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

Author:Preston, Andrew
Position:Book review

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...

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