Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles



The Faiths of the Postwar Presidents

From Truman to Obama


David L. Holmes


Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2012

Hardback. ix+397 pp. ISBN 978-0820338620. $29.95


Reviewed by Michael Marino

The College of New Jersey



The Faiths of the Postwar Presidents : From Truman to Obama by David L. Holmes offers readers insight into how religious beliefs and practices have influenced the lives of America’s presidents since World War Two. As the title implies, the book moves in chronological fashion, with each chapter corresponding to the life of an American president. As the title also makes clear, the book begins with Harry S. Truman and ends with Barack Obama. The discussions of these presidents follow the same general format and two main organizational premises underlie the narrative. First, each chapter provides a brief biological summary of the presidents, moving from birth to funeral (if the president is deceased). As would be expected, these biographies focus heavily on the religious practices and beliefs of the presidents, outlining the faiths in which they were raised and the extent to which religion influenced their lives. Second, each chapter provides some insight into how religious beliefs shaped the presidents’ actions and policies when they were in office.

In this respect, the author provides a number of interesting anecdotes and vignettes that would interest readers. For example, Presidents Johnson and Eisenhower both became more religious when in office (by attending church regularly, for example), while Presidents Nixon and Kennedy seemed to turn away from what had been rather strict religious upbringings. The last two chapters, which focus on the two most recent presidents (Bush and Obama) are especially compelling and topical. Barack Obama’s biography and personal history, for example, are fascinating and the chapter offers readers a persuasive discussion about the increasingly important role religion has played in his life. Perhaps the best thing that could be said about the author’s approach is that his biographical profiles, while brief, nonetheless turn these individuals into real people and not just distant politicians focused solely on policy issues. The book is also extremely well written, and its tone and style are both effective and engaging. While the book appears somewhat lengthy, if one considers its subject matter it is in fact rather short. To provide comprehensive biographies of every American president since World War Two is an impressive feat of scholarship, and Professor Holmes is to be commended for his erudition and his eloquence.   

It is, however, difficult to discuss or outline the book’s argument, as there really isn’t one. The author provides no preface, forward, introduction, or concluding chapter. The sum of the book is the individual chapters on the various American presidents and the book ends abruptly after President Obama is discussed. A short introduction by another writer does little to connect the book to any wider themes or ideas. Further, the only concluding statement the author provides concerns the extent to which the postwar presidents attended church. There is no discussion of what the book’s subject means more generally, or what wider themes can be drawn from the religious practices of America’s presidents. This is an odd omission considering the fact that religion and politics have commingled since the earliest days of the American republic. Religious leaders have always had an outsize influence on American political life and on the political beliefs of everyday Americans, yet the book contains no real discussion of this. In this sense, the book is a bit myopic, focusing on minutiae at the expense of wider analysis. For example, most readers would be more interested in how religious leaders helped impact presidential decisions (during the Cold War, for example), less so in the extent to which a particular president attended church on Sunday.

Since none are provided, readers are also left to draw their own conclusions after reading the book. A few seem to emerge. One is the tremendous variety in the religious practices and beliefs of America’s presidents. This diversity (from Catholics, to Quakers, to Baptists, to Evangelicals, to Episcopalians) speaks to the diverse nature of America in general and how a broad array of religions has shaped the nation’s values. A second theme centers on an interesting dichotomy that can be found in the religious beliefs of America’s presidents. Some presidents, such as Eisenhower and Johnson, became considerably more religious when they entered office. This was partly due to the desire to set a good example, but also because the stresses of office necessitated a refuge in religion. Other presidents, particularly Nixon and Kennedy, were raised in strict religious households, yet became significantly less religious upon entering office, committing crimes and engaging in immoral behavior. Based on this fact, it would seem the pressures of the job have led to presidents either turning towards or away from religion.   

The Faiths of the Postwar Presidents : From Truman to Obama is a valuable book. Compellingly written, it illustrates to readers how religion and religious practice have shaped American life. While this connection could be made more explicit, this fact does not undermine the book’s scholarly value or the significance of its achievement. Readers of the book will emerge with new insights into the lives of America’s presidents and how religion has shaped their values and actions. The book will also provide a deeper understanding of how religion has helped define American history and the beliefs of everyday Americans.


Cercles © 2012

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.

Please contact us before using any material on this website.