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God in the White House: A History: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush Hardcover – January 22, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

How did personal faith go from something John F. Kennedy needed to distance himself from to something recent presidential candidates have been eager to embrace publicly? Balmer, an eminent historian and first-rate storyteller, recounts familiar material in a way that's fresh. He wisely suggests that genuine blame for misuse of religion in public rests with voters, not politicians. But a running quarrel with the religious right—unannounced in the title—seems the real raison d'être for this book, and many arguments and examples will be familiar to readers of the author's Thy Kingdom Come. Balmer marshals impressive evidence that the religious right arose in reaction to government interference with racist religious schools. But he often tends to overstate and sometimes omits key facts. Balmer traces the right's slow response to 1973's Roe v. Wade decision by quoting the Southern Baptist Convention's initial support of Roe, without noting that the takeover of that church by fundamentalists came later and largely over that issue. Most oddly, Balmer describes the war in Iraq as America's first aggressive military campaign in history. These eccentricities make the book feel agenda-driven, and render questionable even its many points of wisdom. (Mar.)
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From Booklist

Balmer very readably chronicles the use of religion in presidential campaigns and political apologetics since John F. Kennedy’s campaign speech assuring voters that his Catholicism wouldn’t affect his presidential conduct at all. When pressed, Kennedy’s three immediate successors explained their actions by the Golden Rule, though Nixon and Ford also had preacher friends (Billy Graham for Nixon, Bill Zeoli for Ford) tender excuses. Carter used born-again status to woo voters wearied by the Watergate scandal, but he was no hypocrite; indeed, the sincerity of his concern for the national soul in his 1979 “Crisis of Confidence” or “malaise” address, which now seems clairvoyant, made him seem more pastor than president and sparked the aggressively political religious Right to (re)action. Subsequent campaigns and presidents have flaunted religiosity, but the agendas of religious politicos, especially the religious Right’s, remain unrealized after 30 years of hectoring. Religious journalist Balmer concludes a hitherto reportorial book by holding voters—but not the sensation-seeking media—ultimately responsible for America’s political immorality. Thus, an excellent historical précis ends in, at best, an incomplete explanation. --Ray Olson

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: HarperOne; 1st edition (February 1, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060734051
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060734053
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 0.9 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.5 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,294,101 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

A prize-winning historian and Emmy Award nominee, Randall Balmer is Mandel Family Professor in the Arts & Sciences at Dartmouth College. Before coming to Dartmouth in 2012, he was Professor of American Religious History at Columbia University and at Barnard College for twenty-seven years. He has lectured at the Chautauqua Institution, the Commonwealth Club of California and the Smithsonian Associates and to audiences around the country. He has been a visiting professor at Dartmouth College and at Rutgers, Yale, Drew, Emory, Northwestern and Princeton universities, and he has also been a visiting professor in the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Mr. Balmer was Adjunct Professor of Church History at Union Theological Seminary for seventeen years, and from 2004 through 2008 was a Visiting Professor at Yale Divinity School. He was ordained an Episcopal priest in 2006.

Mr. Balmer, who earned the Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1985, has published widely both in academic and scholarly journals and in the popular press. His commentaries on religion in America have appeared in newspapers across the country, including the Des Moines Register, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the San Diego Times-Union, the Dallas Morning News, Slate, the Philadelphia Inquirer, New York Newsday, the Albany Times-Union, the Nation and the New York Times. His first book, "A Perfect Babel of Confusion: Dutch Religion and English Culture in the Middle Colonies," won several awards, and his second book, "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America," now in its fifth edition, was made into a three-part documentary for PBS. Mr. Balmer was nominated for an Emmy for his script-writing and for hosting that series.

His second documentary, "Crusade: The Life of Billy Graham," was aired on PBS and also appeared in A&E's Biography series. "'In the Beginning': The Creationist Controversy," a two-part documentary on the creation-evolution debate, was first broadcast over PBS in May 1995 and then recut and broadcast in fall 2001.

The author of a dozen books, Mr. Balmer has co-written a history of American Presbyterians, a book on mainline Protestantism, and another book, "Protestantism in America," with Lauren F. Winner. Other books include "Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism," published by Baylor University Press, and "Religion in Twentieth Century America," part of the Religion in American Life series, published by Oxford University Press. A spiritual memoir, "Growing Pains: Learning to Love My Father's Faith," published by Brazos Press in 2001, was named "book of the year" (spirituality) by Christianity Today. More recently, "God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush," was released by HarperOne in January 2008, and "The Making of Evangelicalism: From Revivalism to Politics and Beyond" was published by Baylor University Press in 2010. His first biography, "Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter," was released in 2014.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
While this is a relatively slim volume in size, similar to a lengthy essay, it is packed with fascinating information and insights into the role God and religion have played in presidential elections since 1960. Beginning with the campaign of John F. Kennedy and ending with the presidency of George W. Bush, the book compares the various religious philosophies of the presidents and how that was perceived by the public.

One of the strongest ironies to appear in the book, and a theme that runs throughout, is the change in religious attitudes over the past 48 years. For instance, many religious leaders were opposed to Kennedy because they feared he would weaken the separation between Church and State, which was a fundamental principal of the Baptist religion. Yet, by the time Reagan was elected, the Church had discovered power and was hoping to lower the bar set between the two. In further irony, Reagan was the least religious of the three candidates, and had one of the most liberal records, yet could speak "the language" of the Religious Right more eloquently than the other candidates.

The author often refers to speeches given by the candidates and Presidents to make his case. To help the reader understand the positions of the candidates, the author has reprinted seven of the most important speeches by the candidates in the appendix.

This is a well written book containing interesting information on the views of those who have led the nation. I think it is an important book for this election cycle and will give readers a new way to evaluate what they are being told from the stump.
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39 of 39 people found the following review helpful By Kerry Walters VINE VOICE on January 28, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Shortly after Labor Day in 1960, 150 mainstream Protestant leaders (including Norman Vincent Peale) called a press conference at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington DC to express concerns about a Catholic--John Kennedy--running for president of the United States. A Catholic's loyalties, they insinuated, would be divided between the Constitution on the one hand and the Vatican on the other.

Less than two weeks later, JFK responded to this extraordinary press conference with his now famous speech, delivered in Houston Texas, in which he asked voters to bracket a candidate's religion when deciding how to vote. JFK's speech, plus a public backlash against the brazenness of the Catholic-baiting Protestant ministers, took religion out of presidential politics for the next 16 years.

This is the historical backdrop from which Randall Balmer examines religion and the presidency over the past 50 years in his extraordinarily good book God in the White House. It's as important a study as it is a timely one, tracing as it does the trajectory of evangelical Christianity's entry into contemporary politics. That trajectory is, to say the least, a bit wobbly.

According to Balmer, it was the irreligious Nixon who, ironically, got the evangelical Christian crowd connected with politics and thus broke the 16-year moratorium. Disgust over Nixon's obvious moral corruptness and enthusiasm over Jimmy Carter's born-again purity convinced evangelicals that it was time to drop their traditional distrust of politics in the 1976 Carter/Ford contest. But after Carter's election, evangelicals, under the influence of the political right, repudiated him and began to throw their weight behind the likes of ultra-conservatives like Reagan and the two Bushes.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Mark S. Summers on May 23, 2008
Format: Hardcover
GOD IN THE WHITE HOUSE: HOW FAITH SHAPED THE PRESIDENCY FROM JOHN F. KENNEDY TO GEORGE BUSH W. BUSH is a fascinating, wonderful introduction to an important topic. Let the work speak for itself. What follows are selected sections from Randall Balmer's book. In a few places I have taken the liberty of conflating quotes from two or more parts of the book, but I have remained faithful to the author's argument.

Balmer labels himself "an evangelical Christian whose understanding of the teachings of Jesus points him toward the left of the political spectrum." He is "no fan of the Religious Right, whose leaders, [he] believe[s] have distorted the gospel - the 'good news' - of the New Testament and have defaulted on the noble legacy of nineteenth-century evangelical activism, which invariably took the part of those less fortunate."

"This book aspires to answer a relatively simple question: How did we get from John F. Kennedy's eloquent speech at the Rice Hotel in Houston on September 12, 1960, in which he urged voters effectively to bracket a candidate's faith out of their considerations when they entered the voting booth, to George W. Bush's declaration on the eve of the 2000 Iowa precinct caucuses that Jesus was his favorite philosopher? Americans were content to disregard religion as a criterion for voting in 1960, whereas by 2004 they had come to expect candidates fully to disclose their religious beliefs and to expound on their personal relationship to the Almighty. This book attempts to trace that transition."

Balmer "offer[s] ... a narrative that tells the story not only of the politicization of religion in the final decades of the twentieth-century, but also the 'religionization' of our politics."

Balmer is "not arguing ...
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