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The Faiths of the Postwar Presidents: From Truman to Obama.

The Faiths of the Postwar Presidents: From Truman to Obama. By David L. Holmes. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012. 396 pp.

In the latest installment of the George H. Shriver Lectures in Religion and American History, the distinguished historian of religion, David L. Holmes, shines a light on the individual religious faith, values, and backgrounds of every president between Harry S Truman and Barack Obama. In many ways, it is a sequel to his influential book, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), which sought to demystify the religious beliefs of political figures in the early republic. Both books yield surprises. But, whereas Holmes's examination of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries concluded that the era was one of deism, agnosticism, and even secularism, and that many of the founders were not practicing or observant Christians in any conventional sense, his analysis of the presidents since 1945 reveals widespread faith in an era of increasing secularization and estrangement from institutional religion.

The book is organized in a clear and straightforward fashion: all 12 presidents who have occupied the White House since the end of World War II receive their own separate chapter. Each of these chapters, roughly equal in length, consists of a biography with the president's religion as its main thread. In each case, the president's religious views, as well as the wider political and religious contexts in which he lived, are treated with great sensitivity and subtlety. No matter how eccentric the faith (as in the case of Ronald Reagan), Holmes explains rather than condescends. He also displays a wonderfully textured and flexible approach to religious attitudes, where previous historians have only scratched the surface. Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and Bill Clinton, for example, left ample evidence for historians seeking to portray them as publicly pious but privately irreligious. Truman liked to drink and play poker, Eisenhower often cursed and did not join a church until he became president, and Clinton's sexual escapades are legend. All three have been accused of using religion instrumentally, for political gain, rather than being devout Christians. Yet, Holmes brilliantly reveals a much more interesting reality, in which the sacred and the profane coexisted within all three of these complex individuals. All three were clearly religious, just not in a strictly conventional sense. By taking their religious backgrounds seriously, and by taking their faith on its own terms, Holmes is able to reveal a more human dimension to all three men, thus revealing as much about their politics as about their religious beliefs.

Holmes's analysis of two of the most religiously controversial presidents, John F. Kennedy and Obama, are particularly compelling and convincing. Kennedy's Catholic faith was obviously a large factor in his political career. It gained him a loyal following among his fellow Catholics, the largest single denomination in the nation, but it also attracted a large amount of fear and loathing among non-Catholics who feared Kennedy would follow orders from the Vatican when the Catholic interest and the American interest collided. Holmes deals with the political effects of Kennedy's Catholicism effectively, but he is more concerned with determining what kind of Catholic Kennedy really was. This is newer and more interesting ground, especially his conclusion that Kennedy was not much of a Catholic at all, and certainly not one in any religious or devotional sense. Obama, by contrast, fares better. His faith has also attracted admiration and condemnation in equal measure and intensity but with a key difference: while nobody questioned that Kennedy was at least a cultural Catholic, many doubt the authenticity of Obama's Christianity and believe he is instead a closet Muslim or atheist. Through a careful excavation of Obama's own words and his secular upbringing, and a thorough examination of African American Christianity, Holmes demonstrates that Obama's thoughtful if complex Christian faith is a vital part of who he is.

Given the richly textured analyses of the postwar presidents' religion found in the individual chapters, it is a shame that Holmes did not write an introduction and conclusion to tie them all together. The Faiths of the Postwar Presidents is really a collection of 12 discrete essays that are rarely in dialogue, or even communication, with each other. How can religion, especially in so many variants of Christianity, flourish in an age of secularism and skepticism? Is faith, particularly the Christian faith, a prerequisite to political success? What do commonalities among all of the presidents reveal about religion in modern America? How have presidential attitudes toward religion caused, shaped, or responded to the culture wars? These questions and countless others go unanswered in this otherwise fascinating book. Still, The Faiths of the Postwar Presidents will quickly become the standard source for presidential faith in the modern age.

--Andrew Preston

Cambridge University
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Author:Preston, Andrew
Publication:Presidential Studies Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2015
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