Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Thinking about God in the White House (Part II): Reactions

As I mentioned in my previous post, Randall Balmer’s last book, Thy Kingdom Come, represents an angry condemnation of the Religious Right’s political role. Shortly after its publication, Jeff Sharlet wrote that “his now-barely-restrained anger is beautiful to behold." I agree with this, and find myself siding with Balmer on the overwhelming majority of the criticisms that he raises. At the same time, John Wilson makes a good point that the book lacks “the depth, the nuance, the texture, the alertness to human complexity” that highlights some of Balmer’s best work.

In comparison, God in the White House represents a return to form of sorts. Balmer does incorporate some of his criticisms from Thy Kingdom Come—concerning the Religious Right, of course, as well as his (correct) assertion that George W. Bush’s support for torture is hypocritical. The difference is that these criticisms don’t overshadow or detract from the rest of the narrative; indeed, this is a remarkably smooth read. And Balmer’s “alertness to human complexity” is present throughout, as he highlights the contradictions, ironies, and humor within the lives of his subjects. If anything, he’s fairly evenhanded, despite professing his political inclinations in the introduction.
There are a couple of bones for me to pick. Balmer includes a major speech from every president in the book, from Kennedy’s “Catholic” address in Houston to the words of Bush on September 11. I found a definite advantage to this; after finishing a chapter, I would flip back to the associated speeches in the appendix section, which thereby added to and reinforced what I had just read. Nevertheless, there’s no mention of the latter within the main text after the first chapter on Kennedy. That reason, plus the book’s short length (less than 250 pages), makes me question the real purpose for their presence. They’re certainly instructive and relevant, but are they “filler” as well?

Another issue somewhat related to book length: in the introduction, Balmer is clear “about what this book is not.” It is neither a “comprehensive history” of religion’s role in the presidency, nor a book concerned with “polling data,” nor much concerned with “civil religion” (3-4). Fair enough on the first point, which would require a massive undertaking. Same with the second, though polling data would certainly have its uses in a study like this. But his decision to eschew civil religion—“the conflation of religious devotion with national symbols” (4)—makes me wonder a bit. For example, he writes in the last chapter:

“Americans, apparently…want their candidates to profess some kind of faith—and they seem not terribly concerned about the particularities of that faith” (147).

Compare this with one of his statements in the conclusion:

“Perhaps it’s inevitable that in the United States, which has no religious establishment, we look to the president as a kind of moral figurehead, the sum total of our projections about the supposed goodness and honor and moral superiority of America and Americans. We expect the president to be the vicarious embodiments of the myths we have constructed about the United States of America” (163).

Both of these assertions are quite truthful, and they are very important to what Balmer has to say about holding ourselves accountable as voters. They also strongly relate to the concept of civil religion in America. After all, how we view our political leaders often involves a conflation of nationalism and religious beliefs. So why, then, is he so quick to claim that civil religion is a “tiresome” subject and doesn’t contribute that much to his narrative (4)? This is an area I wish he would have expanded upon, especially since this is a pretty brief book; contrary to what he claims, I think it would enhance what he has to say.

The above problems aren’t all that major, though, and I think there’s two other reasons why this remains a noteworthy study. First, there aren’t many scholars who could manage to condense this type of topic into a remarkably concise and smooth read while remaining informative. I love that Balmer has written a book that is both historically important and accessible to a general audience. We need intellectuals like him who can clearly emphasize to the American public why history is important to our everyday lives. Even if he excludes certain amounts of information (such as the civil religion angle), this is why it’s still a worthy purchase.

We also need to heed Balmer’s words about accountability, especially during an election year. “Change” has become a primary symbol of potential renewal in the current presidential campaign. This is understandable considering that Bush’s approval ratings remain steady at 30 percent, and it does have some truth—whoever is elected will likely be quite different than what we have become used to.

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