A review of Religion and the American Presidency: George Washington to George W. Bush , edited by Gaston Espinosa

I'm privileged to join you once again, as my predecessors have for over half a century. Like them, I come here to speak about the ways my faith informs who I am-as a president, and as a person. But I'm also here for the same reason that all of you are, for we all share a recognition-one as old as time-that a willingness to believe, an openness to grace, a commitment to prayer can bring sustenance to our lives.

President Barack Obama, 
Remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast, 
February 4, 2010


Every president has made a point of speaking to and praying with the National Prayer Breakfast since its inception in 1953. But the tradition of presidents discussing religion, invoking God, and even leading the nation in prayer goes back much further. A cursory search of the invaluable American Presidency Project website (www.presidency.ucsb.edu) identifies almost 5,000 presidential uses of the word "pray" (in official speeches and documents), more than 3,000 instances of "prayer," and a whopping 10,984 presidential mentions of God, which doesn't begin to take into account the various locutions-"the Beneficent Parent of the Human Race" and "the Giver of Every Good and Perfect Gift," among many others-by which presidents have referred to the Supreme Being, the Almighty, the Lord of Hosts.

By contrast, American presidents officially mention Jesus relatively infrequently-only 267 times (and some of those references are either to the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints, or to the Hispanic name). Indeed, Calvin Coolidge seems to have been the first president explicitly to mention Jesus in an official presidential utterance, in a very interesting speech delivered at the unveiling of an equestrian statue of Francis Asbury, our first Methodist bishop. Among Coolidge's successors, Bill Clinton most frequently invoked Jesus' name (43 times), followed closely by Ronald Reagan (39). If Jimmy Carter had served two terms, he would probably have set the bar even higher. Having officially mentioned Jesus eight times in the first eighteen months of his presidency, President Obama is keeping pace with his recent Democratic predecessors and is on track to double George W. Bush's relatively paltry count of 29.

These two facts-the massive evidence of official presidential recognition of basically monotheistic religion and the relative paucity of explicit references to Christianity (1,465 uses of the word "Christian" and 137 of the word "Christianity")-in some measure frame the subject of Gastón Espinosa's very useful volume, which collects authoritative essays on 13 presidents from George Washington to George W. Bush and offers an array of documents, almost all taken from the American Presidency Project website. Taken together, the essays and documents remind us of both religion's place at the core of American public discourse and the president's role as a principal contributor to that discourse.

Of course, the subject of religion and the American presidency is hardly exhausted by a consideration of presidential speeches. The essays in this volume explore the religious biographies of the selected presidents and the influence of faith on the policies they pursued. Thus we learn from Daniel L. Dreisbach and Jeffry H. Morrison how George Washington "used religion as a unifying force in the new nation," from Gary Scott Smith about the role of prayer in Franklin Roosevelt's decision-making, from Elizabeth Edwards Spalding about the religious dimension of Harry Truman's decision to use nuclear weapons, from Thomas J. Carty about John F. Kennedy's strategic move from Roman Catholic congressman to secular president, from Paul Kengor about the role of religion in Ronald Reagan's opposition to abortion and to bigotry of all sorts, and from Espinosa himself about the role of Roman Catholic social teaching in Bill Clinton's presidency.

The volume is certainly sufficient to give the lie to the claim-all too common during his administration and still in vogue among the partisans of progressive "science," including, on some occasions, his successor-that George W. Bush's approach to the presidency and behavior in office were distinctively, perniciously, and unjustifiably religious. Almost all our presidents were raised in one or multiple religious traditions; and reflect-not, of course, always in sophisticated or profound ways-religious faith in their lives, both private and public. Some are the representatives of liberal or progressive traditions, others of conservative ones. Like their fellow citizens, presidents are compelled to use other sources of information, as well as their own prudence, to draw practical conclusions for public policy.

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In his conclusion, Espinosa makes two observations worth noting, pondering, and (perhaps) disputing. The first is that, while never "anticlerical [or] anti-Christian, American civil religion became increasingly theistic and imbued with Christian themes in the latter half of the 20th century. Throughout this century, but especially since Carter's election in 1976, it has also had something of a Christocentric flavor." Given the manner in which presidents have since the beginning called (albeit not necessarily annually) for days of thanksgiving and "humiliation, fasting, and prayer," it is hard to imagine that the civil religion of the last 60 years, in contrast to previous eras, is "increasingly theistic and imbued with Christian themes." Consider this example:

As the safety and prosperity of nations ultimately and essentially depend on the protection and the blessing of Almighty God, and the national acknowledgment of this truth is not only an indispensable duty which the people owe to Him, but a duty whose natural influence is favorable to the promotion of that morality and piety without which social happiness can not exist nor the blessings of a free government be enjoyed; and as this duty, at all times incumbent, is so especially in seasons of difficulty or of danger, when existing or threatening calamities, the just judgments of God against prevalent iniquity, are a loud call to repentance and reformation….

I have therefore thought fit to recommend, and I do hereby recommend, that Wednesday, the 9th day of May next, be observed throughout the United States as a day of solemn humiliation, fasting, and prayer; that the citizens of these States, abstaining on that day from their customary worldly occupations, offer their devout addresses to the Father of Mercies agreeably to those forms or methods which they have severally adopted as the most suitable and becoming; that all religious congregations do, with the deepest humility, acknowledge before God the manifold sins and transgressions with which we are justly chargeable as individuals and as a nation, beseeching Him at the same time, of His infinite grace, through the Redeemer of the World, freely to remit all our offenses, and to incline us by His Holy Spirit to that sincere repentance and reformation which may afford us reason to hope for his inestimable favor and heavenly benediction….

President John Adams issued this proclamation on March 23, 1798; it is difficult to conceive a presidential proclamation more "theistic and imbued with Christian themes." To be sure, it is highly unlikely that anyone in Adams's generation would proclaim that Jesus is his favorite political philosopher because "He changed my heart." But the confessional style of contemporary evangelicalism owes as much to popularized psychology as it does to Scripture.

In a sense, Espinosa is on more solid ground when he observes the prominent role that evangelicals have recently played in the presidency and in American political culture generally. As he notes, this evangelicalism has come with an exceptional openness to religious pluralism, accommodating an increasingly diverse array of voices in the public square. Although strict separationists cannot be pleased either by frank presidential testimonies or by gestures that seem to place the prestige of the office behind revealed religion, the mutual respect of people of different faiths under the experience of pluralism suggests that attempting to marginalize religion is hardly the most effective way to ensure peaceful coexistence among different religious traditions.

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Espinosa's second observation is that immigration may actually bolster evangelical and charismatic Protestantism in the American religious marketplace. If this is true, then the personal and confessional style of our last three Southern presidents (Carter, Clinton, and George W. Bush) will continue to resonate well with the American public, native-born and immigrant. Supporters of the Freedom From Religion Foundation or Americans United may not be happy about this, and conservatives shouldn't necessarily be, either. Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism are typically associated with a relatively strong call to traditional morality, but this does not always translate into support for moral, or political, conservatism.

As I noted earlier, there is a gap between faith commitments and public policy. We may agree that we are called to help the least among us, but disagree about how to go about doing so. It is surely possible to make the case that a marketplace that generates great wealth provides great opportunities for those at the bottom of the economic order. Yet to procure a hearing from Americans for whom the biblical injunction looms largest (or at least large), the case has to be made in a way that acknowledges that the least among us have a claim on our attention and compassion. The lyrics for the conservative hymnbook cannot be written only by practitioners of the dismal science.

At the same time, a president who taking his oath of office with his hand on a Bible, speaking frankly about the role of prayer in his life, and encouraging any and all faiths to bear witness in the public square, reminds us that a nation under God is not to be worshipped. Properly understood, this principle serves to limit both our expectations of government and government itself. What more salutary contribution could religion make to our public life?