Ed Blum: God in the White House

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Blum is Assistant Professor, San Diego State University 2007-present, and HNN's Top Young HIstorian (May 2007).]

It is hard not to love a good pair. Two socks are always better than one; I still hope that Sonny and Cher will reunite in the afterlife; and who can imagine Clyde without Bonny. I guess this makes me a little like Noah; not the last righteous man or drunk and naked under a vine, but having a propensity for twos. So today I want to draw your attention to two Randalls: Stephens and Balmer. Both have recently published incredible books in American religious history – one on presidents, the other on Pentecostals; one of friends in high places, the other, well, with friends that traffic with Garth Brooks. Interestingly, Stephens’s The Fire Spreads and Balmer’s God in the White House may have more in common than at first glance.

Randall Balmer is a name we all know. I first encountered him in the summer of 1999; I was babysitting at the pool and reading Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory. It was great vacation reading then, and is still today. His sensitivity and insight for religious people often misunderstood is amazing. Balmer fashioned himself then as the grand critic and insider of evangelical America, and everyone seemed to agree he was ideal for the role. Now, with God in the White House, Balmer has taken up a prescient task – explaining the relationship between religion and the American presidency over the past four decades.

God in the White House is a book we desperately need. Balmer has studied and thought deeply about what is on everyone’s mind: religion and the modern presidency. Whether we’re trying to figure out Romney’s chances as a Mormon or Obama’s connection to African American Christianity, God in the White House helps us to understand the possibilities and perils of linking religion and politics. Balmer shows, hilariously at times, sadly on other occasions, a sweeping change over the past four decades. In 1960, John F. Kennedy urged Americans to disregard a politician’s faith when making a choice. By 2008, personal faith is ubiquitous in American politics. Balmer narrates how this happened. He takes the reader through the presidencies of Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush; through the streets of Dallas, the hallways of Watergate, the tax status of Bob Jones University, and the prayer meetings of Bill Clinton. This is a remarkable book. It is much about the American present as it is the past.

It’s also funny. I laughed riotously when Jacqueline Kennedy faulted John’s critics about his faith when she commented, “I think it’s so unfair of people to be against Jack because he’s Catholic, … He’s such a poor Catholic.” There are bunches of quotes just like this.

Those vying for the White House should rush off, buy God in the White House, and read it immediately (or at least they should have an aide look into it). Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, and Stephen Colbert should line up Balmer (and heck, other political news anchors, such as Tim Russert, should court Balmer’s time too). This is certainly the type of religious literacy we need far more than knowledge about the New England Primer. Balmer has an outrageous idea that Americans should consider, one that might make politicians shudder: we, the people, should hold our politicians accountable for the religious rhetoric they use. Say Jesus inspired you most, for example, then you better prize the humble, the poor, and the downtrodden. If not, then expect the wrath of the people.

Some scholars may dislike Balmer’s penchant for moral criticism, especially of conservative politics and politicians. It is true, Balmer tends to believe Bill Clinton while distrusting George W. Bush. Dissenters might say that Balmer is too political, too much of a presentist. But I think this type of criticism is misguided. Howard Zinn shouldn’t have had to tell us almost forty years ago, nor now, that history is political. There is no getting around it. And Balmer shouldn’t have to remind us, as Sydney Ahlstrom always said (so I’m told, I never met him) that one of the offices of the religious historian is to look at the moral world she sees and to tell the narrative of how we arrived there. Rather than lambast Balmer for being too political, his opponents should write honest moral histories of the Bush clan, of Ronald Reagan, and of Richard Nixon. Show Balmer, prove to him and others, that these men led Christian lives that translated into policies that supported Christian aims of love, mercy, forgiveness, honesty, compassion, and caring....

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More Comments:

Stephen Kislock - 1/19/2008

God told me to Invade Iraq and hang Saddam. Suddenly all is well, it's the Christian God, speaking and not just some Moron mouthing the words

Arnold Shcherban - 1/19/2008

I bet my life savings that facing the
exclusive choise: money and fame or their "beloved" Christianity, those lying SOBs would choose the former.

Arnold Shcherban - 1/19/2008

Arnold Shcherban - 1/19/2008

and say to the rich: "you are my base"?

Lorraine Paul - 1/19/2008

Unfortunately, all those professing to be 'bathed in the blood of the lamb' in politics nowadays, would be the first to call for the execution of Jesus if we had the Second Coming.

How can anyone who declares themselves "Christian", "Muslim" ad infinitum send your people out to kill each other?