A religious scholar will discuss the faith of the last several presidents when he visits Georgia Southern University next week.
David L. Holmes, the Walter G. Mason professor of religious studies at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., will speak on his latest book, “The Faiths of the Postwar Presidents: From Truman to Obama,” on Thursday evening.
He also will give a lecture at the Carter Center in Atlanta earlier in the week.
“With the November election just days away, we are excited to have Dr. Holmes visit Georgia Southern University’s campus to share his historical perspective and his scholarly expertise on the faiths of America’s presidents,” said Patrick Novotny, a political science professor who is coordinating the event.
Novotny said Holmes will appeal to faculty, students and anyone in the community interested in learning more about the role faith has played in shaping U.S. presidents since the Second World War.
In the book, Holmes discusses John F. Kennedy’s philandering and secularity and Richard Nixon’s betrayal of Billy Graham’s naïve trust during Watergate.
The author includes telling about often colorful details not widely known or long forgotten. Holmes reminds the reader, for instance, how Dwight Eisenhower tried to conceal his parents’ Jehovah’s Witnesses background and how the Rev. Cotesworth Lewis’s sermonizing to Lyndon Johnson on the Vietnam War was actually not a critique from the left, but from the right.
Holmes examines not only the beliefs professed by each president, but also the variety of possible influences on their religious faith, such as their upbringing, education and the faith of their spouses. In each profile, close observers such as clergy, family members, friends and advisers recall churchgoing habits, notable displays of faith (or lack of it), and the influence of their faiths on policies concerning abortion, the death penalty, Israel and other controversial issues.
In a recent interview, Holmes was asked how he chose his particular focus on church and faith history.
“I was studying English in graduate school with an emphasis on American literature,” Holmes said. “I realized that I was more interested in the American religious groups I read about than in the literature produced at the time. I changed fields, and it was a move I never once regretted.”
When asked about his motivation for writing this new work, Holmes replied: “The president of the United States is the most powerful figure in the world. Inevitably many of us read about presidents daily when we open the newspaper. As a church historian, I have long been interested in their religious faith. I also spent my career teaching at a college that produced three American presidents.”
Holmes said he encountered a number of surprises as he conducted research for the book.
“Dwight Eisenhower and his brothers, for example, were essentially raised in the Jehovah’s Witnesses,” Holmes said, “and Richard Nixon was privately a Unitarian from his college days on. I also changed my assessment of several presidents because of my research.”
In addition, Holmes said he had found certain generalizations that applied to the 12 postwar presidents. Most, for example, had strong mothers. Most continued to belong to the same denomination in which they were raised, and roughly half seemed to maintain a strong faith throughout their lives.
He said that, in his lecture, he will summarize the beliefs of nine of the presidents and go into detail on three. A question-and-answer period with the audience will follow.
National interest in the faith of our presidents is as strong as ever, as shown by the media frenzy engendered by George W. Bush’s claim that Jesus was his favorite political philosopher or Barack Obama’s parting with his minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Holmes’s work adds depth, insight, and color to this important national topic.
Holmes has written several pieces about religious faith, including “The Faiths Of The Founding Fathers,” which was named an editor’s choice book by The New York Times and nominated for the People’s Choice Book Award of the Library of Virginia; “A Brief History Of The Episcopal Church,” which has become a standard used by Episcopal and interdenominational theological seminaries; and “A Nation Mourns.”
The lecture will take place at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Allen E. Paulson College of Engineering and Information Technology building, room 1005.