Religion and the American Presidency: George Washington to George W. Bush with Commentary and Primary Sources/God in the White House: A History: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush

Article excerpt

Religion and the American Presidency: George Washington to George W. Bush with Commentary and Primary Sources. Edited by Gaston Espinosa. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009, Pp. viii, 543. $34.50.)

God in the White House: A History: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush. By Randall Balmer. (New York: Harper One, 2008, Pp. x, 243. $14.99.)

Two recent books remind readers that, despite the modern fascination with presidential faith, religious belief has long played an important role in American politics. Gastón Espinosa's edited work, Religion and the American Presidency features essays that describe the religious lives of thirteen presidents and explore the connections between presidential faith and policy decisions. For example, in their essay on George Washington, Daniel L. Dreisbach and Jeffry H. Morrison contend that Washington's Anglican upbringing influenced both his civic-minded commitment to religious liberty and the prominent role he afforded Christianity in the new republic. Providing a contrasting portrait of colonial Virginia's Anglican establishment, essayists Thomas E. Buckley on Jefferson and Garrett Ward Sheldon on Madison argue that Anglican intolerance moved these Virginia presidents toward an ecumenical, civic-minded religious rhetoric that preserved religious liberty while harnessing Christian morality to national unity and republican virtue. From introductory chapters addressing the relationship between Christianity and the development of civic religion in early presidential administrations, the book chronologically skips ahead to Andrew R. Murphy's account of Lincoln's spiritual and rhetorical journey from deistic rationalism to Christian mysticism and his apotheosis as national pastor and comforter during the Civil War. The book then skips chronologically to an analysis of faith and politics in the administrations of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. In a series of enlightening essays, presidential policies are passed through the litmus test of a president's particular brand of faith. Thus, Gary Scott Smith sees Roosevelt's moderate Episcopalianism in his efforts to promote social justice; Elizabeth Edwards Spalding discovers Truman's faith in his ecumenical recognition of the state of Israel; Jerry Bergman traces Eisenhower's overt support of Christianity - evident in the additions of "In God We Trust" to currency and to the Pledge of Allegiance - to the president's early exposure to the Jehovah's Witnesses. Additionally, as these essayists suggest, all three presidents also relied upon American providential exceptionalism as a basis for opposition to Nazism and Communism. Ironically, while many 1960 voters feared that John F. Kennedy would be influenced by his Roman Catholic faith - in ways akin to the influence of Protestantism on his predecessors - Tomas J. Carry's essay shows that Kennedy consciously distanced his policies from his faith. Skipping chronologically again, the book finishes with essays tracing presidential religion in every administration since Jimmy Carter. In these essays, authors demonstrate the presidential repudiation of Kennedy's model of neutralizing the influence of religion in public life. Instead, presidents from Carter to George W. Bush have embraced evangelicalism and have allowed the experience of being "born again" - something essayist Kenneth E. Morris claims is "reasonably similar to the religious commitments of a majority of Americans" to influence their policy decisions (324). Consequendy, Morris sees the influence of evangelicalism in Carter's commitments to racial equality, human rights, and peace in the Middle East; Paul Kengor sees it in Reagan's views on school prayer, abortion, arms control, and anti-Communism; Kjell O. …


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