HEART AND SOUL OF THE NATION by Cheryl Heckler-Feltz


How the Spirituality of the First Ladies Changed America
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 A romanticized, often frivolous view of a potentially rewarding subject. By analyzing First Ladies as mourners, peacemakers, and persecuted matriarchs, Heckler-Feltz, a syndicated religion reporter, breaks new ground, and her anecdotes are well chosen and well told. However, a veneer of romanticization is obvious from the outset, when the author claims that in American history ``no group of individuals offers a better example of Christ's Beatitudes than our First Ladies'' (the Beatitudes become the lens through which she focuses on such subjects as Jacqueline Kennedy, who offered an exemplary demonstration of how to mourn in a dignified way). But this is a startling overstatement, if not a blatant distortion of the facts--as some of the author's own vignettes show, several First Ladies (Ida McKinley and Mary Todd Lincoln come to mind) have deservedly gone down in history as selfish, sniveling women. The author's determination to idealize the First Ladies forces her to ignore some of the larger, more provocative questions lurking beneath the surface, such as how religion might have simultaneously played a role in bolstering these women's ``ladylike'' restrictions and in enlarging their sphere of influence. For example, several First Ladies in the 19th century became deeply (and visibly) involved in missionary work after their husbands left office. Other completely untapped questions are how the role of the First Lady has changed over time, and how the public's expectations of the First Lady's spiritual life have been transformed by pluralism and secularization. (There is considerable attention paid to Jackie Kennedy as a widow but virtually none to her role as the only Roman Catholic First Lady.) Heckler-Feltz seems uninformed about denominational differences, as when she claims that Presbyterians and Moravians were ``religious cousins.'' Some of the book's tales are memorable, but the author's bias prevents this work from reaching its potential. (b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-385-48519-0
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Doubleday
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 1997