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Faith and the Modern Presidency: An Interview with Randall Balmer

From: Historically Speaking
Volume 10, Number 1, January 2009
pp. 29-30 | 10.1353/hsp.0.0006

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Randall Balmer is professor of American Religious history at Barnard College, Columbia University. He has published a number of books and articles for the scholarly and popular press. An editor for Christianity Today, Balmer has written for the New York Times Syndicate, and has produced PBS documentaries on Billy Graham, creationism, and American evangelicalism. His three-part TV documentary, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America, was nominated for an Emmy.

In 2008 HarperOne published his God in the White House: A History: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush. Historically Speaking editor Randall Stephens caught up with Balmer in Boston and discussed the 2008 presidential campaign and the lessons Americans can learn about faith and the presidency from the Kennedy era to the present.

Randall Stephens: How much have your own religious views influenced what you write about?

Randall Balmer: Coming right out of graduate school, I was more interested in trying to establish myself within the scholarly community, and so I took on more traditional sorts of projects. Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Sub-culture in America (Oxford University Press, 1989) was a radical departure for me. I'm trained as a colonial historian. And I remember very clearly, for example, going to the chair of my department, and I said, "I have an idea for this fairly unconventional book. What do you think?" He said not to do it; it would be professional suicide. I decided I wanted to do it anyway, in part because it grew out of the crucible of my own experience. It turned out to be a reasonably successful book and PBS documentary. But it also turned out to be a very important book for me personally, in that it brought me back to the faith in ways that I had not anticipated when I first undertook the project. Since then, the books I've written have reflected my interests and my obsessions at various times. The last two books, Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts Faith and Threatens America (Basic Books, 2007), in particular, was in many ways motivated by a sense of utter despair at the 2004 elections. I woke up the day after the election with a hangover, and I hadn't been drinking. I had to figure out what I was going to do to change what I considered to be this country's perilous course. I don't flatter myself to think that I had any real role in changing things, but I like to think that I contributed or did my part.

Stephens: You begin your God in the White House: A History: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush with an observation: "Americans were content to disregard religion as a criterion for voting in 1960, whereas by 2004 they had come to expect the candidates fully to disclose their religious views and to expound on their personal relationship with the Almighty." Could you say something about that process?

Balmer:What I call the Kennedy paradigm of voter indifference toward a candidate's faith really prevailed through several election cycles up until 1976. Oddly enough, Richard Nixon reintroduced the language of faith and piety into presidential politics. I think it's impossible to imagine Jimmy Carter, the one-term governor of Georgia, emerging out of political anonymity to become first the Democratic nominee and then the president of the United States in 1976 had it not been for Nixon. And one of the reasons I find that so paradoxical is that Nixon was always Billy Graham's favorite politician and his lifelong friend. The culture of corruption surrounding the Nixon administration paradoxically reintroduced this language of faith and piety into presidential politics. Carter, a Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher, burst onto the scene saying that he wanted a government as good and decent as the American people. He promised never to knowingly lie to the American people. For a populace who had suffered through Richard Nixon's endless prevarications, that message was extraordinarily attractive. We Americans, and I remember this...

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