God in the White House

A History: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush

by Randall Balmer

HarperOne, 256 pp., $14.99

This is a breezy cut-and-paste of the last 50 years of the intersection of religion and politics. Pretty much anyone who has paid attention to the news would know the narrative. From John F. Kennedy's famous Houston speech before a group of skeptical Baptist ministers to George W. Bush's appeal to evangelicals, the account of how faith has shaped the presidency will sound familiar. And in that sense, the work of this professor of religious history at Barnard and Columbia is disappointing. I found myself flipping pages hoping that Balmer's reporting would turn up something new about how each president approached religion.

It doesn't, but he does raise two serious questions. Both of them deserve the time and attention of candidates, consultants, and voters during this interregnum between the 2008 and 2012 elections.

First, have candidates gone too far from JFK's response to the Houston ministerial alliance, where he basically said that his faith would not dictate his politics? Second, how culpable are voters in allowing candidates to say one thing about religion and act another way?

The answer to the first question is: Yes, candidates have strayed too far from Kennedy's line. And I write that as one who spends a good bit of time examining the relationship between religion and politics and believe the two forces are inescapably intertwined. They have been and always will be, since both are about values like justice, compassion, and mercy. And people of faith-from Martin Luther King to Jerry Falwell-have acted upon their beliefs to change society. Religious figures and their followers will try to do so in the future, too. And I have no problem with that.

But we're very close to where candidates are manipulating religion for their benefit more than they are acting upon their beliefs. A small anecdote may describe this larger point: Texas governor Rick Perry's last reelection campaign sent out an email that naturally talked about his accomplishments in the recent gathering of the Texas legislature. No problem with that either, but the email was signed by his campaign manager with the salutation of "God bless."

After I got to the end, I thought: Has it come to this? I mean, what does "God bless" have to do with a reelection campaign? Either candidates have grown so used to throwing it out as a walkoff line that they don't think about it or they know full well that the phrase is aimed at a portion of the electorate. Either way, we're at risk of seeing serious faith trivialized and abused. It's especially becoming a prerequisite for presidential candidates to talk about God, which can lead to all sorts of mischief. Political consultants know how to push buttons, so they can easily turn faith into another part of their partisan checklist.

I've found myself wanting to hear some candidate just level with voters and say this really isn't part of who I am. Instead, too many awkwardly try to connect with voters in religious terms. Listening to candidates like Howard Dean talk about religiosity, and confuse what books are in the Old Testament as opposed to the New Testament, is too painful to watch. Just say no, please.

Now the second question, to which the answer also is yes. The problem isn't just the candidates; the populace is equally culpable in the "religionization" of politics. Here's how Balmer puts it:

We let pols hypnotize us with lullabies about faith and morality, and then we fail to take that rhetoric seriously, much less hold them to the principles they articulate so blithely.

One reason we tolerate inconsistencies, he surmises, is that we want politicians to cleanse our consciences. Consider Jimmy Carter, whose election Balmer explains as a giant purging of our soul. After Richard Nixon, people went for Carter because he sounded upright. Of course, he turned out to be a lesser president, which we ought to remember the next time we go for a moral-sounding candidate. Maybe they will turn out swell; maybe they won't. But their righteousness may not be any kind of predictor.

And we really ought to bear down in our thinking about how much we expect our candidates to transcend the standards of the larger culture. Sure, politicians occupy an important space in our lives. They should reach for the next highest rung, inspiring us all to come along with them. But there's a point at which they are only humans, and we shouldn't ask for more.

Finally, we should recognize that presidents particularly play a different role than the rest of us. Balmer tees off against George W. Bush time and again for using torture and other means against terrorists while maintaining a public embrace of Christianity. Fine, accuse him of hypocrisy; but if you're president, and you have to make tough calls, you may find it impossible to act consistently with your faith. You may find yourself having to make nasty decisions for the larger good.

As much as I was disappointed in Balmer's reporting, his two main points are worth considering. We're getting very close to straying too far from that Kennedy speech, and maybe we voters need to be more realistic when we pull the lever. A dose of reality will save us a lot of disappointment in the end.

William McKenzie writes a column for the Dallas Morning News and is moderator of Texas Faith at www.dallasnews.com/texasfaith.

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