The Faiths of the Postwar Presidents: From Truman to Obama

By David L. Holmes | Go to book overview

Lyndon Baines Johnson
1908–1973 PRESIDENT FROM 1963 TO 1969

Lyndon Baines Johnson (known as “LBJ” during his political career) never made a public display of his religion. “He was always very reticent about his version of Christianity,” one biographer wrote. “This caused many to assume he was unmoved by religion.”1 In 1967, however, Johnson’s visit to one church occupied national and international news for many days.

During a weekend visit to Virginia’s colonial capital of Williamsburg, the president and his wife, Lady Bird, worshipped at historic Bruton Parish Church. Built in 1715, this Episcopal church is located near the center of Colonial Williamsburg. Its rector, or chief minister, in 1967 was the Reverend Cotesworth Pinckney Lewis.2 An accomplished preacher, Lewis devoted his sermon that Sunday to a criticism of Johnson’s conduct of the war in Vietnam. During the sermon, he turned to address Johnson (who was seated in the Royal Governor’s Pew across from the pulpit) directly. “We are mystified,” he declared,

by news accounts suggesting that our brave fighting units are inhibited by
directives and inadequate equipment from using their capacities to terminate
the conflict successfully. While pledging our loyalty, we ask humbly, “Why?

After the service, Lewis walked the Johnsons to their car. An angry Johnson shook hands with the minister but said nothing. But Lady Bird Johnson, who was raised in the Old South part of Texas, displayed her Southern manners by finding something in the service to praise. “Wonderful choir,” she told Lewis.3

In the following weeks, this sermon caused a national furor. Gaining international press coverage, it became the topic of discussions on television and in newspaper columns. Williamsburg’s mayor wrote to Johnson to apologize.4 When Lewis himself wrote to the president a few days after the mayor, Johnson responded:

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