The White House Wasn't Always God's House

By Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was a top aide to President Kennedy. His most recent book is a memoir, "A Life in the 20th Century: Innocent Beginnings."

Los Angeles Times

October 26, 2004

George W. Bush's presidency is the first faith-based administration in U.S. history.

The founding fathers did not mention God in the Constitution, and the faithful often regarded our early presidents as insufficiently pious.

George Washington was a nominal Anglican who rarely stayed for Communion. John Adams was a Unitarian, which Trinitarians abhorred as heresy. Thomas Jefferson, denounced as an atheist, was actually a deist who detested organized religion and who produced an expurgated version of the New Testament with the miracles eliminated. Jefferson and James Madison, a nominal Episcopalian, were the architects of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. James Monroe was another Virginia Episcopalian. John Quincy Adams was another Massachusetts Unitarian. Andrew Jackson, pressed by clergy members to proclaim a national day of fasting to seek God's help in combating a cholera epidemic, replied that he could not do as they wished "without feeling that I might in some degree disturb the security which religion now enjoys in this country in its complete separation from the political concerns of the general government."

In the 19th century, all presidents routinely invoked God and solicited his blessing. But religion did not have a major presence in their lives. Abraham Lincoln was the great exception. Nor did our early presidents use religion as an agency for mobilizing voters. "I would rather be defeated," said James A. Garfield, "than make capital out of my religion."

Nor was there any great popular demand that politicians be men of faith. In 1876, James G. Blaine, an aspirant for the Republican presidential nomination, selected Col. Robert G. Ingersoll, a famed orator but a notorious scoffer at religion, to deliver the nominating speech: The pious knew and feared Ingersoll as "The Great Agnostic"; a 21st century equivalent of Ingersoll would have been booed off the platform at the Republican convention of 2004.

There were presidents of ardent faith in the 20th century. Woodrow Wilson had no doubt that the Almighty designated the United States — and himself — for the redemption and salvation of humankind. Jimmy Carter, like Bush, was "born again." Ronald Reagan, though not a regular churchgoer, had a rapt evangelical following. But neither Wilson nor Carter nor Reagan applied religious tests to secular issues, nor did they exploit their religion for their political benefit. These are the standards that Bush has systematically violated.

The southernization of the Republican Party and the rise of evangelicals as a political force have restructured U.S. politics. When I was a young fellow, fundamentalists were a disdained minority, raw material that H.L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis ("Elmer Gantry") used to make jokes about the Bible Belt.

But in recent years, the religious right has made alliances with right-wing Catholics over abortion and right-wing Jews over the Holy Land. Such alliances have given the evangelicals a measure of political respectability.

Statistics on religion are notoriously unreliable, but it may be, as the Pew Center for the People & the Press asserts, that evangelicals now outnumber mainline Protestants. The religious right constitutes Bush's political base, and the result is the first faith-based presidency in U.S. history.

Bush's first executive order was to establish the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. In fiscal 2003, as our president told a White House conference, the federal government gave more than $1 billion to faith-based organizations. And Bush is unique among presidents in his extensive application of religious tests to secular issues.

The opposition to stem cell research that so disturbs Nancy Reagan is typical. Stem cell research promises to expedite cures for Alzheimer's, diabetes, AIDS, Parkinson's and other diseases. But evangelicals are against it, and so is Bush.

Equally alarming is the use of churches for political purposes. A Bush campaign document, according to the New York Times, lays out "a brisk schedule for legions of Christian supporters to help enlist 'conservative churches' and their members, including sending church directories to the campaign."

There is no doubt about the authenticity of Bush's conversion. He would not be president today unless the born-again experience had charged his life with new meaning, purpose and discipline. Redemption through commitment to Jesus is what made him a man and a leader.

But, as author Bob Woodward said in "Bush at War": "The president was casting his mission and that of the country in the grand vision of God's master plan." There is a messianic certitude about our president's pronouncements.

A fanatic, as Finley Peter Dunne's fictitious Mr. Dooley said, does what he thinks the Lord would do if he only knew the facts in the case. The most dangerous people in the world today are those who persuade themselves that they are executing the will of the Almighty.

Lincoln summed it all up in his second inaugural address. Both warring halves of the nation, he said, had read the same Bible and prayed to the same God. Each invoked God's aid against the other.

As Lincoln said, " … let us judge not, that we be not judged…. The Almighty has his own purposes."