GOD AND THE OVAL OFFICE: The Religious Faith of Our 43 Presidents
John C. McCollister
W Publishing Group
Religion and politics made odd bedfellows during the 2004 presidential election, and a lot of rhetoric was tossed around about the place of faith in the White House and the Christianity of our early presidents. Just what was the faith of our founding fathers? John McCollister, a specialist in presidential history and the author of 21 books, sets out to discover just that in GOD AND THE OVAL OFFICE: The Religious Faith of Our 43 Presidents. Through research and interviews, he compiles a succinct spiritual profile of each of our nation's leaders.
McCollister lays out his book in chronological order, from first president George Washington to George W. Bush. Each chapter begins with a black and white photo and a notation on his date of birth and death, birth state, party affiliation, occupation, and religion. Several pages about how a president's faith (or lack of it) affected his time as president follow. The chapter ends with historical highlights of that president's administration.
Readers will discover a few surprises. The denomination of choice for presidents over the years has been Episcopalian (eight) and Presbyterian (six), with eight presidents claiming no affiliation. The first four presidents (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Adams) were either deist or Unitarian. In a time when denominations were distrustful of each other and there was little ecumenical spirit, "The essential unity necessary for the survival of this infant nation would have never been realized had an ardent Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, or Dutch Reformed believer been elected as chief executive," writes McCollister.
Even nominal Christian presidents went to God in prayer or read the Bible on a regular basis, he shows. James Madison, who was "not a staunch, churchgoing Christian," read books on theology for relaxation, and short-term president William Henry Harrison, who occasionally warmed a pew, still had for 20 years a "fixed habit" of reading the Bible. Pragmatist Harry Truman read his family Bible through three times by the age of fourteen. When reading how many presidents experienced the death of several children or their wives, it further explains the need for some sort of spiritual help. And as Lyndon Johnson observed, "No man could live in the house where I live, and work at the desk where I work, without needing and seeking the support of earnest and frequent prayer."
There are many interesting snippets of spiritual trivia. Readers will be struck by the nation's fear of Catholicism (John F. Kennedy was our only Roman Catholic president) and the close ties many presidents had with the ministry (Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, and Woodrow Wilson's fathers were all ministers, and James Garfield and Benjamin Harrison were both lay pastors). Dwight Eisenhower founded the Presidential Prayer Breakfast. Lyndon Johnson, who had an overpowering desire to please everyone, attended more different churches than any other president. Jimmy Carter, perhaps our most theologically literate president, taught adult Sunday school.
In one of the longest chapters, McCollister takes issue with some of the over-Christianization of Abraham Lincoln. He notes that Lincoln never joined a church and believed "Religion is a private affair between a man and his God." Lincoln's childlike faith has "been butchered by those who attempted to turn the man into something he was not," writes McCollister. "Consequently, Americans have been robbed of the opportunity to know the rich human side of this man who shaped the future of the Union." Lincoln, he writes, had a simple creed, based on the teachings of the Bible and coupled with an obligation to seek the help of God. McCollister shows that Lincoln was a strong practitioner of private prayer and once said, "…I know the Lord is always on the side of the right. But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and the nation should be on the Lord's side." Timeless advice! Many reports of Lincoln's Christian faith are unsubstantiated, McCollister writes --- and will remain a mystery.
There's no sentimentality here, no over-spiritualizing. McCollister relies on research and each president's own words, whenever possible, to illustrate his faith. He doesn't gloss over the moral failings of some of our presidents (Grover Cleveland fathered an illegitimate child), although one feels some presidents got off a bit lightly (Bill Clinton's sex scandals are inexplicably passed over). What is surprising in a formulaic book is McCollister's delightfully dry sense of humor, which pops up in unexpected places. This interesting glimpse into the faith of the presidents should earn a place on any history lover's bookshelf as an essential reference book.
--- Reviewed by Cindy Crosby. Contact Cindy at email@example.com.