical experience in the United States. His newspaper columns are distributed nationally by The New York Times Syndicate, and he earned an Emmy nomination for hosting the PBS adaptation of his second book, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America.

Excerpt: God in the White House

God in the White House

Cheap Grace: Piety and the Presidency

Note: Author's footnotes have been omitted.

George W. Bush's statement on the eve of the Iowa precinct caucuses that Jesus was his favorite philosopher appealed to many evangelical voters as well as to those who believed that the nation was beset by moral decay. By 2004, Americans had come to expect that candidates for the highest offi ce in the land would open their religious beliefs to the scrutiny of voters. The political muscle of the Religious Right, populated overwhelmingly with evangelicals, meant that presidential candidates sought to speak the language of evangelicalism. Jimmy Carter's declaration in 1976 that he was a "born again" Christian had simultaneously energized evangelicals and sent every journalist in New York to his Rolodex to figure out what in the world he meant. By 2004, the language of "born again" had become a commonplace on the presidential campaign trail.

How different from 1960. John F. Kennedy, trying to dislodge the Protestant establishment, which took faith for granted so long as it was some form of Protestant faith, counseled Americans to disregard a candidate's religion when they entered the voting booth. Other issues were far more important, he argued, and besides, the Constitution explicitly prohibited a religious test for office and ensured the separation of church and state. Americans, by a very narrow margin, elected Kennedy to the presidency; his arguments apparently were persuasive to enough voters to overcome previous biases against Roman Catholicism.

Kennedy's case against considerations of faith as a criterion for voting prevailed through the ensuing three presidential elections: 1964, 1968, and 1972. To cite one example of this disregard for candidates' religion, the leading contender for the Republican nomination in 1968 was the governor of Michigan, George Romney, a Mormon. His religion simply did not enter into the political calculus; instead, Romney stumbled politically among primary voters when he declared that he had been "brainwashed" about Vietnam.

The Kennedy paradigm of indifference toward a candidate's faith, having held through the 1972 election, dissolved dramatically following the Watergate scandal and Richard Nixon's resignation. Suddenly, in the wake of the Nixon administration's culture of corruption and Nixon's manifold prevarications, a candidate's faith seemed to matter. It was a perfect opening for a Washington outsider, a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher who offered himself as a kind of redeemer to a deeply divided nation. Indeed, given his relative obscurity as a one-term governor of Georgia, it's difficult to imagine Carter's meteoric rise to the Oval Office under any other circumstances.

Carter's candidacy reintroduced religion into presidential politics. His pledges of honesty and decency and never to lie to the American people resonated with Americans eager to purge the nation of Nixon, the shame of Watergate, the ignominy of Vietnam, and, quite possibly, the excesses of the counterculture. Carter was manifestly a good and decent man, the voters decided, trustworthy perhaps even to a fault.

The architects of the Religious Right, however, eager to politicize evangelicals, blamed Carter—wrongly—for stripping places like Bob Jones University of their tax-exempt status because of their racially discriminatory policies. They perpetrated this deception in spite the fact that the Internal Revenue Service withdrew Bob Jones University's tax exemption (after years of warnings) on January 19, 1976, fully one year and a day before Carter took the oath of office as president of the United States.

Capitalizing on the perception that Carter was a weak and ineffective president, these Religious Right leaders used Carter as a foil to assemble a political coalition in advance of the 1980 presidential election, which featured three major candidates, all of whom claimed to be evangelical Christians.

Ronald Reagan, a divorced and remarried man who, as governor of California, had signed into law the most liberal abortion bill in the nation, won the support of the Religious Right in 1980 and again in 1984. Reagan's checkered past and the fact that his declarations of evangelical faith proved to be somewhat less genuine than Carter's didn't deter the leaders of the Religious Right.

With some reservations, the Religious Right supported George H. W. Bush over Michael Dukakis in 1998 and again over Bill Clinton in 1992. Clinton's election represented something of an interregnum for the Religious Right, by now the most powerful constituency in the Republican Party, and the leaders of the Religious Right resented it bitterly. They did everything in their power to defame and to discredit him.

Tragically, perhaps predictably, Clinton played into their hands. Relentless investigations finally produced evidence of lurid, adolescent behavior that led in time to impeachment. The failure of the Senate to remove Clinton from offi ce in 1999 prompted all manner of lamentations and hand-wringing from Religious Right leaders, but they rallied to return to the political arena the following year to ensure the restoration of the White House to the Republican Party.

The introduction of religious language and faith claims into presidential politics raises an important question: So what? Does a candidate's faith or even his moral character make any substantive difference in how he governs?

John F. Kennedy, as we now know, was a notorious philanderer, both before and during his tenure in the White House. Yet his administration, although it was cut short by his assassination, was not beset by any major scandal. Lyndon Johnson's faith was probably minimal, or at least not readily apparent. The one religious principle that guided his life, that the strong should look after the weak, animated his pursuit of civil-rights legislation and his Great Society ambitions; the same principle led to his disastrous prosecution of the Vietnam War.

Despite Billy Graham's repeated attestations to the profound faith and the probity of Richard Nixon, the most telling statement about the depth of Nixon's religious inclinations was probably Norman Vincent Peale's inadvertent remark about Nixon's Quaker heritage. "I don't know that he ever let it bother him," Peale said during the course of the 1960 presidential campaign.

In terms of corruption and persistent attempts to frustrate justice and to undermine the Constitution of the United States, the Nixon administration ranks as the worst in history. Gerald Ford, Nixon's unelected successor, was generally regarded as a good and honest man. His pardon of Nixon, which Ford insisted arose out of his religious beliefs about forgiveness and mercy, probably cost him the election in 1976.

Even his critics would concede that Jimmy Carter was a good and honest man, a person of high moral principle. His performance as president, however, is generally regarded as less than stellar, in part because of his micromanagement administrative style. Since leaving office, and thereby liberated from administrative responsibilities, Carter has been able to act on the peacemaking and humanitarian impulses that lie at the core of his faith.

He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002; as James Laney, the former president of Emory University, famously remarked, "Jimmy Carter is the first person in history for whom the presidency was a stepping-stone."

Though he rarely attended church, Ronald Reagan was regarded by many evangelicals as one of their own. He failed to deliver on his promises to outlaw abortion and to reinstate public prayer in public schools, but religious conservatives lionized him, in part because of his relentless campaign against the "evil empire" of the Soviet Union. The Iran-Contra scandal, which represented a bold attempt secretly to circumvent Congress by selling arms to Iran and using the profi ts to support insurgent forces in Central America, never approached the magnitude of the Watergate-era scandals, but it was a scandal nevertheless.

Reagan's vice president, George H. W. Bush, is generally considered a decent man whose administration was not tainted by any major scandal. Yet Bush's campaign against Michael Dukakis in 1988 was one of the nastiest in American history, so notorious that Lee Atwater, the man responsible for the infamous Willie Horton campaign commercial, apologized from his deathbed. Bush's pardon of six principals in the Iran-Contra scandal had the effect of frustrating justice; the special prosecutor folded his investigation shortly after Bush issued the pardons on December 24, 1992.

Bill Clinton's womanizing, which nearly became his undoing, was an open secret when he was governor of Arkansas and while he was campaigning for the presidency. His legacy, despite the extraordinary economic growth of the 1990s, will be tarnished forever by his tawdry behavior and by the ignominy of being only the second president in history to face impeachment.

Yet, throughout an eight-year presidency and despite relentless investigations, the Clinton administration was not rocked by any significant scandal—aside from the disgrace of Clinton's personal dalliances. In campaigning for the presidency in 2000, in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky affair, George W. Bush presented himself to the voters as a model of moral rectitude. Like Carter in 1976, Bush used the language of redemption and offered himself as a kind of emetic after the Clinton-Gore years. Since his evangelical conversion in 1984 and his decision to quit alcohol in 1986, Bush's personal life has been, for the most part and at least as far as we know, beyond reproach.

But does probity translate into policy? The record of the George W. Bush administration suggests that it may not. The administration of the man who trumpets his morality deceived the nation (and the world) about the justifications for the invasion of Iraq and went to extraordinary lengths to discredit those who exposed the deceptions. The administration of the man who claims to be a Christian and to embody Chris tian values ignored centuries of Christian thinking and writing on what is or is not a "just war": Is it a defensive war? Is the use of military force the last resort? Is the amount of force roughly proportionate to the provocation? Is there a reasonable chance of success? Have provisions been made, as much as possible, to protect civilians from being "collateral damage"? The invasion of Iraq meets none of these criteria.

Finally, the Bush administration, which claims to uphold human rights, has authorized the use of torture against those it designates as "enemy combatants." This is the same administration that claims to be "pro-life" because of its efforts to defend the fetus. Yet it engages in the most degrading and demeaning actions imaginable against fully formed human beings.

Does probity translate into policy? The record of the past four decades is mixed. Gerald Ford's pardon of Nixon was an expression of his religious convictions. Jimmy Carter's sense of morality led him to renegotiate the Panama Canal treaties and to draw attention to human-rights abuses around the world. Ronald Reagan's moral compass prompted him to reverse his earlier support for abortion rights and to advocate a Human Life Amendment to the Constitution.

On the other side of the equation, Lyndon Johnson's personal life would never suggest that he was a paragon of virtue, but he worked passionately for civil rights and sought to improve the lot of those less fortunate. Richard Nixon, hardly a moral exemplar, nevertheless sought to protect the environment and signed several bills that restored lands and a measure of self-rule to Native Americans.

These examples suggest that the quest for moral rectitude in presidential candidates may be chimerical. The candidates' declarations of faith over the past several decades provide a fairly poor indicator of how they govern. Even the record of the two redeemer presidents of the past half century, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, is mixed. Carter actually sought to govern according to his moral lights and in fidelity to the principles of decency, honor, and fair play that he articulated on the campaign trail; the American voters resoundingly repudiated him when he ran for a second term.

Bush sought the presidency on a platform of morality and Christian virtues. Yet his policies in the fi rst decade of the twenty-fi rst century reflected those values only dimly, if at all. Perhaps it's time to shift our attention away from the candidates and toward the electorate. What is it we expect from our presidents? Do we look for charisma and political skills, experience in foreign and domestic policy, and administrative competence? Or do we demand that candidates for the White House pass some sort of catechetical test? It's not an either-or proposition, of course, but the record of the last four decades of the twentieth century suggests that we've moved toward the latter and away from the former.

But at what cost? The president of the United States is not a high priest. He or she is commander-in-chief, not pastor-in-chief. Surely it's legitimate to consider a candidate's faith (or lack of same) as an insight into his character, but it should be only one of many considerations. To put it in the starkest terms, when I enter an operating room or board an airplane, my primary consideration is whether the surgeon or the pilot is competent; if I learn that she attended church or synagogue the previous weekend I might like her better, perhaps, or be more inclined to strike up a conversation. But my principal concern is her ability to perform the task I've asked her to do.

Perhaps it's inevitable that in the United States, which has no religious establishment, we look to the president as a kind of moral figurehead, the sum total of our projections about the supposed goodness and honor and moral superiority of America and Americans. We expect the president to be the vicarious embodiment of the myths we have constructed about the United States of America.

But no one—not John Kennedy or Jimmy Carter, not Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush—can shoulder that burden. It's too much to ask of any mortal to be the repository of our collective projections, especially when our assessment of America's standing in the world and our aggregate moral character is so inflated.

And yet politicians continually invite us to see them as embodiments of our supposed virtue. They assure us that we Americans are good and moral and decent people, and we need only to elect a good and moral and decent president and all will be well. Foolishly, naïvely, we play along.

And we play along with this cycle of sin and redemption because it offers a kind of cheap grace. We turned to Jimmy Carter in 1976 to purge the nation of Nixon's sins but also to absolve ourselves of complicity. Simply by casting a vote, we could put the whole sordid matter behind us and not trouble ourselves with nettlesome questions about why we, the electorate, elevated Nixon to the White House in the first place. Here was a man whose entire career was littered with dirty tricks and shady dealings, most of which were well known to American voters. Here was a man who seriously compromised civil liberties and who massively escalated the ruinous war in Vietnam. Yet not only did we elect him president in 1968, we returned him overwhelmingly to office four years later. These circumstances raise serious questions about the American voters who put Nixon in offi ce and allowed him to remain there. Simply pulling the lever for Carter in 1976, however, allowed us to evade those questions. Cheap grace.

Bill Clinton's history of philandering was hardly a secret when he ran for president in 1992, but the salacious revelations of his sexual behavior in the White House made most Americans squirm. Rather than ask ourselves diffi cult questions about our collective tolerance for sexual license and promiscuity in American society, transitory relationships, the endless barrage of sexually themed messages on television, or the easy availability of pornography, we simply pulled the lever for George W. Bush, who offered vague promises about restoring integrity to the White House. Cheap grace.

If the presidency suffers from an inflection of religious criteria, faith itself is also damaged by politicization. Can anyone argue that the integrity of the Quaker faith was advanced by its association with Richard Nixon? Or the Disciples of Christ with Lyndon Johnson or, for that matter, Ronald Reagan? The two Southern Baptist presidents of the late twentieth century, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, left decidedly different legacies. One left office with his reputation for probity intact, but he was generally considered a less-than-effective president; the other presidency was considerably more successful, especially in terms of balancing the budget, foreign-policy initiatives, and economic prosperity, but probity was hardly that president's forte.

Nearly four centuries ago, Roger Williams recognized the dangers to the faith of too close an association with the state. He worried that the "garden of the church" would be sullied by the "wilderness of the world" if not for a "wall of separation" between the two. Neither Williams nor the founders proposed to bracket an individual's faith from political considerations, but they discerned the dangers of conflating the two.

Although politics has often been described as the art of compromise, the compromise of faith is more perilous, especially in pursuit of political influence. The history of the Religious Right since its inception in the late 1970s illustrates this copiously. The movement, begun as an attempt to defend Bob Jones University and similar institutions against the Internal Revenue Service, later attracted followers by adopting an anti-abortion position as part of its agenda. The Religious Right directed its support to Ronald Reagan in 1980, and beginning with the Reagan administration, leaders of the Religious Right have enjoyed virtually unlimited access to the White House, except for the years 1993 until 2001.

And what does the Religious Right have to show for its identification of the faith with the political process? Precious little. The leaders of the Religious Right have failed to outlaw abortion, their signature issue since 1980, and this despite the fact that the Republicans have controlled both the White House and Congress for most of those years. From February 1, 2006, with the swearing in of Samuel Alitoto the Supreme Court, until January 3, 2007, when the new Democratic majorities took control of Congress, for example, the Republican-Religious Right coalition controlled all three branches of the federal government. The chief executive, the majority leader of the Senate, and the speaker of the House of Representatives all claimed to be evangelical Christians and unalterably opposed to abortion. Yet, curiously, they made no attempt to outlaw abortion.

They did, however, manage to pass a bill authorizing the use of torture against those the administration designated as "enemy combatants." And here the danger of prostituting the faith in pursuit of political power comes into bold relief. The same leaders of the Religious Right who claim to be "pro-life," who have anointed themselves the moral arbiters of society, have refused unequivocally to condemn the use of torture. In the course of writing my previous book, Thy Kingdom Come, I asked eight Religious Right organizations to send me a copy of their position on the use of torture. Only two replied, and this despite the fact that these groups have detailed position papers on everything from stem cells to same-sex unions. Both of my respondents defended the Bush administration's policies on torture.

My reading of American religious history is that religion always functions best from the margins of society and not in the councils of power. Once you identify the faith with a particular candidate or party or with the quest for political infl uence, ultimately it is the faith that suffers. Compromise may work in politics. It's less appropriate to the realm of faith and belief.

Should a candidate's faith matter to voters? The record of the final four decades of the twentieth century and the initial years of the twenty-first century suggests that professions of religious belief on the campaign trail do not provide a good indicator of how a president comports himself in office. There is, in short, no direct correlation between probity and policy. Jimmy Carter may provide something of an exception to that generalization, but few Americans view his administration with nostalgia, even though he has redeemed himself in the eyes of many Americans with his activities since leaving office. Ronald Reagan evokes a lot of nostalgia, especially among conservatives, but he was singularly unsuccessful in following through on the campaign promises that he insisted were motivated by his religious convictions.

The radical disjunction between George W. Bush's claims of moral rectitude and his indifference to the moral ramifications of his policies is striking, even breathtaking. In the course of his administration, the United States—this "blessed country," in Bush's words—embarked on its first aggressive (as opposed to defensive) military campaign in history, all the while flouting the just-war criteria of the Christian tradition that Bush claims to embrace. The Bush administration also approved the use of torture against "enemy combatants," thereby surrendering much of the moral authority the United States once enjoyed in the eyes of the world.

Should a candidate's faith make any difference to the voters? In this age of full disclosure, exhaustive background checks, and confessional politics, voters know far more about candidates than they did in 1960. More, perhaps, than any sane person should care to know. But are we asking the right questions? The contours of a candidate's faith are fair game as insight into her or his character, but we should also ask probing questions about other matters—economics, foreign policy, social issues—and then pay careful attention to the answers. Is there any evidence to believe that a candidate's profession of faith is anything more than window-dressing or a play for religious voters? Is there reason to believe that a candidate's moral compass, even with no religious affiliation or a tepid declaration of faith, will guide his or her decision-making?

The lesson of the final decades of the twentieth century is that voters should approach candidates' professions of faith with more than a little suspicion. Too often, the vetting of a candidate's religion has diverted our attention from other important questions. Perhaps, once again, our disappointment, our anger, even our outrage is misplaced. Most politicians excel in their chosen line of work because they have learned to discern the mood and attitudes and prejudices of the voters. The most skilled among them find ways to reflect those sentiments back to the electorate. They deal in gauzy, comfortable bromides more often than cold, hard truth. "We campaign in poetry," Mario Cuomo, former governor of New York, once observed, "but we govern in prose."

Among a people who claim overwhelmingly to be Christian, and in a nation where well over 90 percent of us tell pollsters that we believe in God or a Supreme Being, it is no wonder that politicians clamor to speak the language of faith. For many of those politicians, perhaps, the sentiments are sincere; for others, however, considering their actions once in office, the claims seem questionable.

The unwillingness of voters to interrogate those claims and to hold candidates and presidents accountable for their professions of piety, however, renders the rhetoric of religion on the campaign trail meaningless. What would have happened, for example, if there had been a series of thoughtful follow-up questions to George W. Bush's declaration back in Des Moines, Iowa, that Jesus was his favorite philosopher? "Mr. Bush, Jesus demands in the Sermon on the Mount that his followers 'turn the other cheek'? How will that teaching guide your conduct of American foreign policy, especially in the event of, say, an attack on the United States?" Or: "Jesus, your favorite philosopher, says that we should care for 'the least of these.' How does that inform your understanding of welfare or Social Security or civil rights or the graduated income tax?" "Can you provide a specific example of how your fidelity to the Chris tian faith affected your policies as governor of Texas?"

Then, once in office, a few questions like this: "Mr. President, Jesus expressed concern for the well-being of the tiniest sparrow. Do you see any relationship between that sentiment and your administration's environmental policies? " Or: "Mr. President, Jesus, the man you invoked on the campaign trail as your favorite philosopher, invited his followers to love their enemies. How does that teaching square with the invasion of Iraq or with your administration's policies on torture? "

Other presidents who have made professions of faith should also be pressed to validate their claims. "Mr. Reagan, you repeatedly assured voters on the campaign trail that your religious convictions impelled you to work for making abortion illegal. Yet you have not made any serious attempt to do so. Why not?" "Mr. Clinton, unlike many of your predecessors, you attend church ser vices most Sundays when you are in Washington and much of the time when you're campaigning. How do you account for the disjunction between your expressions of faith and your private behavior?"

The problem of religiously inflected political rhetoric, it seems, lies not so much with the politicians as with the populace. We allow politicians to hypnotize us with lullabies about faith and morality, and then we fail to take that rhetoric seriously, much less hold them to the principles they articulate so blithely. And when a politician like Jimmy Carter comes along, someone who dares to govern according to the Christian morality he espoused on the campaign trail, we angrily throw him out of office.

What does that say about us, the voters? I think it suggests that we, too, talk a good game about faith and religion and morality, but the rhetoric fails to match the reality. If we were the overwhelmingly "Christian nation" that many claim we are, how could we possibly countenance some of the policies carried out in our name—most recently, for instance, the prosecution of the war in Iraq and the Bush administration's persistent, systematic use of torture?

The answer, it seems, is that our collective affirmations of faith are no more sincere than those of our politicians. We claim to be a "Chris tian nation," yet we stand by silently as our government conducts an aggressive war in the Middle East that doesn't meet even the barest just-war criteria articulated by Christians through the centuries. Jesus told us to welcome the stranger in our midst, yet that sentiment receives scant expression in our policies on immigration, much less in our attitudes toward those who look or dress or worship differently from us. When we learned about the screams of those being tortured by our government, we raised barely a whimper in protest.

The American form of government purports to be a "representative democracy." That claim elicits all manner of cynicism these days, especially as politicians cavort shamelessly with corporate and moneyed interests in order to finance their elections and their reelections. But on matters of faith, sadly, the United States may well be a representative democracy: The vacuous declarations of faith we hear from our politicians echo our own vacuous declarations of faith. Perhaps our insistence on demanding piety and probity from our politicians is a measure of the deficiency of both we sense in ourselves.

Religion has been bleached out by the bromides of political rhetoric as well as by the comfortable myth that the United States is a "Christian nation." We have been blinded by the false gospel of America's moral superiority, which fi nds little resonance of late in our policies. Many politicians have proven themselves quite adept at feeding us this pabulum. We devour it shamelessly.

The hypocrisy is overwhelming, but the greater measure of blame lies with the voters than with the politicians, who, after all, merely parrot back to us what they think we want to hear. The solution? One possibility is that we drop altogether the charade of vetting each candidate's faith—which would bring us full circle back to the Kennedy paradigm. "The real issues in this campaign have been obscured," John F. Kennedy complained toward the end of the 1960 presidential campaign. "So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again—not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me—but what kind of America I believe in."

That is one, perfectly legitimate, approach to the issue of religion and the presidency. It's also an approach not likely to win much support these days. The other option is that we should hold candidates accountable for their religious rhetoric, mindful that the only honest and effective way to do that will be to hold ourselves accountable for our religious affirmations. If voters began to take the rhetoric of piety seriously, politicians would be forced to do so as well.

If we persist in vetting the faith of our presidential candidates, we must find a way to reinvest both religion and the political process with a profundity befitting the importance of both. That, in turn, entails treating the faith claims of candidates seriously and calling politicians to account when they fail to live up to the principles they purport to affirm. If such accountability became part of the political process, chances are that politicians might think twice before offering grandiose protestations of faith, especially when they know that such claims cannot withstand scrutiny.

The larger burden falls on us, the electorate. If we insist on regarding ourselves as a religious people, if we persist in making claims for our nation's moral superiority, then we must hold ourselves and our nation accountable to the values we espouse. Otherwise, we should drop all pretense of piety, political or otherwise. f we want to view ourselves as a religious people, however, it's not sufficient merely to allow politicians to function as the vicarious projections of our faith. We have to engage in the arduous work of living up to our professed ideals, both individually and collectively.

Anything less is cheap grace.

Excerpted from God in the White House: A History: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush by Randall Balmer Copyright © 2008 by HarperOne.

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