RD10Q: Faith and the Presidency: A Cautionary Tale

What inspired you to write God in the White House? What sparked your interest?

When George W. Bush declared on the eve of the Iowa precinct caucuses in 2000 that Jesus was his favorite philosopher, I scratched my head (like a lot of other Americans). What could that possibly mean, I wondered. As a historian, moreover, I thought almost immediately about John F. Kennedy’s speech at the Rice Hotel in Houston during the course of the 1960 presidential campaign, in which he told voters effectively to bracket out a candidate’s faith when they went into the voting booth. It seemed to me that there was a huge distance between Kennedy’s speech in 1960 and Bush’s declaration during the 2000 campaign. I wanted to tell that story, so the narrative arc of God in the White House extends from 1960 to 2000 and beyond.

Briefly, what I call the Kennedy paradigm of voter indifference toward a candidate’s faith obtained from 1960 until Jimmy Carter’s campaign for the presidency in 1976, when he promised a government as good and decent as the American people and pledged never knowingly to lie to the American people. The irony here is that Carter’s campaign would have been unthinkable were it not for Richard Nixon’s culture of corruption and endless prevarications. So, in a backhanded way, Nixon (the man Kennedy beat in 1960) is responsible for the reintroduction of the language of faith and piety into presidential politics.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

In surveying the campaign rhetoric of presidential candidates over the past half century and comparing it with their performance in office, I concluded that only one president in that span, Jimmy Carter, actually sought to govern according to the moral and religious principles he articulated while running for office. The irony, of course, is that Americans, who claim to be a religious people, denied Carter a second term in office. Many people would protest that Ronald Reagan governed according to his campaign rhetoric, but this, I think, is demonstrably false. True, Reagan campaigned both in 1980 and 1984 with the promise that he would outlaw abortion — this despite the fact that he, as governor of California, had signed into law the most liberal abortion bill in the country in 1967. But even his most stalwart defenders now concede that Reagan made no serious effort to outlaw abortion. And what I found especially telling is that in Reagan’s autobiography, which extends well over 700 pages, the issue of abortion appears not once.

The second message I wanted to convey is that we, the voters, should interrogate carefully the faith claims of presidential candidates. Suppose, for example, that after George W. Bush declared in the Des Moines Register debate that Jesus was his favorite philosopher someone had followed up with a few questions: “Governor Bush, your favorite philosopher instructed his followers to be peacemakers, to love their enemies and to turn the other cheek. How will those teachings affect your foreign policy, especially in the event of, say, an attack on the United States?” or: “Governor Bush, your favorite philosopher expressed concern for the tiniest sparrow. Will that sentiment have any resonance in your environmental policies?” The purpose of this line of questioning is not some sort of theological game of “gotcha” but rather to determine whether or not a candidate’s blithe affirmations of faith have, in fact, any substance whatsoever.

Anything you had to leave out?

I became utterly fascinated once again with Lyndon Johnson, this larger-than-life, Shakespearean character — so I guess I would have liked to spend more time on him. Johnson was not a devout man, by any stretch of the imagination, but he learned from his mother a very simple moral principle by which he sought to govern: The strong have an obligation to care for the weak. That helps to explain why Johnson, a white Southerner, expended a great deal of political capital to push through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, even though he recognized at the time that he would be ceding the South to the Republican Party for generations. That moral principle, the strong have an obligation to care for the weak, also animated his Great Society ambitions — Medicare, the War on Poverty and the like. Tragically, Johnson also used that principle to justify the deepening of America’s involvement in Vietnam.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

For a while now (both in God in the White House and in Thy Kingdom Come), I’ve been hammering away at what I call the abortion myth, the fiction that the Religious Right galvanized as a political movement in direct response to the Roe v. Wade decision of January 1973. That is absolutely not the case. Several prominent evangelicals applauded the Roe ruling when it was handed down; most were indifferent. The Religious Right did not organize as a political force until the late 1970s, in preparation for the 1980 presidential election. The catalyst was the revocation of the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, because of its racially discriminatory policies. Opposition to abortion was cobbled into the political agenda of the Religious Right only later, toward the end of the 1970s, and largely at the behest of Francis and Frank Schaeffer.

The second misconception is the apolitical posture of Billy Graham, a ruse that has been perpetuated over the years by the Billy Graham organization and, to some degree, by Graham himself. When I was doing research for this book at the JFK Library in Boston, I came across a letter, dated August 10, 1960, from Graham to Senator Kennedy, the Democratic nominee for president. It was, as you’d expect, a very cordial letter, and the gist of it was a promise from Graham to Kennedy that, despite persistent rumors to the contrary, Graham had no intention of raising the so-called “religious issue” during the fall campaign. Eight days later, Graham hosted a meeting of Protestant ministers in Montreaux, Switzerland, to discuss ways to deny Kennedy’s election in November. The upshot of that gathering was another, more public meeting of Protestant ministers at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., to warn Americans about the dangers of electing a Roman Catholic to the presidency. It was this gathering, by the way, that convinced the Kennedy campaign that the candidate had to address the “religious issue” directly, which he did with his memorable speech before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

I was trying to communicate to average Americans, although I expect that I’m referring here, in most cases, to Americans with a college education.

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?

God in the White House is, to some degree, a cautionary tale. I want voters either to revert to the Kennedy paradigm of indifference toward a candidate’s faith (because it appears to make little difference in the way he governs) or, at the very least, to interrogate carefully the religious claims that litter the campaign trail.

What alternate title would you give the book?

I wanted to use “So Help Me God,” but Forrest Church beat me to the title.

How do you feel about the cover?

I like it.

What’s your next book?

My next project most likely will be a topic I’ve been kicking around for at least a decade now: a biography of Jimmy Carter. Growing up as an evangelical, and coming of age during Carter’s improbable run for the presidency, I’ve always been fascinated with Carter both as a religious and a political figure.