The Faiths of the Postwar Presidents

The Faiths of the Postwar Presidents: From Truman to Obama

David L. Holmes
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Faiths of the Postwar Presidents
    Book Description:

    The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, an acclaimed look at the spiritual beliefs of such iconic Americans as Franklin, Washington, and Jefferson, established David L. Holmes as a measured voice in the heated debate over the new nation's religious underpinnings. With the same judicious approach, Holmes now looks at the role of faith in the lives of the twelve presidents who have served since the end of World War II. Holmes examines not only the beliefs professed by each president but also the variety of possible influences on their religious faith, such as their upbringing, education, and the faith of their spouse. In each profile close observers such as clergy, family members, friends, and advisors recall churchgoing habits, notable displays of faith (or lack of it), and the influence of their faiths on policies concerning abortion, the death penalty, Israel, and other controversial issues. Whether discussing John F. Kennedy's philandering and secularity or Richard Nixon's betrayal of Billy Graham's naïve trust during Watergate, Holmes includes telling and often colorful details not widely known or long forgotten. We are reminded, for instance, how Dwight Eisenhower tried to conceal the background of his parents in the Jehovah's Witnesses and how the Reverend Cotesworth Lewis's sermonizing to Lyndon Johnson on the Vietnam War was actually not a left- but a right-wing critique. National interest in the faiths of our presidents is as strong as ever, as shown by the media frenzy engendered by George W. Bush's claim that Jesus was his favorite political philosopher or Barack Obama's parting with his minister, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Holmes's work adds depth, insight, and color to this important national topic.

    eISBN: 978-0-8203-3963-4
    Subjects: History, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xvi)
    Martin E. Marty

    The founders of the United States, both its leaders and ordinary citizens, had a problem: what to do about religion in the new republic. Those who had immigrated from Europe, remembering everything from corruption to holy wars, knew that in the hands of civil authorities religion could by force of law be used, and that rulers had used it. Heads of state might employ preferred faiths to endorse their own selfish policies, show favoritism in the public, or penalize those who dissented from officially approved creeds. The American colonists, now republicans, had just “killed [off] the king” in the Revolutionary...

  5. Harry S. Truman 1884–1972 PRESIDENT FROM 1945 TO 1953
    (pp. 1-23)

    In 1907, when Harry Truman was working on the family’s farm in Grandview, Missouri, the rector of the Episcopal church in nearby Independence led a systematic canvass of his city’s religious membership. According to this survey, the population of Independence that year fell into the following religious categories:

    1,031 Mormon

    482 Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

    464 Methodist

    462 Presbyterian

    414 Baptist

    245 Roman Catholic

    59 Episcopalian

    20 German Evangelical Church

    11 Christian Scientist

    9 Lutheran

    4 Seventh Day Adventist

    25 “Scattered”

    1,337 “No Church”¹

    Inevitably, the survey raises questions. Are African American churches omitted, or are they included in...

  6. Dwight D. Eisenhower 1890–1969 PRESIDENT FROM 1953 TO 1961
    (pp. 24-44)

    As a general and as a president, Dwight David Eisenhower worked to keep the religious side of his childhood private. He and his brothers succeeded so well that some of what biographers have written about the family’s religious heritage is either inaccurate or incomplete.

    Eisenhower did not join a church until he was sixty-three years old. His religious background in the River Brethren, in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and in the nondenominational Protestantism of the United States Army seems to explain the delay. Four decades after his death, these aspects of his religious upbringing still remain little known.¹

    Born in Denison,...

  7. John F. Kennedy 1917–1963 PRESIDENT FROM 1961 TO 1963
    (pp. 45-75)

    When John Fitzgerald Kennedy was a candidate for president, his religious affiliation made a great deal of difference to many Americans. The question of Kennedy’s Roman Catholicism animated the 1960 election. It provided an analog to such elections as those of 1800 and 1928, when the religions of Thomas Jefferson and Al Smith played a crucial role. In 1960, many Americans voted for or against Kennedy simply because he was a Roman Catholic.

    Several years after the election, a journalist named Jim Bishop published a book entitled A Day in the Life of President Kennedy.¹ Its cover contained a photograph...

  8. Lyndon Baines Johnson 1908–1973 PRESIDENT FROM 1963 TO 1969
    (pp. 76-98)

    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...

  9. Richard M. Nixon 1913–1994 PRESIDENT FROM 1969 TO 1974
    (pp. 99-123)

    Richard Milhous Nixon—the middle name came from his mother’s German heritage—was born in Yorba Linda, a small town southeast of Los Angeles. He was raised in the evangelical wing of Quakerism. “No one,” Nixon wrote, “could have had a more intensely religious upbringing.”¹

    The Religious Society of Friends (or Quakers) emerged from the left, or radical, wing of the Puritan movement in England. The Puritans attempted to “purify” the Church of England of what they considered unbiblical beliefs and practices—such as rule by bishops, elaborate liturgy and vestments, and intercessory priests. Puritans of the Puritans, the Quakers...

  10. Gerald R. Ford 1913–2006 PRESIDENT FROM 1974 TO 1977
    (pp. 124-142)

    If history considers Thomas Jefferson as an Episcopalian rather than as a Unitarian, then Gerald Rudolph Ford was the eleventh member of the Episcopal church to serve as president. That he was an active, believing Episcopalian was well known during his presidency.

    Raised in Illinois, Ford’s mother, Dorothy Gardner, attended finishing school and a year of college. In 1912, after a short relationship, she fell in love with and married her roommate’s brother, Leslie Lynch King Sr., the son of an affluent Omaha banker and businessman. The marriage began to disintegrate on the honeymoon when King struck his bride because...

  11. James Earl Carter Jr. 1924– PRESIDENT FROM 1977 TO 1981
    (pp. 143-172)

    When James Earl (“Jimmy”) Carter was elected president, a largely secular press corps spent substantial time pondering the meaning of such terms as “evangelical” and “Southern Baptist.” At one of his early press conferences, Carter declared that if reporters wanted to know what a Baptist believed, they needed only to read the New Testament. Being a Southern Baptist was a major part of the thirty-eighth president’s identity—so much so that the Secret Service referred to him as “the Deacon” in their communications. But Jimmy Carter was a different kind of Christian and a different kind of Southern Baptist. To...

  12. Ronald Wilson Reagan 1911–2004 PRESIDENT FROM 1981 to 1989
    (pp. 173-196)

    “I see two primary threads jumping out of my father’s storyline,” Ron Reagan wrote in My Father at 100: “[a] fierce desire to be recognized as someone noteworthy, even heroic; and his essentially solitary nature.”

    In his recent biography of his father, President Reagan’s youngest son continues:

    In the film unwinding in his mind, Dad was always the loner … who rides to the rescue in reel three…. [He] was looking to wear an unblemished white hat…. He wanted and needed acclaim and recognition…. [But] it was crucial to his sense of self that he be seen working on behalf...

  13. George Herbert Walker Bush 1924– PRESIDENT FROM 1989 TO 1993
    (pp. 197-214)

    The old house in Beijing that served as a makeshift church was unremarkable, ill-kept, and for the American envoy and his wife, a far cry from the traditional Episcopal sanctuaries of home. The services were in Chinese. The ministers were Anglican, Methodist, and Presbyterian. The Sunday congregation—about a dozen in all, typical for this house-church—included a mix of African, European, and Asian Protestants whose native tongues made an enthusiastic cacophony of familiar hymns.

    But for the American envoy (or unofficial ambassador) to China, George Herbert Walker Bush, the odd setting became a treasured church home, offering “unbelievable” and...

  14. William Jefferson Clinton 1946– PRESIDENT FROM 1993 TO 2001
    (pp. 215-239)

    William Jefferson Clinton was born into a southern family descended from a long line of struggling farmers named for founding fathers. On his mother’s side, he was of Irish and Cherokee heritage. His biological father’s lineage is difficult to determine, but the family name is Scots. His maternal grandmother, Edith Grisham Cassidy, grew up a Methodist. His grandfather, James (or “Eldridge”) Cassidy, was raised Baptist. Neither his mother, father, nor stepfather attended church regularly.

    In 1940, six years before Clinton’s birth, Arkansas’s population of nearly two million was roughly three-quarters white and one-quarter black. Clinton later described his home state,...

  15. George W. Bush 1946– PRESIDENT FROM 2001 TO 2009
    (pp. 240-269)

    George W. Bush represents the one president since World War II who converted to evangelicalism from a background in mainline Protestant Christianity. His conversion, which occurred in the mid-1980s, became central not only to his life but also to his political outlook. Not since the year 1900 had Christianity played such a role in a presidential campaign as it did in 2000. In 1900, William McKinley—a Methodist of strong beliefs who espoused the duty of the United States to spread Christianity (which he interpreted as Protestantism) to other nations—ran against the leading fundamentalist spokesman and orator, William Jennings...

  16. Barack Hussein Obama 1961– PRESIDENT FROM 2009
    (pp. 270-320)

    During Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, voters asked whether a Protestant Christian with two Muslim grandparents, a Muslim father, a Muslim stepfather, and a first name that means “blessed” in Swahili and Arabic had ever been a Muslim himself. In 2007 a rumor circulated that Obama had attended a radical Muslim school in Indonesia as a child. In Florida, Jewish voters received e-mail messages declaring that Obama supported radical Islam over Israel.¹

    Five months before the election in 2008, a national survey showed that 10 percent of Americans viewed Obama as a Muslim and that only 53 percent knew his true...

  17. NOTES
    (pp. 321-378)
  18. INDEX
    (pp. 379-396)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 397-397)