14 January 2009


In less than a week a new president will be inaugurated, so I thought this would be a good time to contemplate how presidents' religions have defined their policies.

I recently read an excellent book:
How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush
by Randall Balmer

        In God in the White House Randall Balmer relates the dramatic change from President Kennedy’s obligation to assure his detractors that, as a Catholic, he would uphold the wall of separation between church and state, to recent candidates who apparently need to embrace religion in order to be elected.
        Yet among recent presidents, declarations of religious belief during campaigns have had little to do with how a president has acted in office.
        Balmer is an ordained Episcopal priest and a professor of American religions at Barnard College. Yet he is not sympathetic to the entanglement of religion and politics in this country.

        "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," says Balmer. Bush "trumpets his morality", yet his administration deceived the nation, discredited those who exposed the deception, and authorized the use of torture.

        Balmer asks: What would have happened, for example, if there had been a series of thoughtful follow-up questions to George W. Bush's declaration... 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 Christian 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?"

        This book is easy to read and informative. I lived through all the presidents he covers, but I learned things from this book that I hadn't known before and was reminded of those I did but had forgotten. It is well worth reading, especially for those concerned about keeping church and state separate in this country.

For an excerpt from GOD IN THE WHITE HOUSE and a podcast of an interview with Randall Balmer that aired on NPR's Fresh Air 8/20/08, click HERE

Update Feb 2009: For a video interview with the author and Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, click HERE.

Editorial reviews and reviews by readers can be found at the amazon.com link below:

1 comment:

Lee said...

Speaking as someone outside the US, looking in, the influence of the religious groups on the selection of candidates and the general direction of policy is nothing short of scarey. It is great to see a black elected to president. It will be great when an atheist gets there. (Thinks) How about a female, black atheist president?

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