Dr. Darrin Grinder is Chair of the English Department at Northwest Nazarene University and Associate Professor of American Literature. He has a Doctorate of Arts in English from Idaho State University. He and his wife attend Cathedral of the Rockies United Methodist Church in Boise, Idaho.
Dr. Steve Shaw is Professor of Political Science and Director of the University Honors Program at Northwest Nazarene University. He holds a PhD degree in Political Science from the University of Oklahoma. He has taught at NNU since 1979, and he and his wife attend Holy Apostles Catholic Church in Meridian, Idaho.
At the center of the political system of the United States is the office that the United States Constitution refers to simply as “President of the United States of America.” During the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia, delegates such as George Washington, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, James Wilson, Alexander Hamilton, and others struggled for over six weeks to construct this office that today is seen alternately as the nation’s Chaplain-in-Chief or the nation’s fire hydrant. As one leading contemporary scholar of the American presidency contends, “Familiar as it is, the American presidency has never been easy to understand. The institution has a protean character that defies fixed descriptions or settled explanations. Its history is riddled with eminence and embarrassment, proficiency and paralysis.” We have had forty-four presidencies and forty-three presidents. The oddity, of course, is caused by Grover Cleveland, the only president to be elected to two non-consecutive terms in U.S. history. All have been white, save for President Barack Obama, males, and all have been Protestant (more or less), save for President John Kennedy, our country’s first and to this point only Catholic president. In the words of Howard Fineman of Newsweek, “Every president invokes God and asks His blessing. Every president promises, though not always in so many words, to lead according to moral principles rooted in Biblical tradition.” All of our presidents have spoken of (and most claimed to have spoken to) a higher power of some sort, from Supreme Being or Divine Legislator to a more personal Lord or Savior. Almost all quoted from or claimed to have read the Bible (either regularly or when Congress perhaps was in session). Some presidents were religiously devout; others, apparently not. Some presidents attended church services with utmost consistency; others, seldom, if at all. Some presidents were convincingly orthodox in their religious thought and practice; others were held either in high suspicion or low esteem because of questions or misperceptions or downright unfounded conclusions about their faith. Almost all of our presidents have viewed the United States as having some kind of special (they may or may not use covenantal language) relationship with God and yet few were deep or disciplined students of religion and theology, or perhaps even our own national history. In short, most presidents reflect what Alexis de Tocqueville concluded about Americans in the early nineteenth century during his brief but highly consequential trek across the young Republic: we embrace religion and try to keep theology at arm’s length. In his masterful account of the presidential election of 1960, in which the Catholicism of Senator John Kennedy of Massachusetts figured prominently, Theodore White concluded, “The Presidency hovers over the popular American imagination almost as a sacerdotal office, a priestly role for which normal political standards are invalid.” Similarly, Michael Novak argues, “Every four years Americans elect a king—but not only a king, also a high priest and prophet.” Novak adds that the election “of a president is an almost religious task; it intimately affects the life of the spirit, our identity.” The Constitution prohibits, as we all know, any religious test for holding political office in the United States; however, it clearly is (or at the least appears to be) the case that no serious candidate for the White House can even run the risk of violating our religious/political norm that one be (or to the cynic, at least appear to be) religious. And moreover, the candidate should be not just religious, but acceptably religious, for it does appear to be the case that we do have a religious litmus test concerning the American presidency. The last Unitarian president was William Howard Taft, who faced allegations of heresy during the 1908 campaign. Reverend Timothy Dwight, president of Yale University, warned Americans, “If Jefferson is elected, the Bible will be burned, the French ‘Marseillaise’ will be sung in Christian churches, and we may see our wives and daughters the victims of legal prostitution; soberly dishonored; speciously polluted.” Some in the American electorate still question the religious bona fides of President Obama, in spite of his numerous and public statements about his Christian beliefs and religious journey. And the presidential election of 2012 already has engendered at least a conversation about the prospects of the country having as president a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Randall Balmer, professor of American religious history and student of the American presidency, cautions against seeing the election of any candidate (especially our own) as a harbinger of the Second Coming. “The introduction of religious language and faith claims into presidential politics,” Balmer argues, “raises an important question: So what? Does a candidate’s faith or even his moral character make any substantive difference in how he governs?” Does ethical earnestness translate into an effective presidency? Do spiritual disciplines make one a great president? According to Balmer, “If we persist in vetting the faith of our presidential candidates, we must find a way to reinvest both religion and the political process with a profundity befitting the importance of both.” That is the challenge facing us as authors of this brief and so we hope (and pray?) informative book on presidents and their religious faiths. And we think it is the challenge facing you, the reader, especially if you vote, or are thinking about voting in the race for the White House. On the eve of another presidential election, we find ourselves once again confronting questions about our national identity and national purpose. We hope this book persuades you to think carefully about the connection between faith and presidential leadership. (Dr. Darrin Grinder and Dr. Steve Shaw)