The Prayer Breakfast Presidency

By Jon Meacham
Sunday, April 16, 2006

George H.W. Bush was nearly in tears. Standing in front of deep burgundy curtains on a stage in College Station, Tex., late one afternoon last week, the 41st president was presenting an award for public service to his longtime friend the Rev. Billy Graham. Now 87, white-maned, hard of hearing and able to move only with a walker, Graham sat near the former president as an emotional Bush talked about prayer and the presidency.

"Many of you here have heard me quote Abraham Lincoln, who once said that 'I have often gone to my knees in prayer out of the conviction that I had no place else to go,' but sometimes even that is not enough. No matter how deep one's faith is, sometimes you need the guidance and comfort of a living, breathing human being. For me, and for so many occupants of the Oval Office, that person was Billy Graham. When my soul was troubled, it was Billy I reached out to, for advice, for comfort, for prayer." Bush's voice cracked with emotion; perhaps, given Graham's fading health, it was one of the last times they would be together.

Cynics may dismiss prayer breakfasts and public piety as political, but the language of faith has been a perennial force at the highest levels. On this Easter Sunday, as America's 200 million or so Christians commemorate the resurrection of Jesus, religion can seem divisive, a world away from the clubby warmth of Bush 41 and Graham's longtime friendship of horseshoes, golf and theology. The current President Bush's expressions of faith frequently provoke his foes, and even Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has annoyed the center by agreeing to deliver the commencement address at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University next month.

For many Americans, the image of presidents at prayer is reassuring; for many others, scenes such as the one last week with Bush and Graham represent an unhealthy mixing of church and state.

However, American history suggests that allusions to faith in the political arena are part of what Benjamin Franklin called "public religion," a religion whose God is perhaps best understood as the "Creator" and the "Nature's God" of the Declaration of Independence. This was not the God of Abraham or God the Father of the Holy Trinity, but a more generic figure who made the world, is active in it through the workings of providence, and will ultimately judge how people conducted themselves in life.

Taken together, the past reveals that the benefits of faith in God in our public life have outweighed their costs. "The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records," said Alexander Hamilton. "They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself, and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power."

Guided by this idea of God-given human rights, America has created the freest, most inclusive nation on Earth. It was neither easy nor quick: the destruction of Native American cultures, the ravages of slavery, the horrors of the Civil War, the subjugation of women and the bitterness of Jim Crow attest to that. And there is much work to be done. In its finest hours, America has not been wholly religious or wholly secular but has drawn on both traditions. Understanding that may help the left adjust its fears of a supposedly nascent American theocracy and convince the right to discard its historically inaccurate vision of America as a "Christian nation."

Following Homer, who said "all men need the gods," John Adams once remarked: "Religion always has and always will govern mankind. Man is constitutionally, essentially and unchangeably a religious animal. Neither philosophers nor politicians can ever govern him in any other way."

Yet the Founding Fathers knew they would be governing a pluralistic nation. In 1790, his first full year as president, George Washington wrote a powerful letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, R.I., underscoring the American commitment to religious liberty: "It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights," Washington said. "For happily the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance. . . . "

And a treaty with the Islamic nation of Tripoli of Barbary begun by Washington, finished by Adams, and unanimously ratified by the Senate in 1797, said: "As the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion . . . it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries."

Thomas Jefferson was perhaps the least orthodox Christian imaginable. He went through the Gospels with a razor, excising references to the supernatural and rearranging the text. Dismissing the Trinity, Jefferson once remarked: "Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them, and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves priests of Jesus." On New Year's Day 1802, in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, Jefferson cited the constitutional "wall of separation between church and state" -- yet closed with words of prayer "for the protection and blessing of the common Father and creator of man. . . . "

More than a few Americans are uneasy about George W. Bush's "God-talk," a fear fueled by the president's remark to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward that he did not consult his dad about going to war in Iraq but appealed to "a higher father." There is, though, a precedent for such things. In September 1862, following the Confederacy's defeat at Antietam, Abraham Lincoln summoned his Cabinet to announce that he was about to free the slaves. According to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles's diary, Lincoln was blunt: "He had, he said, made a vow, a covenant, that if God gave us the victory in the approaching battle [which had just been fought] he would consider it his duty to move forward in the cause of emancipation."

On D-day in 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt read a prayer of his own composition over the radio; it was his only public remark that day. And President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said that no government made sense unless it was founded on faith in the divinely ordained rights of the individual. (He also once exclaimed, "Jesus Christ! We forgot the prayer!" toward the end of a Cabinet meeting.) And the last line of President John F. Kennedy's inaugural address -- "here on Earth, God's work must truly be our own" -- echoes down the decades, but there was some calculation behind the first Roman Catholic president's noble sentiments. "The allusions to God in his speeches were a deliberate attempt to make himself sound like any other Christian American," recalled Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy special counsel and speechwriter. (Told that a writer was considering doing a book on Kennedy's faith, one of JFK's sisters remarked, "That will be a very short book.")

Richard M. Nixon took the politics of religion to new heights of cynicism, using his friendship with Graham to lend a spiritual aura to a White House soaked in sin. Graham came to regret his proximity to Nixon (which included anti-Semitic remarks for which Graham later apologized). Presidential piety spikes in times of trouble; there are no atheists in a scandal-struck White House. "There is no fancy way to say, 'I have sinned,' " President Bill Clinton announced to a prayer breakfast during his impeachment saga.

The newly organized religious right helped Ronald Reagan win in 1980, and the president himself was a Christian believer with an unsettling interest in the details of the apocalypse (the index to Lou Cannon's authoritative book "President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime" contains three times as many references to Armageddon as it does to affirmative action). Still, Reagan rarely gave the evangelical movement tangible political or policy victories. Reagan's view of the nation as a "shining city on a hill" was more inclusive than many believed during his White House years.

At a service for Reagan's second inauguration, Graham reflected on the tensions between God and Caesar. "It is true that we are a pluralistic nation," he said in a sermon at the National Cathedral. "We have a Constitution which guarantees to all of us human freedoms, of which religious freedom is foremost. In America, any and all religions have the right to exist and propagate what they stand for. We enjoy the separation of church and state, and no sectarian religion has ever been -- and we pray God, ever will be -- imposed upon us." The Founders would have understood and approved.

As the midterm elections and a new presidential cycle approach, Americans would do well to remember that religion is but one thread in the tapestry of political life. America is neither a Christian nation nor a secular one; it is somewhere in between, and Americans are struggling through a world of change and chance. As Bush senior closed the ceremony with Graham last week, he threw his arms in the air and hollered (there is no other word for it): "Go in peace, and thank you!" -- a benediction blending faith and good manners, rather like America herself.

Jon Meacham, the managing editor of Newsweek, is the author of "American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation" (Random House).

© 2006 The Washington Post Company