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WORLD FOCUS: The Faiths of Presidents

June 11, 2012
FRANK SHATZ , Lake Placid News

There's a new book out titled "The Faiths of the Postwar Presidents: From Truman to Obama," which is dedicated to the late James C. Livingston, founder of the department of religious studies at the College of William and Mary. It was written by David Holmes, professor emeritus of religious studies with a 46-year teaching career at the college

The Publishers Weekly describes Holmes' book as a well-researched reading that examines the background of our presidents since World War II by delving into their families, and the people who influenced their religious beliefs. He is seen as politically and confessionally nonpartisan, which allows him to write an impressively balanced account on the faiths of post-war presidents.

He is no novice in this field. His highly acclaimed previous book, "The Faith of the Founding Fathers," was judged by the reviewer in Christian Century as "a model of accessible scholarship, and though it addresses a controversial topic, it actually generates more light than heat."

Although in his new book, Holmes deals with the faiths of presidents who are very much alive, he has no qualm to call the shots as he sees them.

I asked whether he found in his research facts about our presidents that were a kind of revelation to him.

"Half of the presidents presented real surprises," he said. "Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush were far more religious than I had known."

Holmes believes that Ford's decision to pardon Nixon have sprung more from his Christian beliefs about forgiveness than from political considerations. He acknowledges, however, significant inconsistency in Ford's decision. "He pardoned none of the other co-conspirators, all of whom then had to go through the turmoil and conviction which he spared Nixon."

His research for the book revealed quite a few facts that were little known about the religious upbringing of several of our presidents.

Dwight Eisenhower and his brothers tried to keep secret their family's background in the Jehovah's Witnesses, and Eisenhower rarely or never attended church between West Point and running for the presidency.

Richard Nixon was raised in the evangelical wing of Quakerism, which is more like the Baptists than the silent meeting Quakers. According to papers that he wrote in college and affirmed as late as the 1980s, he did not believe in the Biblical miracles or divinity of Christ.

Despite, his sparse church attendance, Ronald Reagan seems to have been a believing Christian who retained the earnest faith taught him by his mother and even tithed to churches he did not attend.

Southern Baptist churches provided a sanctuary for Bill Clinton when he was growing up in the dysfunctional home.

Lyndon Johnson feared eternal damnation from childhood on.

Barak Obama's lack of church attendance, has contributed to doubling of the percentage of Americans who think he is Muslim.

Responding to my question whether the faith of our presidents reflected in their character or actions, Holmes said:

"Yes, all 12 of the presidents portrayed in the book, believed they exhibited Christian character and based their decisions on Judeo-Christian principles Jimmy Carter's initial decision not to attempt a rescue of the American hostages in Iran, for example, stemmed from his concern that not a single life be lost

"Before invading Iraq, George W. Bush appointed a committee to examine whether such an invasion fulfilled the criteria of the Christian understanding of a Just War.

"I interviewed the Roman Catholic head of that committee. He said that when they learned that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction, he and members of his committee, 'felt like getting out of town'."

Although, Holmes made his name as a nationally recognized church historian, he confessed that as all English majors, "and I was one in college," plan to write a novel. He is currently writing one. It would be about the early days of intercollegiate athletics in the United States when most competition was genuinely amateur.

"My father was a university coach and director of athletics, and I was raised in that earlier and often admirable ethos," he said.

Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from The Virginia Gazette.



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