Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
God in the White House
David T. Koyzis
by David T. Koyzis
My earliest political memory is of the 1960 presidential election, which pitted Republican Vice-President Richard Nixon against Democratic Senator John Kennedy. When Nixon spoke at the local college in my hometown, my parents brought me out to see him. As I was only a boy, I do not recall a thing he said, but I distinctly remember his youngish face and his still dark head of hair. Unusually for the time, religion played a role in that campaign, as it had not in previous elections.
Because Kennedy was a Roman Catholic in a country that was still culturally Protestant, many expressed fears that a Catholic president might take marching orders from the Vatican. Kennedy sought to allay those fears, most notably to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, explicitly claiming that his faith was a private matter and that he was “the Democratic Party’s candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic.” This was barely sufficient to bring him the support of the voting public, who narrowly elected him over his rival.
Fast forward to the 1976 presidential campaign. Jimmy Carter, also a Democrat, made an explicit claim to be a “born-again Christian,” a surprising admission in a country where such professions had not generally been advertised in public life. By contrast, his Republican opponent, President Gerald Ford, was a conventional Episcopalian who had once represented a heavily churched congressional district in western Michigan. Yet Carter won the election.
Since then virtually every aspirant to the presidential office has taken pains to profess publicly his or her faith in Jesus Christ, much to the bemusement of more secularized Europeans. Those obviously uncomfortable with such language have tended not to connect with ordinary voters. Would-be candidates might be forgiven for assuming that to profess piety is to possess the presidency.
As a mark of how much has changed in the past half century, the old tensions between Protestants and Catholics have virtually disappeared to be replaced by a pragmatic coalition of Evangelicals and conservative Catholics engaging the major social and political issues of the day. In many respects America today is increasingly similar to the Netherlands of a century ago, when Reformed and Roman Catholic Christians formed a political alliance in the midst of a religiously and ideologically divided society. This explains in some measure the renewed interest of American Christians in Abraham Kuyper’s legacy.
By the beginning of the new century George W. Bush would establish the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives with less controversy than one might have expected. With Barack Obama’s recent profession of his own Christian faith, Michael Gerson has seen fit to question why the current president has not focused more attention on its successor, the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Are these overt professions of faith by our highest office-holders a positive development in the larger American story? One should not, of course, underestimate the danger of public officials misusing confessional language for partisan political purposes, as Gerson points out. Yet this unprecedented openness towards public expressions of faith also creates space for such organizations as the Center for Public Justice to make a difference in this country’s political life.
—David T. Koyzis is an American citizen teaching politics at Redeemer University College in Canada. He is the author of Political Visions and Illusions (2003).
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”