With Presidents Day coming up next Monday, it seemed like the ideal time to chat with Paul Kengor, associate professor of political science and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania.
Professor Kengor has devoted years to studying, writing and lecturing about the spiritual roots of the American republic and the influence of religion on the presidency. He is the author of several books, including, most recently, The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (HarperCollins, 2006) and also God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life and God and George W. Bush: A Spiritual Life.
The Jewish Press: Why does the U.S. differ from other Western countries when it comes to the professed piety of its leaders?
Kengor: The United States is simply a more religious country, and has been from the outset, always with a strong sense of the place of Providence in the founding and continuation of the American republic, and of this special experiment in representative democracy. The great sociologist Peter Berger once said that the two most religious nations in the world are India and the United States, which may well be true.
Today, Western Europe has undergone a stunning secularization by which it has cast aside its Christian roots. It is a rather fascinating development, actually. Consider that the continent that is the home of both the Vatican and the Reformation, of Catholicism and Protestantism, of Aquinas and Calvin, of G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis, of Rome and Wittenberg, is abandoning its Christian identity, and it does so voluntarily, eagerly, under no threat from vandals at the gate.
When Nietzsche a century ago surveyed his surroundings and proclaimed that “God is dead,” he might have in retrospect judged himself only slightly premature.
By the way, Michael Medved, the radio talk show host and Orthodox Jew, makes the interesting point that a de-Christianized Western Europe could be a very bad Europe for Jews; that’s another argument, but obviously a very significant point.
The difference seems to go all the way back to the American and French revolutions.
Yes. When you compare the American Revolution to the French Revolution, the contrast is extraordinary. The historian Paul Johnson wrote that the American Revolution was a “religious event,” whereas the French Revolution was an “anti-religious event,” which is absolutely true. And it was that difference, notes Johnson, that defined the two revolutions from start to finish, and which explains the horrific violence, chaos, and bloodshed of the French Revolution.
John Adams was certainly cognizant of the contrast. He had written to Thomas Jefferson about his concerns over the French Revolution, warning Jefferson that there was no reason to get excited about a revolution of 30 million atheists.
You can go even earlier than the American Revolution. Take John Winthrop aboard the Arabella in 1630, standing on the deck, off the Massachusetts coast. Winthrop said of this new land that it “shall be as a city upon a hill.” He said, “The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and cause him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword throughout the world.” That became a favorite phrase of Ronald Reagan’s, of course.
Reagan loved these images. He called the image of George Washington praying in the snow of Valley Forge “the most sublime image in American history.”
You can draw a straight line from Winthrop to Washington to Woodrow Wilson to Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush. This piety is embedded in the very fabric of this nation.
Not a few historians claim that the Founding Fathers, as well as many early American presidents, were not Christians but deists – they believed in a Creator but did not subscribe to any specific religious dogma.
First, let me underscore that few to none were deists, even Jefferson, I would say. The faith of the founders has been badly butchered by modern historians. The vast majority of them were Christians. Of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, 34 were Anglicans, 13 were Congregationalists, 6 were Presbyterians, one was a Baptist, one was a Quaker, and one was Catholic.
That said, there are some founders where it is difficult to say definitively that they were absolutely Christians, and thus were indeed, generally speaking, theists. Some say that this applies to George Washington, which it may.
Has there been a president who was publicly indifferent or hostile to religious expression?
I can’t think of a single such president. The concern now is that there is a secular culture in America that is hostile to religious expression by our presidents, at least in the case of a conservative Republican president like George W. Bush. And it really is a double standard. Liberals never complain about religious expression by their own, whether a Jimmy Carter or a Reverend Jesse Jackson or, as we shall soon see, Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
I will predict right now: Expect Hillary to run for president as the most religious Democrat since Jimmy Carter, and expect the liberal press to not only not protest but to swoon and to suddenly “get religion.” She will be able to say things like Dick Gephardt said in Iowa in December 2004, “Jesus was a Democrat, I think,” or like Jesse Jackson said at the 2004 Democratic national convention, “Jesus was a liberal and Herod was a conservative,” and get away with it.
Expect Hillary, like her husband before her, to campaign like crazy in churches, and to be able to do so with complete impunity from the press, in a way that George W. Bush would never be permitted to do.
You write, in God and Ronald Reagan, of seeing, when you went over Ronald Reagan’s presidential papers, many examples of “Reagan’s intense religious thinking.” Can you elaborate?
It was everywhere. Countless letters, and in the margins of numerous speeches. I’ll give just one example: When a friend or associate died, Reagan often fired off a letter to the widow in which he offered words of comfort about “God’s plan,” and how it is not “up to us to decide the where and how of things.” We can only trust, Reagan would say, that God knows best and works everything according to His plan and for His greater good.
You also write, “In order to understand Reagan’s lifelong enmity toward communism, it is crucial to review the role of atheism in Soviet philosophy.”
What we did not realize in the 1980’s was that Reagan considered the Soviet Union an Evil Empire not merely because it robbed people of the most basic civil liberties, and because it killed upwards of 30-60 million people, but also because the founders of the Soviet state pursued what Mikhail Gorbachev rightly called a brutal “war on religion: against people of all faiths – Christians, Jews, Muslims.” Karl Marx had dubbed religion the “opiate of the masses.” That phrase stuck. It would become a sage slogan in the Communist Party.
To cite merely one casual reference, Natan Sharansky, who was jailed from 1977-1986, recalls a conversation with one of his interrogators, who said flatly: “According to Marx, religion is the opiate of the masses. We won’t permit anyone to poison our children.” That phrase became gospel truth to countless communists. According to Marx himself, “Communism begins where atheism begins.”
Vladimir Lenin, the godfather of the Bolshevik state, said far worse. “There can be nothing more abominable than religion,” he wrote in a letter to Maxim Gorky in January 1913. Alexander Yakovlev recently found a new Lenin letter, dated December 25, 1919, in which he issued an order: “To put up with ‘Nikola’ [the religious holiday commemorating the relics of St. Nikolai] would be stupid – the entire Cheka must be on the alert to see to it that those who do not show up for work because of ‘Nikola’ are shot.”
Reagan knew about this war on religion, this institutionalized atheism. And he knew the Kremlin wanted to spread communism worldwide. For Reagan, this wasn’t just a bad empire, it was an evil empire. And, as Reagan said in the Evil Empire speech, he as a Christian was required to “oppose sin and evil” with all of his might.
Reagan was appalled at the Soviet persecution of all believers, and especially Jews. He constantly pressured Gorbachev to allow for free emigration of Soviet Jews. This annoyed Gorbachev, because Reagan pushed it so hard and so constantly.
Reagan wrote in his memoirs, “No conviction I’ve ever had has been stronger than my belief that the United States must ensure the survival of Israel.” Was there a religious motivation or a geo-strategic one behind that sentiment?
Both. He had tremendous respect for Israel. I could go into the political and strategic reasons, but those are probably clear to readers of this publication. What I found in my research on Reagan’s early religious life was that he learned religious and ethnic tolerance at a very young age, from both his devout Protestant mother and (apparently) apathetic Catholic father.
He never forgot when his father refused to register at a hotel upon realizing that Jews were denied lodging there. Jack Reagan told the clerk that he would be sleeping outside in his car, which he did.
He also learned tolerance of Jews at his church, the First Christian Church on S. Hennepin Avenue in Dixon, Illinois. I learned from church records that on November 11, 1928, the congregation hosted a Russian Jew who spoke on the modern history of Jews and their relations with other people and nations.
You write, in God and George W. Bush, that Bush “practices a non-judgmental brand of Christianity that prompts him simultaneously to concede that ‘men and women can be good without faith,’ and to assert that all believers need not be Christians.”
There has never been a more ecumenical president.
In his first year in office, Bush observed eight separate Jewish holy days, including Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover, and Chanukah. In December 2001, he lit a Chanukah menorah at the White House Residence as a symbol that the White House is “the people’s house” and that it belongs to people of all faiths. It was the first time in history that had been done.
This supposedly rigid fundamentalist Protestant has likewise embraced Catholics. For his most cherished domestic project, his Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, he appointed James Towey, a one-time attorney for Mother Teresa.
He’s also gone out of his way to foster good relations with Muslims, to the dismay of not a few Evangelicals.
No president has spoken as glowingly as Bush has about Islam, which he calls a “religion of peace.” In fact, his claim that the Koran “teaches tolerance” is an assertion that truly rigid fundamentalists find laughable. Pat Robertson has referred to Mohammed as “an absolutely wild-eyed fanatic” and “a robber and a brigand.” He said of the Muslim holy book: “You read the Koran. It says wage war against your enemies. Kill them if you possibly can.”
Bush has said just the opposite, claiming that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. In fact, he reached out to Muslims before September 11, 2001. To my knowledge, George W. Bush was the first president ever to mention mosques in his first inaugural address – which, of course, was before September 11, 2001. In his Republican convention address in August 2000, he mentioned mosques, as he did in a March 1999 speech to a Baptist church in Houston.
He explains his ecumenism this way: “We’re all God’s children [and] we need to treat each other in a decent and civilized way.” It is precisely because he is a Christian, says Bush, that he must love all peoples of all faiths.
This is yet another side of Bush that his critics do not understand, and, frankly, probably don’t want to understand.
As you point out, Bush has been extraordinarily welcoming of Jews and Jewish events in the White House. Why, then, in your opinion, is he so unpopular with the American Jewish community?
I can’t answer that. You can probably provide a better explanation than I could. I believe that generally the American Jewish community divides with Bush not over religion but over politics and ideology. If Israel were the only issue, I would think they’d be thrilled with the fact that Bush has permanently removed Saddam Hussein, a man who once had a plaque on his desk which read: “Three Whom God Should Have Never Created: Persians, Jews, and Flies.”
It looks like Saddam, thanks to Bush, will never be able to follow through on his pledge to scorch half of Israel with chemical gas.