Scholar speaks on ‘God in the White House'

Friday July 12, 2013


County News Editor

MANCHESTER -- Asked in a 1999 Republican debate in Iowa who his favorite political philosopher was, then-candidate George W. Bush said that it was Jesus.

"And like a lot of people I kind of scratched my head at that," said religion scholar Randall Balmer. "I don't fault Governor Bush for that answer. It's a legitimate answer. What are you going to say to a question like that? ‘Machiavelli' is probably not going to win you a lot of votes. So I'm not criticizing the answer."

However, this answer got him thinking about "how 40 years earlier the Democratic nominee for president, John Kennedy of Massachusetts, had to address the so-called religion issue in the 1960 presidential campaign.

"So I decided there's got to be a story of this narrative arc between John F. Kennedy in 1960 addressing the whole issue of his faith and presidential politics and George W. Bush on the eve of the Iowa precinct caucuses saying that Jesus was his favorite political philosopher. So I began to try to delve into that story a little bit."

Balmer is chairman of the religion department at Dartmouth College, an Episcopal priest, and the author of more than a dozen books. The book that grew out of the comment by the younger George Bush was "God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush," published in 2008.

Balmer spoke Saturday at Zion Episcopal Church in Manchester. He was also guest speaker at Sunday services at the church and its chapel.

In his Saturday talk, Balmer first looked at the unsuccessful candidacy for president in 1928 of New York Governor Al Smith, a Democrat and a Catholic. Smith, defeated by Herbert Hoover, a Republican and Quaker, faced opposition because of his faith, including from a resurgent Ku Klux Klan.

An anti-Catholic strain in public life continued even after World War II, in which men in the armed services frequently fought for the U.S. against nations their parents and grandparents had come to America from. Anti-Catholic sentiments even came from the educated, such as Paul Blanshard and his enormously popular 1949 book "American Freedom and Catholic Power."

"The book argued about the dangers of electing a Roman Catholic to the presidency," Balmer said. "The fundamental thesis was the incompatibility between Roman Catholicism and the canons of American Democracy."

Balmer described how Kennedy, a Catholic like Smith, attempted to deal with questions about his faith and opposition from much of the Protestant establishment.

The issue came to a head at a now-famous speech Kennedy gave at the Rice Hotel in Houston in September of 1960 to a group of skeptical Protestant clergy.

"'I think the proper question,' (Kennedy) said, ‘is what kind of America I believe in.' He talked about the fact that he believed in an America where the separation of church and state was absolute, and that a candidate's faith should not be a factor as voters went into the voting booth," Balmer said.

The speech at the Rice hotel "was an important moment in presidential politics over the last half century because Kennedy encouraged voters to effectively bracket out a candidate's faith before they went into the voting booth," he said. "What follows in American presidential politics until the mid-1970s is what I call the ‘Kennedy paradigm' of voter disinterest in a candidate's faith."

To provide his point, Balmer asked those present to identify the denomination of Kennedy's presidential successor, Lyndon Johnson. No one gave the correct answer, Disciples of Christ.

"The reason I asked is that nobody cared, nobody asked the question," Balmer said.

Johnson did reflect a moral sensibility in one particular way.

"Johnson was a complicated man; he was not overtly religious and certainly not a pious man but he was someone who tried to act according to a moral principle that he learned from his mother and he referred to it many, many times throughout his career," Balmer said. "The principle was ‘the strong have the obligation to care for the weak.'"

This could be seen in Johnson as majority leader in the Senate pushing through the Civil Rights Act of 1957. "As president he pushed through the Civil Rights act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. I think this also helps explain his Great Society ambitions, that he outlined at the University of Michigan commencement address in May of 1964. The idea of the War on Poverty, taking care of those who are less able to take care from themselves, Medicare and so forth."

However, Balmer said this idea was something of a double-edged sword. "Tragically, he also applied that to Vietnam. I came across several references where Johnson said ‘the reason we're in Vietnam is because the strong have an obligation to care for the weak.'"

Nixon was a Quaker, but again, not a particularly devout one, though he apparently had some interest in religion.

"During the Nixon administration is when you had White House worship services, many of them were led by Billy Graham, many others were led by Norman Vincent Peale, who were both political supporters of Richard Nixon," Balmer said. "But Nixon also invited other religious leaders, including Jewish leaders, to come and conduct these services in the White House during his administration."

Of course, with Nixon and the Watergate scandal, a "culture of corruption that enveloped the White House."

"And here is where I think you have the end effectively of what I call the ‘Kennedy paradigm' of voter indifference to a candidate's faith. Gerald Ford succeeded Nixon. The only person to serve as president who had never been elected either president or vice president."

Ford was a devout Episcopalian who served on the vestry of his church. He is best known today for issuing a pardon to Nixon, a very controversial move at the time.

"I argue that the pardon of Nixon was motivated by religious concerns," Balmer said. "Ford, in his address to the nation announcing the pardon of Nixon, talked about the issue of forgiveness."

After Ford served out the remainder of Nixon's term after the latter's resignation from office "suddenly, because of Nixon, we the voters become interested in a candidate's faith and the Kennedy paradigm comes to an end. I think it's impossible to imagine Jimmy Carter, the one-term governor of Georgia, becoming president of the United States if not for, in a backhanded way, Richard Nixon."

Carter, who was elected in 1976, "talked about being a ‘born-again' Christian, thereby sending every journalist in New York to his rolodex to figure out what in the world he was talking about. But America's evangelicals understood quite clearly what he was talking about. He was speaking their language."

Balmer said he was recently with Carter in Plains, Ga., and has just completed a biography of him, ‘The Redeemer President: The Life of Jimmy Carter."

By 1980, three self-proclaimed evangelicals ran for president, Carter, Illinois Congressman John Anderson, a Republican running as an independent; and the Republican nominee Ronald Reagan.

In this election, many of the people, particularly evangelicals, who had helped elect Carter turned against him in favor of Reagan, who also claimed to be an evangelical but wasn't quite sure what the term meant. His church attendance "episodic at best," Balmer said.

It is widely believe that evangelicals turned against Carter and toward the Republicans because of abortion, legalized in the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973. Balmer calls this "the abortion myth."

Instead he pointed to a lower court ruling which upheld the contention by the Internal Revenue Service that "any organization that engages in racial segregation or racial discrimination is not by definition a charitable organization. Therefore it has no claims on tax-exempt status, and similarly any donations to such an organizations can no longer qualify for tax exemption," Balmer said.

This was used by the IRS in 1975 to rescind the tax exemption of Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist school in Greenvile, S.C., which did not admit African Americans to the student body until 1971 and until 1975, out of fears of racial mixing, did not admit unmarried African Americans.

"That is what got people like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and the other leaders of the religious right activated as political players in order to reverse those actions against these schools," he said. "That was the catalyst for the Religious Right. Abortion did not become part of the religious right agenda until 1979."

Elected in 1988, George H.W. Bush, an Episcopalian, also claimed to be an evangelical, though again seemed unclear about the details. The democratic ticket of Bill Clinton and Al Gore was, as far as Balmer can tell, the only all Southern Baptist ticket in history. The conservative Southern Baptist Convention, however, "didn't want any part of either one of them."

Summing up, Balmer said he wished a questioner had followed up with George W. Bush at the debate mentioned above and asked him what he thought of Jesus' teachings on non-violence or with candidate Bill Clinton and his professions of faith, asking how he squared these professions with his personal behavior.

"Part of the problem, I think, in the American political process is that in America religion serves as a proxy for morality," Balmer said. "Especially after the Nixon administration, we Americans want to know that our candidates for the highest office in the land are good, decent, moral, trustworthy people. The problem is we don't know how to ask the question, so we say: ‘are you religious? What is your religion?'

He added, "The flawed premise behind that question is that somebody who is not avowedly religious, or has no religious affiliation, cannot be a good, moral, decent person. That's demonstrably false."

For more on Balmer's talk see Saturday's religion page. Mark Rondeau can be reached at or on Twitter @banner_religion.


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