Why the wall separating church and state is crumbling.
Observing the religious right’s influence on presidential politics, Balmer (Religious History/Barnard Coll.; Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America: An Evangelical’s Lament, 2006, etc.) follows its evolution from John F. Kennedy’s 1960 election to George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection, courtesy of politically motivated evangelicals. The memorable Houston speech in which candidate Kennedy reaffirmed his support for the separation of church and state represented a watershed in American politics. Balmer reveals that Kennedy had no choice but to respond to public fears, fanned by Protestant evangelicals, that electing the nation’s first Roman Catholic president would be tantamount to a Vatican coup. The author then demonstrates how religious values have become an indispensable element in presidential politics, from Lyndon Johnson selling his Great Society to the American voter by employing Christian notions of giving, to Jimmy Carter using his born-again faith to turn post-Watergate anguish and disillusionment into a rationale for his 1976 election. Balmer deftly considers how pressing questions of faith can pose problems for candidates, offering Carter’s 1976 “adultery in my heart” Playboy interview as one example. Presidential declarations of faith soon became de rigueur. Ronald Reagan was bolstered by swoons of approval from the religious right even though he was an infrequent churchgoer, but George H.W. Bush suffered the consequences when he failed to promote faith-based priorities with sufficient fervor. Bill Clinton attempted to triangulate faith to salvage a presidency rocked by mortal sin and threatened with impeachment. Balmer makes excellent use of presidential speeches in his analysis, including Gerard R. Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon, Clinton’s tribute to Billy Graham and George W. Bush’s national address following the events of 9/11.
An important study, particularly illuminating about the past 25 years.