The Faiths of the Postwar Presidents: From Truman to Obama

By David L. Holmes

20 ratings - 4.2* vote

The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, an acclaimed look at the spiritual beliefs of such iconic Americans as Franklin, Washington, and Jefferson, established David L. Holmes as a measured voice in the heated debate over the new nation’s religious underpinnings. With the same judicious approach, Holmes now looks at the role of faith in the lives of the twelve presidents who h The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, an acclaimed look at the spiritual beliefs of such iconic Americans as Franklin,

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Book details

Hardcover, 396 pages
April 25th 2012 by University of Georgia Press

(first published March 1st 2012)

ISBN
0820338621 (ISBN13: 9780820338620)
Edition Language
English

Community Reviews

Pine Bracken

A great book, to be read by anyone interested in recent US history, religion, presidents, or the combination thereof. Holmes wrote an earlier book (on the faiths of the Founding Fathers) and, between them both, he's covered 17 of the 43 POTUSes. It would be amazing to see similar treatment of the rest of the 19th- and 20th-century POTUSes, but the standards of scholarship Holmes brought to these two books is not something that can just be churned out in the course of a couple years for the remaining three-fifths of the POTUSes--these two studies are fruits of the well-worth-it labors of years and years and years.

Holmes is careful with defining his terms and avoids generalizations. The book is one of those rare things in publishing: utterly accessible to anyone who’s interested, but still original and useful to specialists in religious history, politics, and so on.

Holmes's treatment of the different subjects varies widely. This is understandable, of course: by way of analogy, a history of the presidency of Wm. Henry Harrison is bound to be shorter than of FDR, a history of the reign of Lady Jane Grey is bound to be shorter than of Queen Victoria, and so on--you get the picture. The reader has the sense that Holmes has tracked down just about every lead there is, and obviously sometimes there's just not as much evidence or data for one POTUS as for another. (When it's not reckless or irresponsible to do so, Holmes permits himself to infer or speculate--but the reader is always confident that, if someone has to infer or speculate, Holmes is the man to do it.)

The tall and the short of it is that the depths of narrative and analysis are not always the same for every POTUS. But this is a necessary evil: the only way to get around this would be to sink everything to the lowest common denominator--and to do that would be to diminish the book.

One exception to this--and one only--would be Barack Obama. This reviewer does not have the book at hand, but recalls the last chapter was far and away the longest in the book--perhaps quite as long as any other two chapters. This discrepancy does seem imbalanced. And much of it didn't exactly clarify the picture of Obama's faith. Nor was it often original research or synthesis: look at the notes, and you'll see the same few sources showing up again and again. Less attention to Obama in exchange for a wrap-up or conclusion (because even the Obama chapter, and therefore the book, ends abruptly and jarringly) would be a great deal.

Holmes's presentation is balanced and non-partisan, although he may occasionally show more enthusiasm for some POTUSes over others--not as politicians or as men of faith, but as interesting subjects. And again, this may reflect the amount of material out there. Holmes advances no conclusions if he can't document.

That said, publishers hate footnotes, but the book would really be better served by footnotes than endnotes. (The worst thing a reader could do is ignore them.) Many interesting arguments run alongside the notes, and it's interesting to see where the evidence is Holmes's own exchange of emails or interviews with different authorities. It’s a pity this additional level will be missed by lots of readers.

Sally

An interesting look at the post-war presidents, although naturally incomplete since 4 are still alive. I must admit, I did look at this through a bias and I did wonder where David Holmes was coming from.

The chapter on President Obama focuses heavily on the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. There is no doubt that Wright is an intelligent man and I'm sure the media did selectively edit his words, even if he has made Trinity a very afrocentric church. Holmes writes that Obama used Trinity to make contacts while he worked in Chicago, something Wright has also recently spoken of. There is also discussion about why the Obama family doesn't often attend church or have selected a church to make their home.

As a former western Pennsylvanian, however, I was surprised that Barack Obama's own quote about people from the area "clinging to their guns and religion" wasn't included. This was a big deal to many of us in 2008, who concluded that the then presidential candidate wasn't that big on religion and faith, and looked down on those who were. Because this is omitted, Holmes then concludes that he believes President Obama is probably the most Christian/religious of all our most recent leaders. This includes GW Bush and his father and also Jimmy Carter: all 3 have been very open regarding their faith both in words and deeds. It's a conclusion with which I cannot agree, based on what I read. In my view, Jimmy Carter should have this title.

Until this final chapter, I found the book insightful. Without it, I would have given this 4 stars. The chapters on Truman, Eisenhower, Clinton, et al, are interesting and Holmes takes time to explain the background of each president. This includes descriptions of the types of churches they attended. There are also several pages of notes.

Keith Davis

It is easy to be cynical about the religious pronouncements of politicians. A few modern US Presidents appear to have been completely sincere in their professions of faith (Truman, Ford, Carter,and both Bushes) while others seem a little more opportunistic. Eisenhower was the biggest surprise to me in this book. Ike was raised as a Jehovah's Witness, ran away from that faith when he was old enough to leave home, and only joined the Presbyterian Church the week before he announced his candidacy for President. Nixon not surprisingly comes across as the most duplicitous regarding his personal faith. Reagan, though practically elevated to sainthood by the religious right, was not a churchgoer and seemed more at home consulting with astrologers than preachers. The book's final chapter is one of the best short biographies of Obama I have read and cuts through a lot of the confusion about his complex religious background.

Robert D. Cornwall

David Holmes is a historian who understands religion, politics, and American history. In an earlier book, Faiths of the Founding Fathers, (http://www.bobcornwall.com/2007/08/fa...) he explored the religious ideas and practices of the Founding Fathers from Franklin to Monroe, all of whom were to some degree predisposed to a Deistic vision of religion. In this book, Holmes examines the faith expressions of the twelve post-WW II Presidents, from Truman to Obama. He provides broad context for each President, bringing in family, social, cultural, and political dynamics. What we learn about some might surprise us, but by reading this excellent book, perhaps we will be better understand the nature of presidential faith expressions. It's not easy being President and a person of faith!

Marylou

A great history book ... so much interesting (for me) information in it. Another one of those books I'd like to have on my shelf (when they get cheap)! I've decided I'm going to use this as my guide to writing my own reflections of the Presidents in my lifetime and how I reacted to them.

Linda

I only had the time to skip around in this book as most of the chapters are long and some of them dry - heard he is a great speaker may try to find him locally and hear about the rest!

Phi Beta Kappa Authors

David L. Holmes
ΦBK, College of William and Mary, 1999
Author

From the publisher: The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, an acclaimed look at the spiritual beliefs of such iconic Americans as Franklin, Washington, and Jefferson, established David L. Holmes as a measured voice in the heated debate over the new nation’s religious underpinnings. With the same judicious approach, Holmes now looks at the role of faith in the lives of the twelve presidents who have served since the end of World War II.

Holmes examines not only the beliefs professed by each president but also the variety of possible influences on their religious faith, such as their upbringing, education, and the faith of their spouse. In each profile close observers such as clergy, family members, friends, and advisors recall churchgoing habits, notable displays of faith (or lack of it), and the influence of their faiths on policies concerning abortion, the death penalty, Israel, and other controversial issues.

Whether discussing John F. Kennedy’s philandering and secularity or Richard Nixon’s betrayal of Billy Graham’s naïve trust during Watergate, Holmes includes telling and often colorful details not widely known or long forgotten. We are reminded, for instance, how Dwight Eisenhower tried to conceal the background of his parents in the Jehovah’s Witnesses and how the Reverend Cotesworth Lewis’s sermonizing to Lyndon Johnson on the Vietnam War was actually not a left- but a right-wing critique.

National interest in the faiths of our presidents is as strong as ever, as shown by the media frenzy engendered by George W. Bush’s claim that Jesus was his favorite political philosopher or Barack Obama’s parting with his minister, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Holmes’s work adds depth, insight, and color to this important national topic.

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