Professor Randall Balmer’s new book, God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush, explores the role of religion in American presidential politics in the latter half of the twentieth century. A professor of American religious history at Barnard College, Professor Balmer also is an ordained Episcopal minister, volunteering at a local parish.
As Balmer sees it, John F. Kennedy’s 1960 address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association during his Presidential campaign, “effectively bracketed a candidate’s faith out of consideration. Balmer calls this the “Kennedy Paradigm,” which persisted until the Watergate scandal erupted. “President Nixon’s corruptions finally paved the way for President Carter to reintroduce the language of faith into politics.”
That language of faith persists today. As Balmer writes in his book, “George W. Bush’s statement on the eve of the Iowa precinct caucuses that Jesus was his favorite philosopher appealed to many Evangelical voters as well as to those who believed that the nation was beset by moral decay. By 2004, Americans had come to expect that candidates for the highest office in the land would open their religious beliefs to the scrutiny of voters.” Balmer believes today’s candidates use religion as something they know Americans will respond to. “I think religion is part of our common vocabulary,” he says. “Politicians want to be part of that conversation for their own well-being, so they speak the language of faith and politics … [However,] with the exception of Carter, there is very little connection between a candidate’s declarations of faith and the way he governs.”
In addition to covering religion and politics, Balmer also teaches courses that consider religion’s relationship with American popular culture, the Civil Rights Movement, and the history of New York City, among other topics. As an author, he has been published widely both in academic and scholarly journals, and one of his books, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America, was made into a three-part documentary for PBS. It’s Professor Balmer’s expertise in the various roles religion can play and has played in society and culture that has made him a sought-after visiting professor by Rutgers, Yale, Drew, Northwestern, and Princeton universities and at Union Theological Seminary, where he is also an adjunct professor.
Balmer sees religion as playing a lesser role in the 2008 elections than it did in President Bush’s last two campaigns. “Then again, we’re not at the general election level yet.” However, Governor Mitt Romney’s Mormonism was seen as an issue and boosted consciousness about religion early on in the campaign. As for Governor Mike Huckabee, who is a Baptist minister, “some people might ask questions about his religion,” says Balmer, but ultimately it won’t matter because of the Constitutional implication that a person’s religious tradition should not been considered to allow them to hold the office of president.
Those who do reference their religious tradition in their campaign to draw in a certain segment of that tradition’s population may be alienating it by aligning with policies that don’t necessarily reflect that population’s values. The Religious Right, a group that plays such a large role in American politics, is a group that Professor Balmer feels has distorted Evangelical Christianity. “Part of my work - the previous book [Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America: An Evangelical’s Lament] - has been focused on reclaiming Christianity from the Religious Right, which I believe has utterly distorted the teachings of Jesus,” he says. “They’ve taken the words of Jesus, which I see as lovely and redemptive, and contorted them into something ugly and punitive. As I read 19th century Evangelical activism, particularly in the antebellum period, Evangelicals were always taking the part of those on the margins of society. I don’t’ see any correlation between them and the Religious Right.”
At Barnard, Professor Balmer looks to the large enrollment in his classes to attest to the interest in politics and religion. “I think there’s a curiosity that seems to be there.”
—Amanda Lanceter ’09