Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush: Faith, Foreign Policy, and an Evangelical Presidential Style

Article excerpt

"I had a different way of governing ... I was a Southerner, a born-again Christian, a Baptist, a newcomer." (Hargrove 1988, 15)

--Jimmy Carter

"My style, my focus, and many of the issues that I talk about ... are reinforced by my religion." (Bush 2000b)

--George W. Bush

This article seeks to address a gap in presidential studies by exploring the role of personal religious faith and the style and direction of presidential leadership. Presidential scholarship has focused on political skill (Neustadt 1990), psychology (Barber 1992), intellectual and moral leadership (Hargrove 1998), management ability (Burke 2000), a combination of all of these factors (Greenstein 2004), and even chronological position in a political "regime" (Skowronek 1997) in interpreting presidents and presidencies. Beyond some biographical works, however, individual case and comparative studies on the religious faith of presidents are relatively few.

We argue that the presidential style and foreign policies of Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush cannot be fully understood unless the personal religious dimension has been taken into account. Specifically, we argue that Carter and Bush exhibit a similar style of leadership, one that draws heavily from their evangelical faith. Although they pursued different means to fulfill their missions, they share what has been termed an evangelical "family resemblance" (Johnston 1991, 254).

All too often, the religion of President Carter is ignored in the scholarly literature on his presidency. Much of the Carter scholarship either entirely ignores Carter's faith, or notes it so briefly that one gets the sense it was not that important to him, or that he separated it from his politics. Carter himself (1994, vii) once wrote that the impact of religion on politics is not "commonly recognized or easily quantified." While the scholarly literature on President Bush is much scantier as yet, there is a similar reluctance to examine Bush's religious faith and its potential impact on day-to-day political decisions. Campaign biographies in 2000 and subsequent journalistic works on the Bush administration refer to the president's faith but do not seriously explore whether it has affected his conduct in office. In five recent scholarly collections on the Bush presidency, there are only two chapters on Bush and religion. One includes a brief discussion of his use of religious rhetoric, his preference for moral certainty, and his belief in universal values (Pfiffner 2004, 167-69), and the other explores Bush's political relationship with the so-called religious right rather than his personal religious faith and its impact on his politics (Guth 2004). A more recent work (Jacobson 2006, 151-57) provides some important analysis of Christian conservative support for Bush and the Iraq War. This author concludes that of all groups, "Christian conservatives have been the most steadfast in following the president" (233-35).

The first section of the article contrasts the evangelical style with Richard Neustadt's and Max Weber's writings on political leadership. We then discuss the nature of evangelicalism and the influence of their evangelical faith on Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush. Next, the foreign policies of the two presidents are examined for examples of the evangelical presidential style in action. Finally, we evaluate the evangelical style as an alternative to Neustadt's prescriptions for presidential leadership and then assess the implications for future presidential research.

The Wilsonian Alternative

"He thinks he is another Jesus Christ come upon the earth to reform men." (DeGregorio 2004, 427)

--French President Georges Clemenceau

"I really think that at first the idealistic President regarded himself as a missionary whose function it was to rescue the poor European heathen from their age-long worship of false and fiery gods. …