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  • Truman: Un chrétien à la Maison Blanche
  • James F. Garneau
Truman: Un chrétien à la Maison Blanche. By Yves-Henri Nouailhat. [Petits Cerf-Histoire.] (Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf. 2007. Pp. 201. €22,00 paperback.)

Readers of this journal will no doubt find it a salutary thing when the influence and reality of religion and religious commitment is taken seriously by professional historians. This volume is a contribution in that vein. Having researched the archives of the Truman Presidential Library,Yves-Henri Nouailhat, professor emeritus of contemporary history at the University of Nantes and author of several books on the political and economic history of the United States, has produced a serious look at the religious convictions of its thirty-third president. Moreover, he attempts to discern the extent of the influence of those convictions in significant areas of both his domestic and foreign policy.

Following the assessment of Merlin Gustafson ("Harry Truman as a Man of Faith," The Christian Century, January 17, 1973), Nouailhat finds Harry Truman, one of four Baptist presidents, to be among the most religious of American presidents. Baptized at the age of eighteen, he remained an unrepentant bourbon-drinking poker player for all of his adult life. Truman's knowledge of the Bible was extensive, and though he had little interest in theological discussions and distinctions, he found universal moral guidance in Exodus 20 and Matthew 5–7. He had faithfully attended a Presbyterian church during his adolescence and his wife's Episcopalian parish in his retirement. He was also a thirty-third degree Mason. And, according to the author, he saw himself, in his role as president, as the leader of a Christian nation, wherein Christian idealism is joined to democratic realism, for its own sake as well as for the welfare of the whole world.

The book is divided into five chapters, a brief conclusion, and short selections from nineteen primary-source documents. Footnotes and a bibliography are helpful, though somewhat limited. The first chapter provides biographical material as well as an overview of the principal themes that follow in subsequent chapters: religion and domestic policy, religion and foreign policy, the [End Page 407] birth of the State of Israel, and Truman's relations with the Holy See. Throughout,Truman's grand "ecumenical project" to unite the great religions of the world against Communism is heralded as an example of the depth of his religious motivation and sincerity. While these discussions are interesting and provide much useful material, this reader was not always convinced by the implication or assertion that each response or decision was made on the basis of Truman's religious convictions. Moreover, the lack of clarity with regard to the nature of those religious commitments begs to be explored. Is moral sentiment rightly called a religious motive? Is a democratic-inspired civic religion a religion at all? How private can a person's "spirituality" remain and still be defined as religious? What, finally, is a "Christian," whether in or out of the White House? The book lacks theological insight or analysis.

In addition to the material found at the Truman Library and the papers of Myron Taylor, the chapter on the Truman administration's diplomatic relations with the Holy See relies on an unpublished source, an M.A. thesis (1988), and Robert Gannon's well-known biography of Cardinal Spellman (1962). Evidence of the extensive archival research and analysis on this topic by Gerald P. Fogarty, S.J., is entirely missing. As a result, this chapter in particular is sadly deficient. In sum, this book is a helpful tool in the process of integrating the study of religious commitments and theological influence and rigorous scientific-historical analysis. In particular, it is a contribution to the study of religion and the Cold War. But it leaves unanswered many questions, both historical and theological. [End Page 408]

James F. Garneau
Mount Olive College


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