I had been looking forward to the release of Randall Balmer’s new book God in the White House since I first heard about it late last year. Balmer, a professor of history at Barnard College, Columbia University, is an excellent religious historian and writer. At his best—notably 1989’s Mine Eyes Have See the Glory, now in its fourth edition—he is insightful, accessible, and witty, with the capability to convincingly develop surprising conclusions. As an Episcopal priest and self-described left-of-center evangelical, Balmer also isn’t afraid of being opinionated. In his last book, 2004’s Thy Kingdom Come, he writes “as a jilted lover” (ix), angry with how the Religious Right movement has overtaken evangelicalism. While I find his analysis in that book to be somewhat flawed, his subjective criticism is still refreshing, and remains one of his strengths.
With God in the White House, Balmer turns his focus to answering the following question:
“How did we get from John F. Kennedy’s eloquent speech at the Rice Hotel in Houston on September 12, 1960, in which he urged voters effectively to bracket a candidate’s faith out of their considerations when they entered the voting booth, to George W. Bush’s declaration on the eve of the 2000 Iowa precinct caucuses that Jesus was his favorite philosopher?” (1).
This is a dramatic shift, one that did not even begin to occur with Kennedy. In fact, Balmer writes that “Kennedy’s case against considerations of faith as a criterion for voting prevailed through the ensuing three presidential elections: 1964, 1968, and 1972” (156). Voters weren’t the only ones that were seemingly unconcerned about their leaders’ faith. As her husband set about dispelling fear over his Catholicism, Jacqueline Kennedy remarked, “ ‘I think it’s so unfair of people to be against Jack because he’s Catholic. He’s such a poor Catholic.’ ” (12). Lyndon Johnson became a member of the Christian Church (or Disciples of Christ) when he was fifteen, but “evinced little piety” as a politician (51). And Richard Nixon’s background as a Quaker did not play a large role in his adult life, especially considering the underhanded nature of his political behavior.
It’s this last factor—specifically, the Watergate scandal—that Balmer cites as a turning point. After Gerald Ford’s subsequent pardon of Nixon created a national controversy, voters were “once again [ready] to consider matters of faith and character in assessing their choice for president” (77). Former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter fit the bill. A born-again Southern Baptist, he was open about his evangelical background, winning electoral support from fellow believers that had shown little interest in politics during the past several decades. Balmer interprets his election as a type of national redemption, allowing the electorate to rid itself of the ugliness that had occurred with Watergate.
But this redemption was brief. A year before Carter entered the White House, Bob Jones University—a small fundamentalist school in South Carolina—lost its tax-exempt status. The IRS based their actions on the school’s ban against interracial dating, which violated Green v. Connally. To evangelical leaders, this was “an assault on the integrity and the sanctity of the evangelical subculture” (98). With the help of conservative activist Paul Weyrich, their response was the formation of the Religious Right. Weyrich then placed Carter at odds with the Religious Right by making him the scapegoat for the IRS ruling, though he was not the one responsible.
The result was that Carter “could no longer count on the support of white evangelicals” (110), who had played a key role in his political rise. Instead, evangelicals threw their support behind Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election. Reagan was divorced, had initially been an abortion proponent, and was barely a churchgoer. Yet he “played to evangelical voters” (117), and was able to cement the Religious Right as a core Republican constituency. While Reagan didn’t do much with regard to Religious Right priorities such as abortion, the latter continued to support George H.W. Bush in 1988 and 1992.
After documenting all of the above (as well as the Clinton and current Bush administrations), Balmer makes a fairly simple argument in his conclusion. Since Carter’s election in 1976, religion has been central to presidential politics. Yet the faith of our presidents have not translated into effective policies, and to expect them to be moral guides for the nation is simply a form of “cheap grace” that deflects responsibility from voters (164). At the same time, faith has become more political with the rise of the Religious Right. But this also presents drawbacks, for it compromises what faith is really about. The solution, he suggests, is to “hold ourselves and our nation accountable to the values we espouse” (172-173). If we, the electorate, insist on having candidates express their faith openly, then we need to insist that their faith and their actions correspond. More importantly, we need to re-examine ourselves, and what our actions say about our own values. As he concludes, “Anything less is cheap grace” (173).