July 2, 1999
Religious Expectations of the Presidency
-- Martin E. Marty
The two front-runners for the Republican and Democratic nominations to be president get scrutinized daily for their attitudes toward and comments on religion. So do the two front-runners-up. All this is happening a year early. Come convention time next year, a populace wearied from too much coverage of the campaign will still be following the religion part of the story. It will have no choice but to do so.
Try to explain why Americans expect so much in terms of religion from their presidents to a Canadian or a Mexican, both of them living just a river away, to say nothing of a European, Asian, or African, and you will be met with looks of bewilderment or disdain.
Political scientist Sebastian de Grazia tries to do such explaining to an essentially British audience in the June 4 TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT. He takes off from an overreported incident, which took place on September 11, 1998. On that day, he says, the president acted as both priest and penitent before prominent clergy at the White House. Since the president was repenting to "all" "the American people," he was turning the whole citizenry into his confessors, with the convoked clergy as their stand-in. Those who hated the president or were grievously disappointed in him, which means just about everyone, did not show signs of questioning that there had to be a religious dimension to this and other transactions involving the White House and public expectations.
So it has been, says de Grazia, since President Eisenhower got inauguratedand then baptized in 1953. Yes, a very few presidents in crisis times--Washington, Lincoln, Wilson, and F.D. Roosevelt--had "attached God to their exhortations." But after Eisenhower, all the presidents have aspired to take on a sacral role, beginning with hosting annual prayer breakfasts. Kennedy "adopted preacherly cadences" and "appeals" to God. Nixon moved church into the White House. Presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton "all described themselves as born-again Christians. The presidency seemed to be sheltering a religious revival."
De Grazia points out that while the U. S. Constitution, as usually interpreted, intends to keep God out of legislation, it cannot restrict the president from trying to be priest, pastor, and preacher. He also notes that "the globe today appears not to see America bathed in...spiritual light" and that among countries "religiously estranged from the United States [who] look for some sign of spirituality, there is generally not much visible to the naked eye. So they have to look to the presidency." Why a pluralist society with spiritual cravings expects so much of its president remains partly a puzzle. At the very least, it ought to inspire citizens with a sense of the oddness of it all. On with the campaign. Let us pray.