Review: The Faiths of the Postwar Presidents
David L. Holmes. The Faiths of the Postwar Presidents: From Truman to Obama. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2012. xiv + 396 pp. ISBN 978-0-8203-3862-0.
In this book, David L. Holmes sketches portraits of the religious lives of the twelve men who have served as United States presidents since the end of the Second World War. Most chapters are approximately twenty-four pages, except for the final chapter on Obama, which is fifty pages. Each begins with a brief family history, with special attention given to religious background. Then Holmes describes the president’s upbringing, major influences, religious beliefs, and public career. Throughout, readers discover how the faith of presidents influenced their handling of important events and developments during their term or terms. Holmes did considerable research, in both printed sources and archival ones (the latter accessed at presidential libraries. Where appropriate, Holmes provides contextual information on religious traditions and practices for readers unfamiliar with American religious history.
Holmes does not provide an introduction or conclusion. Instead, one of the influential American religious historians, Martin E. Marty, wrote a three-page introduction, which largely praises Holmes. The absence of an introduction, however, leaves readers with the chore of drawing their own connections, comparisons, or contrasts. One notices the variation of religious commitment among the presidents. Some, like Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, made their “born again” religious credentials public, while the other presidents tended to be more vague in their religious assertions. Holmes also notes the importance of mothers and wives in the religious lives of presidents. Mothers seem to play a central role in the faith of presidents, from infancy onward. Typically the presidents married a woman from a different religious tradition, and usually the wife more or less abandoned her own tradition and embraced her husband’s, but not always. And in some cases presidents and their wives chose to affiliate with a religious tradition other than either of their own. Finally, we discover the longstanding significance of evangelist Billy Graham. He was close to several presidents, providing spiritual and, sometimes, political advice and counsel. Graham emerges from the pages of Holmes’s book as an abiding presence, either waiting in the wings or appearing front and center on the public stage alongside a president.
As noted above, the chapter on Obama is nearly twice as long as most of the other chapters in this book. Twenty pages of the Obama chapter are devoted to the controversial relationship that Obama has had with Rev. Jeremiah Wright, pastor of the Chicago church that Obama attended regularly, where he was married, and where his children were baptized. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Wright made incendiary public statements that, taken out of their African American religious context, sounded at best unpatriotic, and at worst opposed to the core values of the American public. Holmes takes great care to explain what Wright said and show how Obama responded. Holmes’s book is truly an outstanding study of the twelve presidents in recent history. Holmes looks at these presidents under a microscope, and by avoiding a broad synthesis of the topic, the book can be easily read in segments or as a whole. Thus, readers interested in a close inspection of these presidents’ religious lives will find this book rewarding.