American presidential candidates are expected to proclaim their religious faith and the 2016 election is no exception. In this episode of BackStory, Peter, Ed, and Brian explore the complicated relationship between American presidents and their spiritual beliefs. We’ll look at how many early leaders, like Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, didn’t belong to a particular church, and how Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith’s Roman Catholicism was a flashpoint in the 1928 election. We’ll also hear how evangelical preacher Billy Graham became the spiritual advisor to a dozen Presidents.
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PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.
DONALD TRUMP: Well, I believe in God. I am Christian.
HILLARY CLINTON: I am a person of faith. I am a Christian.
PETER: These days, American presidential candidates are practically required to proclaim their religious faith. But for much of American history, presidents were reluctant to speak openly about their faith. In fact, two of the country’s most admired presidents, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, had no formal religious affiliation at all. But in some elections, the faith of a presidential candidate takes center stage. In 1928, the country’s first Catholic presidential candidate lost in a landslide.
GRANT WACKER: He’s got a campaign stop in Oklahoma City, and they burn crosses where his train is coming through.
PETER: A history of faith and the presidency, coming up on BackStory.
PETER: Major funding for BackStory is provided by the Shiocan Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.
ED: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory. With the American Backstory hosts.
BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, and I’m here with Ed Ayers.
ED: Hey, Brian.
BRIAN: And Peter Onuf’s with us.
PETER: Hey there, Brian.
ED: IN New York City, in 1832, a devastating cholera epidemic swept across the city.
ADAM JORTNER: When it first arrives in New York, there are 1,000 deaths in the first two weeks.
ED: This is Auburn University historian Adam Jortner.
ADAM JORTNER: Over 2,000 people die in New York City before the epidemic is finished. It sort of rips through New York City, and on to Philadelphia, and St. Louis, and so forth.
ED: Cholera is caused by poor sanitation, when food or water is contaminated by human waste. But in the 1830s, people didn’t know that. They just saw their fellow Americans collapsing around them, losing control of the bowels, their skin turning blue from dehydration. Many died within hours. So it’s not surprising that some Americans turned to a higher power.
ADAM JORTNER: There is a church in New York City, the Dutch Reformed Church, and they draft a resolution asking the president of the United States, Andrew Jackson, to declare a day of prayer and fasting to ask God to remove this terrible plague, this terrible pestilence he has sent on the nation.
ED: Now, both George Washington and James Madison had earlier proclaimed days of fasting and prayer, so requesting a national prayer day wouldn’t have seemed inappropriate. But to the church’s surprise–
ADAM JORTNER: Jackson says, no. Jackson writes, “I couldn’t do this without transcending those limits which are prescribed by the Constitution for the president. And without feeling that I might, in some degree, disturb the security which religion now enjoys in this country, in its complete separation from the political concerns of the general government.”
ED: That should have been the end of it, but it wasn’t. Jackson’s refusal to declare a national prayer day sparked a political brawl. Senator Henry Clay, a rival of Jackson’s who planned to run for president that year, quickly put forth his own Senate resolution for a day of fasting to combat cholera.
ADAM JORTNER: Henry Clay is well known as a card playing gambler. He’s a drinker. So he’s not exactly the kind of person these, sort of, religious types are going to vote for. So he stands up and says, I might be a drinker and a gambler, but I think the State should recognize God and ask God for His protection.
It’s a strange speech, because he actually says in the Senate, I am a member of no religious sect. I regret that I am not. I wish that I was. And then he asks for this resolution.
ED: As Clay’s resolution sailed through the Senate and headed to the House, President Jackson remained silent. But his allies in Congress and the press really went after Clay.
ADAM JORTNER: One of Jackson’s supporters accuses Clay of “prostituting our holy religion.” They said that, “this fast by authority was a mere stepping stone to more odious forms of political control.”
ED: That’s great, “fast by authority. ”
ADAM JORTNER: Yeah. I mean, there’s a real fear, and the newspapers really capture it, that, if you get a politician talking about when to pray, and what to pray for, that that’s tyranny.
ED: So why all this heated rhetoric for an issue that had been relatively uncontroversial? Jortner says, in Clay’s case, he simply was playing politics. He was courting religious voters for his presidential campaign. But what about Andrew Jackson? Jortner says Jackson’s motivations were more complicated.
ADAM JORTNER: He’s a religious guy, but you can’t say that, just because someone is religious, that they’ll think it’s OK for the state to invoke God. Or for the state to sponsor prayer days of prayer.
ED: Or to go even farther, just because somebody is religious, and happens to be president of the United States, does not mean that they believe that power, the political power, should be used to advanced the religious.
ADAM JORTNER: And I think it– they actually believed exactly the opposite. That by keeping the state out of religion completely, that was the best way to assure that true religion would flourish.
ED: So Jackson was acting on principle, not petty politics, right? Again, not exactly. Jortner points out that the very churches that were calling for a day of prayer were among Jackson’s most vocal enemies.
ADAM JORTNER: Jackson is, in 1832, trying to remove the Cherokee Indians from Georgia, from Alabama. And who wants to stop him? It’s evangelical Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, mostly from the north. And these guys had been telling Jackson, hey, you can’t do this. Don’t remove them.
ED: And Jackson, just like Clay, had his eye on the November election, which he won easily, by the way. Rejecting the prayer resolution played to his political base.
ADAM JORTNER: I think he knew perfectly well that his supporters were in the south. And he knows they want their Christianity without the hands of the government touching it. And I think he did this, in part at least, to shore up his support in the southern states.
ED: In other words, when it comes to the faith of American presidents, it’s often hard to untangle religion from the unholy business of politics.
PETER: So today on the show, we’re taking a look at the religious beliefs of the nation’s chief executives, and how those beliefs have shaped the nation’s politics. We’ll look at how Thomas Jefferson won the support of Baptists and other evangelical Christians, despite his unorthodox religious views. We’ll also hear how presidential candidate Al Smith encountered a tidal wave of anti-Catholic prejudice in 1928, and we’ll look at how the evangelical preacher Billy Graham became the spiritual advisor to a dozen American presidents.
ED: But first, Peter, I have a little tape I want to play for you. The first voice is Reverend Franklin Graham on CNN earlier this year. And he’s followed by a panel on Fox News from 2015. Give a listen.
FRANKLIN GRAHAM: You talk about us being a secular government, a secular side, that’s only taken place in the last few years. Our nation was founded on Biblical principles–
MALE SPEAKER: Thomas Jefferson was an atheist. But, like, somehow recently, in the 20th century, everybody think that, like, everything’s a Christian whatever. It never was.
ED: So, Pete, I need a little bit of help here. We seem to be in fundamental disagreement about the fundamental origins of faith in the nation. On one hand, you hear these guys were all Enlightenment figures. And on the other hand, we hear that the nation was founded on Christianity. How would we hold both those ideas in our head at the same time?
PETER: Well, they’re both true, Ed. We have a problem separating the two. The great culture wars of the recent period have pivoted on a notion that the real America is Christian, or the real idea is enlightened, b and devoted to science, and progress, and modernity. And that’s a reflection of our times, not of the times of the revolutionaries and the founders.
In a descriptive sense, most Americans are Christian. In this period, there’s no question about it that religious language is pervasive. It’s part of the common culture. There’s no question about it. But there’s no necessary opposition, just says there is no necessary opposition between faith and science in this period. In fact, a nice way to think about it is natural philosophy, or natural religion, which is the position that roughly describes what George Washington embraces, and Thomas Jefferson, and many of the founders. We often call these people Deists because they don’t obsess about doctrinal distinctions. They instead look at the big picture, as the Enlightenment has taught them to do, and they see the world around a guiding idea that there was a purpose to the American Revolution, and to American nationhood, and a providential purpose. That religious idea, that spiritual idea, it doesn’t entail specific doctrinal commitments. You could be a Quaker. You could be a Baptist.
ED: You could even take a Bible and cut out the parts you don’t like, like Thomas Jefferson did, right?
PETER: Well, many Christians today would say that he’s gutting a essential Christian character. I would say that he’s trying to isolate those elements that he believes all good, faithful, patriotic Americans could accept. What he’s taken out of the Bible are what we might call the ethical teachings of Jesus, The Sermon on the Mount. He doesn’t emphasize miracles, because, you know, if the republic is going to succeed, it’s not because God is regularly intervening. He believed that the republic needed a foundation in an ethical system and in a religion of the people. That makes Jefferson as a president, Washington as a president, very much speaking to a popular religious understanding. They’re not anti-religious. We think Enlightenment anti-religion, secular humanism. That is, there’s no soul. There’s no commitment, but there is.
ED: Well, OK. OK. This is very helpful, because what you’re suggesting is that the president’s following the founding fathers honor religion, but they are not advertising they belong to a certain denomination or sect or whatever, right? So when does this idea shift? I mean, when does it become not OK to have this kind of expurgated Bible, and a kind of miracle-less Christianity?
PETER: The big tent that Jefferson, and other advocates of civil religion, propose allows lots of different variations to flourish, different ways of worship, and different ideas about God and God’s purposes on Earth. And toleration is double-edged, then. It both and encourages a broad consensus, you might see a broad ethical, even spiritual, consensus. But it also encourages diversity, and that diversity can take on sharp edges.
BRIAN: I think it’s even more ironic than that, Ed, and I’ll ask you. Didn’t some of those evangelical Christians go on to question and ultimately disparage that ethical humanism, that more civic religion, that Deism?
ED: Yeah, but then they picked up other great themes of the founding. So this evangelical language, Brian, fueled both the anti-slavery and the pro-slavery ranks of antebellum America. And the way this would look, is that the people who were anti-slavery say, what could be more anti-Christian than not honoring other people as you yourself would be honored? And the people who want to defend slavery say, show me in the Bible where is says slavery is wrong.
So people lay claim to the same Bible that Jefferson had cut up. So it’s interesting how quickly these cycles can come and go. And I think it goes back to what Peter said. We created such a big tent at the founding of the nation that faith in the presidency, and everything else in American history, can take all kinds of shapes and forms.
BRIAN: But Ed, I’m going to press you on the president and faith. I know you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Lincoln and faith. How does he deal with the great conflict that you describe?
ED: Well, he avoids it for a long time. He’s pretty widely known as not being an orthodox churchmen. I mean, he doesn’t belong to any denomination. He’s not been a famous church goer. But he does meet with ministers during the war, and you can certainly trace, over the course of the Civil War, and increasing reliance on what he calls Providence, and then does call God. He makes the same move that Thomas Jefferson did, you know. He says, I’m not going to talk about specific religious faith, but I am going to invoke the hand of God by saying this war is so mystifying, that it must have been God’s will that both sides sacrifice enough blood to atone for the blood shed in slavery.
BRIAN: Earlier, we heard from Auburn University historian Adam Jortner. A portion of that interview appeared on our episode “Wall of Separation– Church and State in America.”
Hi, BackStory listeners. We have an episode we’re working on that you can help us shape. With the presidential debates on the horizon, I bet you’ve been thinking about some great debate moments in American history. Like Lloyd Benson’s 1988 withering put down of Dan Quayle in the Vice Presidential debate.
LLOYD BENSON: Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.
BRIAN: Or Ronald Reagan’s joke dismissing concerns about his advanced age compared to his rival, Walter Mondale. That was in 1984.
RONALD REAGAN: I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.
BRIAN: And of course, debate history is full of infamous “gaffies”– I mean gaffes.
GARY JOHNSON: I would do away with education– the– commerce– and let’s see– I can’t. Sorry. Oops.
MITT ROMNEY: I went to a number of women’s groups and said, can you help us find folks? And they brought us whole binders full of women.
MALE SPEAKER: Admiral Stockdale, your opening statement please.
JAMES STOCKDALE: Who am I? Why am I here?
BRIAN: We’d love for you to send us your favorite debate moment from presidential history. You can record a voice memo on your smartphone and send it to BackStory@Virginia.edu. Or leave a comment on backstoryradio.org, and we’ll reach out to you. We’re looking forward to hearing them.
ED: We’ll turn now to one of the first times religion burst out in the open in a presidential election, when Thomas Jefferson was running for president in 1800.
PETER: Let’s set the stage by rewinding a bit to the American Revolution of the 1770s. During this period, Americans didn’t just repudiate the authority of the King. They were being encouraged to question other kinds of authority, as well, including that of established churches. And that skepticism towards organized religion continued after the revolution.
Take Thomas Paine, for instance. He rose to fame with his pamphlet Common Sense in which he urged the American colonies to fight for independence and a democratic government. But Payne didn’t stop there.
AMANDA PORTERFIELD: He followed up Common Sense with a number of writings, including The Age of Reason.
PETER: This is historian Amanda Porterfield.
AMANDA PORTERFIELD: He turned his mind to the authoritarianism and tyrannical terrors of biblical authority, and essentially called for a revolution and overthrowing of biblical authority as a natural sequel to overthrowing British monarchy.
ED: Paine likely thought this appeal would be well received. After all, as we mentioned earlier, American leaders such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were Deists, although they were discreet about it. But Paine, in some ways, misjudged his audience. By the time his pamphlet, The Age of Reason was published in 1794, nearly 20 years after Common Sense, America was becoming a far more religious country, in an era now known as the Second Great Awakening.
BRIAN: Where does this leave a man like Thomas Jefferson? During the revolution, his Deism had not been controversial. But when he ran for president 1800, it was clear he would have to adjust to the changing religious climate. His political enemies, chiefly John Adams and the Federalists, slammed him as a French atheist philosopher. And they had the backing of the established New England churches and their followers. Amanda Porterfield says for these religious voters, Jefferson’s Deism was downright dangerous.
AMANDA PORTERFIELD: You were worried about the violence and disorder and chaos that would are wrapped when someone who lacked the kind of religious virtue that you would associate with a more orthodox Christian were in power. So the fact that he was rumored to be an atheist, and probably was, would be a sign, a very clear and dangerous sign, of his inability to govern in a republican way. He would just unleash demonic forces.
PETER: But Jefferson had his own religious base in the election of 1800. Baptists and other beleaguered evangelicals, groups that were religious minorities at the time, liked Jefferson’s appeal to the common man. They also appreciated his defense of the separation of church and state, which had allowed these churches to flourish.
AMANDA PORTERFIELD: So even though he is a Deist, possibly an atheist, and Baptists who are firmly believing in God and divine providence and miracles and to the authority of the Bible. They are able to make common cause. And he’s able to enlist Baptists, and increasing numbers of Evangelicals, who themselves increase in number because of the power of the Jefferson political party.
PETER: So Jefferson has friends who are Christians and he has enemies who are Christians, in a way. That’s the set up in it you describe. And Jefferson’s Evangelical followers are excited about him, because he’s associated with separation of church and state.
AMANDA PORTERFIELD: Yes, and I think, just to add to this, Jefferson appeals to the common man, if you will. Has a political relationship with the Baptists, who represent working, laboring people, but in terms of his own lifestyle, you know, he’s certainly among the elites. And his education– and this was seen by those who opposed Jefferson, like Washington and Hamilton, as the epitome of hypocrisy. That Jefferson would have a French wardrobe, and yet appear at his inauguration party dressed as a country rube. And I think, even though Jefferson was a member of that elite, I think, genuinely, he did ascribe to this more democratic view of how America should be. And that’s the kind of sacred cause of liberty that he has in common with the Evangelicals, even though doctrinally, if you get them talking about theology and who they really think God is, or if there is a God, they’re going to be on very different footing.
PETER: So liberation from the state actually empowers religious people, and there’s a transformation that’s taking place in American life. Describe what it’s like, beginning in 1801, when Jefferson’s inaugurated, how religion will continue to operate in American politics in subsequent decades.
AMANDA PORTERFIELD: One of the things that religion is doing after 1801, is, as Americans move west, it is the basis of community formation, town formation. In many cases the law that exists in some parts of the West are essentially what happens in the discipline of churches. So the moral order, if you will, of the frontier is coming primarily in terms of the power that religious communities are able to exert in their locales, not from the governments– state, or territorial, or much less federal, in an era when the strongest federal agency is the post office.
PETER: So it’s a combination of Jeffersonian emphasis on limited government and individual liberty, and the cultural power of the churches to hold a country together, that creates a new conception of what America is in the early 19th century.
AMANDA PORTERFIELD: That is so true.
PETER: And this broad notion that our leaders should share our faith prevails in America.
AMANDA PORTERFIELD: Well, and I think, also, the way in which religion and politics are now sloshing into one another, in a way that sets the tone for American religious and political life ever since that time.
PETER: Amanda, you’re the best student we have of the religious dimension of the election of 1800. Well, every election since then has had a kind of religious dimension to it, as we are well aware. Where are we today, and, given your understanding of where we came from, how does our world resemble the world that emerged in the 19th century?
AMANDA PORTERFIELD: The most obvious connection is religion is a sine qua non. You have to be religious to run for president of the United States. And just in the same way that Jefferson had to really backtrack from any kind of overt expression of his Deism, even his possible atheism, and expressed himself as more friendly to religion and more moderately religious. I think that today religion is just part of the landscape, but you have the same suspiciousness of the other side’s religion. And it’s really a way of linking religion and politics, here.
So Hillary Clinton, a lifelong Methodist. People who don’t like her don’t see her as genuinely religious. Donald Trump– people who oppose him don’t see his religion as authentic.
PETER: Amanda, I hate to put these two names together, but would you say, that in this election, that Donald Trump is playing the role of Thomas Jefferson.
AMANDA PORTERFIELD: Donald Trump is using the Jeffersonian playbook. Challenging authority, you know, all those people in power. We’ve got to just make a deal with the common man. What’s different is that Trump is also representing himself as the strong man, and Jefferson never represented himself that way. And he certainly didn’t have the love of the limelight that Trump does. I mean, Jefferson hardly ever spoken in public, and when he did, he spoke very softly and few people could hear him. So there’s nothing like the he the persona. But Trump is using the Jeffersonian playbook, the anti-authoritarian, let’s have a revolution playbook.
PETER: Amanda Porterfield is a professor of religion at Florida State University, and author of Conceived in Doubt Religion and Politics in the New American Nation.
BRIAN: In 1960, Americans elected the nation’s first Catholic president, but John F. Kennedy was not the first Catholic to run for the White House. That distinction belongs to Alfred E. Smith, the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in 1928.
ED: Unlike Kennedy, Smith didn’t go to Harvard. He didn’t go to high school. He dropped out of school to help support his family, working at the Fulton Fish Market in Brooklyn. While Al Smith lacked formal education, he was a gifted politician. Historian and Smith biographer Robert Slayton recounts a famous story from Smith’s time in the New York State legislature, where he served 1904 to 1915.
ROBERT SLAYTON: And he’s in the middle of a debate, and suddenly another legislator comes in and interrupts. He says, boys, boys, I’m sorry to interrupt, but Cornell just one the big boat race. And a legislator on the other side of the aisle says, well, it doesn’t mean anything to me. I’m an NYU man. And another one says, well, I’m U of Michigan.
And condescendingly they say, wow we hope we’re not putting you down or anything, Al. And he says, no problem. I’m an FFM man, myself. And they say, FFM? What’s that? What school is that? Fulton Fish Market. Now can we get on with the debate?
ED: So he’s kind of a salty guy, and, sort of, unabashed working class background then?
ROBERT SLAYTON: Exactly.
ED: And so how did he work his way up from that background into politics?
ROBERT SLAYTON: He started literally running errands for Tammany Hall, the Democratic Party machine in Manhattan. And he stays up every night reading every bill. He’s the only guy who actually reads every bill to come before them, and he becomes a master of the legislature as a result of that, totally self-taught.
ED: The Democratic Party nominated Al Smith for president 1928. He seemed like a logical choice to face then Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. Smith was a popular and highly effective governor of New York, serving four terms. Like many of his urban constituents, Smith was a practicing Catholic. His religious identity was never an issue when he ran for office in New York. But Slayton says once he began campaigning for president, it soon became apparent that his Catholicism did matter to voters outside of New York, especially the one group on the rise in the 1920s.
ROBERT SLAYTON: There are three Ku Klux Klans. The first is during Reconstruction, after 1865. The second is the 1920s, and the third is 1950s and ’60s to oppose the Civil Rights Movement.
The one in the 1920s is far and away the largest. There are millions and millions of American members. The state in the 1920s with the largest Klan population is Indiana. So this is really a national movement. The reason they react to Catholics is because that is the great threat. Immigrants are pouring in. And the nativists are going, my God, we are being flooded. They are terrified not of blacks. Blacks are dealt with by the horrendous Jim Crow laws. Immigrants are not being stopped. We damn well better stop them, and hooded sheets are the way to do it.
ED: And a lot of those immigrants are Catholic.
ROBERT SLAYTON: There are lot more Catholics than Jews, so they are at the top of the list. And you’ve got the perfect demon. He’s called the Pope.
ED: And Al Smith then comes to embody this whole constellation of things that the old America, as they would have thought themselves, the real America is frightened of.
ROBERT SLAYTON: Exactly. It was his faith. It was the fact that he was from the biggest and darkest city in the United States. He had a thick accent. We’re talking to you on what Al Smith referred to as the rah-dio. That was how he pronounced it. And when he was campaigning, and he would say, it’s a pleasure to talk to you here on the rah-dio. That didn’t go over in Nebraska. So there were just a whole bunch of ways he personified a whole change going on in America.
ED: So, with all this new American identity, what kind of response does he get?
ROBERT SLAYTON: Horrible. Absolutely horrible. In Daytona Beach, Florida, the school board had every child bring home a letter from the school. And you know impressive that is to the parents, oh my God, it’s a letter from the school. And it says, if Al Smith is elected president, you will not be able to have or read a Bible.
ED: They didn’t realize that Catholics also read the Bible?
ROBERT SLAYTON: Different Bible. Oh, big wars over that. Different Bible altogether. That’s not the Protestant Bible. Oh no, no, no.
ED: Oh, you mean the Bible.
ROBERT SLAYTON: Their Bible. You will not be allowed to have a Protestant Bible. Smith was actually quite naive. For all of his brilliance, his background was extremely limited. He doesn’t get much out of– forget New York– just lower Manhattan part of New York.
I tried to track down his impression of America. He was devoted to the Declaration of Independence and the US constitution. He thought everybody lived by those principles. And when he finds out otherwise, he’s very disillusioned. He becomes very, very bitter that America is not what he thought it was.
The episode, I think, that is a real turning point comes when he’s got a campaign stop in Oklahoma City. And he crosses the Oklahoma line, coming from the state just north of it, and they burn crosses where his train is coming through. And he tries to joke it off at first, but he gets into Oklahoma City, and he’s mad.
He’s actually– at this point he said, this is wrong. And he drops a speech, and he gives a different speech, and he says, basically, you can’t do this. You just can’t do this. You want to oppose me. You want to disagree with my positions. That’s fine. But you can’t just dismiss me because of my religion. That’s just not the American way. I will stand on my record. And you want to not agree with that, that’s fine. But you can’t just dismiss me or any other person just because of who they are. And that’s still a speech that speaks to America today.
ED: Do people rise to his defense?
ROBERT SLAYTON: No. No, he loses terribly. He loses terribly. Which is, it’s not quite a landslide on the level of the 1936 election, but he loses badly to Herbert Hoover, absolutely. And what is particularly bitter for Smith is that his beloved New York State actually votes for Hoover. That kills him.
ED: So what’s the moral of the story, do you think? What should we take away from the experience of the rise and near triumph of Al Smith?
ROBERT SLAYTON: That America is a great country but it doesn’t get that way quickly or easily. In the long run, though, the new America of any period cannot be denied. It just can’t be. It’s just the reality. The numbers are there, and we have a democracy, and sooner or later it’s going to out.
ED: It seems to be a long time, then, before the Democrats put forward another Catholic, in 1960 with John Kennedy. What sort of resonances do you see between the 1928 experience and the 1960 experience?
ROBERT SLAYTON: 1960 was very different, in part because of Al Smith, in part because of other factors. A couple of things about John Kennedy. First of all, he had one bona fide the Smith never did. And that was John Kennedy was a real war hero. We have all– I remember when he ran, we all read about PT 109.
ED: I remember that great movie.
ROBERT SLAYTON: Great movie. He really was a legitimate war hero. Secondly, because of Smith, John Kennedy knew it could be a problem. And unlike Smith, he was not going to ignore this.
There’s the famous meeting with the Baptists where he says, I know you have qualms about me being a Catholic. I want to assure you, it has nothing– my personal religion has nothing to do with my policies. It has nothing to do with how I plan to be president of the United States. So he expected it, he knew about it, he defused it as best he could beforehand. Smith never did anything like that, because he didn’t expect it to be a problem.
ED: So did the United States sort of need an Al Smith, somebody to break the glass, so that somebody else could follow and succeed?
ROBERT SLAYTON: Smith broke the glass for a lot of things, not just Catholics, but the whole notion of ethnics and city people being accepted as Americans, which even now, is not totally the case. But Smith, in a way, he’s the pioneer for what we’re facing now. He’s saying, yes, all these new voters are Americans.
[MUSIC – UNCLE DAVE MACON, “GOVERNOR AL SMITH”]
ED: Robert Slayton is a historian at Chapman University, and the author of Empire Statesman The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith.
PETER: Before we move on with today’s topic, we wanted to open up the BackStory mailbag. We’ve been getting lots of great comments from our recent episodes. A couple of weeks ago, we did an episode on the history of the American work ethic. Historian Margaret O’Mara was on the program, comparing the work ethic and courage of Silicon Valley tech campuses, like Google, to the 19th century company town of Pullman, Illinois. Several of you pointed out that we didn’t include the full story of Pullman, which ended in a violent labor strike, the National Guard intervening, and congressional hearings.
BRIAN: Listener Max Rosenblum tweeted to us that while we ran that episode for Labor Day, we never noted that the national holiday grew out of the labor turmoil in Pullman in the 1890s. And listener Daniel Fuller wrote to us, saying, “not mentioning the outcome, and comparing it to the current Google campus, you left an impression of a successful experiment.”
We don’t even know how the Google plan will work out eventually, but other 19th and 20th century industrial, utopian experiences, based on the ideals of the ruling class, didn’t work out well, either.
PETER: Fortunately, we’re working on the history of utopias later this fall, and plan to explore the Pullman experiment more thoroughly.
ED: That recent episode of the American work ethic also got listener Bob Leaver from North Dakota thinking. He reached out with this question. “I’m 40 years old, and among my generation, I believe there’s a myth regarding retirement. My generation seems to feel that through time, people have been retiring as early as they possibly can. I’ve been researching my family tree and found that simply isn’t true. Most of my ancestors worked basically until they couldn’t work any longer. There was no real retirement to speak of. When retirement, as we know it today, began to be the norm?”
PETER: Well Bob’s got a great question, and it doesn’t really apply until the modern period, and I mean by that the late 19th century. In a traditional, agrarian household economy, there’s no such thin as retirement. Your productivity would certainly go down and down until you’re in a rocking chair, but there’s no such thing as retirement.
ED: The first– what you might think of– as retirement, known as pensions, were offered to veterans of the American Revolution and the American Civil War. Matter of fact, it would have been a huge government expenditure by the late 19th century, but this is a far cry from having applied to everybody.
BRIAN: That’s right, Ed, and a lot of those veterans were disabled. They were not able-bodied workers. We don’t really get retirement benefits for able-bodied workers until companies begin to provide them, a little bit, in the early 20th century.
And then in 1935, the Social Security Act provides them to manufacturing industrial workers. That hardly solved the problem for millions of Americans, because it only applied to industrialized work. So it really wasn’t until after World War II that the majority of Americans could even imagine retiring.
BRIAN: Thanks for your input on all of our shows. Don’t be shy about letting us know what’s on your mind. Head to backstoryradio.org.
ED: In 2010, President Obama completed what has become a rite of passage for commanders in chief. He arranged a meeting with the Reverend Billy Graham. Here’s Obama recalling a visit to Graham’s North Carolina home. He called it one of the great honors of his life.
BARACK OBAMA: And before I left, Reverend Graham started praying for me, as he had prayed for so many presidents before me. And when he finished praying, I felt the urge to pray for him. I didn’t really know what to say. What do you pray for when it comes to the man who’s prayed for so many?
ED: Obama is the 12th American president to meet with the famous faith leader, who’s now 97 years old. For more than 60 years Graham has been the spiritual confidant of presidents, both Republican and Democratic. But Graham’s relationship with the presidency got off to a rocky start.
BRIAN: In 1950, Billy Graham was a popular evangelical minister with a national following. That’s when the ambitious 31 year old used his connections to snag a meeting with President Harry S. Truman.
GRANT WACKER: He asked Truman about his spiritual life.
BRIAN: This is Graham biographer Grant Wacker.
GRANT WACKER: Truman said something to the effect that he tried to live by the golden rule. And then Graham said, well, that’s not good enough. You need to make a commitment to Jesus Christ. And we don’t know what Truman said to that, but–
BRIAN: We can imagine what he thought.
GRANT WACKER: Yeah. Yeah, that’s not hard to imagine. But, at some point in the conversation, Graham asked Truman if he– that is Graham– could pray with Truman. And Truman said, well, I don’t suppose it could do any harm. So you get a sense of the drift of the conversation, here.
BRIAN: It was an awkward meeting, and to make things worse–
GRANT WACKER: Graham made the egregious mistake of telling the press everything that was said. And he had no idea that you don’t blab to reporters what the president says in the Oval Office. And Truman never forgave him.
BRIAN: Graham had better luck with Truman’s successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Their relationship began when Graham encouraged the general to run for the White House in 1952.
GRANT WACKER: He said, Eisenhower, you are the only man who could possibly save America from a moral ruin. You’re the man for the hour. And, I mean, it was wildly exaggerated statements. And many years later, in his autobiography, Graham said, no one ever accused me of understatement in those years.
BRIAN: Graham’s fears of moral ruin were in part a product of the Cold War.
GRANT WACKER: Graham was a strident anti-Communist. Graham saw Communism as a religion, literally a demonic religion.
BILLY GRAHAM: For some time, I’ve been stating to this radio audience that Communism is far more than just an economic and political interpretation of life.
BRIAN: This is Billy Graham in a 1951 radio address.
BILLY GRAHAM: Communism is a fanatical religion of atheism. This atheistic philosophy is paralleling and counterfeiting Christianity. I do not–
BRIAN: Millions of Americans agreed with Graham’s anti-Communism, including Eisenhower, who constructed an image of America as a spiritual counterweight to the godless Soviet Union.
ED: Eisenhower, who wasn’t a publicly religious before his presidency, asked Graham for Bible verses that he could drop into campaign speeches. And after Eisenhower came to Washington, Graham persuaded him to join a Presbyterian Church in the capitol. Wacker says that during the presidential years Eisenhower’s how his faith became evermore public and political.
GRANT WACKER: Eisenhower marked a transition, and quite interestingly, Communism had a great deal to do with both Graham’s success and Eisenhower’s. It all seems counter intuitive. How does the purportedly godless, atheistic, menace of Communism enable presidents to use religion for their purposes? Graham helped create the public space that presidents embraced. But ever thereafter, we all know what every president’s religious identity is. This is public knowledge.
ED: In the mid-1950s, Eisenhower also persuaded Congress to add “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and “in God we trust” to the currency.
After Eisenhower, Graham remained an honored guest at the White House. He was friendly with Democratic President John F. Kennedy, and was quite close to Lyndon Johnson. Wacker says that these relationships, like Graham’s connections with other presidents, were mutually beneficial.
GRANT WACKER: Graham received publicity, and presidents received legitimation. That is, Americans were looking for people who were broadly, generally, religious, and therefore, they could trust them because they had higher values. And this is what Graham brought to the presidents.
BRIAN: But Graham’s relationship with the next president didn’t turn out so well. Wacker says that Graham and Richard Nixon had been friends since the early 1950s.
GRANT WACKER: They were golfing buddies. They played golf more than 100 times.
BRIAN: Who won?
GRANT WACKER: Graham was actually a pretty good golf player, and so there are a lot of jokes about how Graham had the benefit of divine assistance.
BRIAN: Yeah, we have to assume that God was on his side for those close ones. Graham remained a close friend after Nixon was elected president in 1968. He saw Nixon as a great man. At one point, Graham even compared him to Winston Churchill. The preacher stuck by his friend, even when the Watergate scandal engulfed the White House in the early 1970s.
RICHARD NIXON: Throughout the long and difficult period of Watergate, it has become evident to me that I no longer have a strong enough political base in the Congress. Therefore, I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow.
GRANT WACKER: He kept saying the Nixon was a man of too high a moral character to do these things. Then Graham read the Watergate transcripts. And this is very interesting, because he said that this was the first time he understood what was really going on. He said, I nearly vomited.
ED: Wacker says that Graham’s reputation took a hit. His close relationship to Nixon came back to haunt him 30 years later, when White House tapes were field that Graham made anti-Semitic comments in conversation with the President. But even back in the 1970s, the Watergate scandal forced Graham to re-evaluate his presidential friendships.
GRANT WACKER: I think that was a pivotal moment in Graham’s public, political career. The relationship becomes more pastoral, more private. He tried to transcend what he saw as the ebb and flow, give and take, of daily political fights.
BRIAN: Graham took this approach, for the most part, with presidents for the next 40 years. Wacker says the new Graham encouraged other pastors to do the same.
GRANT WACKER: Now he said, it’s fine to get into politics if it’s understood as a moral crusade, and he used civil rights as the moral side of politics. He said that you have to do. But partisanship– you need to stay out of that as a public figure.
BRIAN: But in the 1980s, many evangelical leaders didn’t follow his advice. Preachers such as the Reverend Jerry Falwell became political activists. They raised money for conservative causes. In fact, Graham even criticized Falwell for sermonizing on partisan political issues.
ED: Wacker says there will likely never be another presidential pastor like Billy Graham. Though there are plenty of evangelical preachers out there today who are politically active, none of them has the stature of Billy Graham. Why? In part because Graham knew how to listen, and he understood that the presidency of the United States was a tough gig.
GRANT WACKER: There’s some very touching letters between Lyndon Johnson and Graham, in which Johnson talks about how Graham’s friendship sustained him, as Johnson put it, during the dark loneliness of the presidency. And he said, I relied on you as a friend, and you never failed me.
BRIAN: Grant Wacker is a historian at Duke Divinity School. He’s the author of America’s Pastor Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation.
ED: You know, Brian, listening that interview with Grant Wacker brings back pretty personal memories of mine. I was raised as a Southern Baptist in Tennessee, and one of the times that my family would come together, which is not all that often, was in front of television whenever Billy Graham would have his crusade on TV. And it would preempt whatever was on TV to watch this. And we would all five watch hundreds of people stream down at Graham’s call, at the end of his powerful sermon, for people to renew their relationship with Jesus Christ.
And I remember sitting in that living room and feeling part of something really big, and feeling that there was nothing else that was really that same sense of solidarity, except we were gathered around the same television and watched the moonshots. You know, watch this space shots. And the sense that, OK, we are a united people. These were the same ’60s where a lot of other things were kind of falling apart. But in those moments, it felt like there was some kind of cohesion to American culture and our place in the world.
BRIAN: Well, Ed, you’ll be shocked to hear that as a Jewish family growing up in South Florida, we didn’t sit around and watch Billy Graham. But, Ed, my memories of the exact same period, even though you are a few months older than I am, was of coming together, as a family, at the University of Miami football games. And my dad would focus intently on one, and only one, thing. Which was, would the minister, who delivered invocation before the national anthem, would he invoke Jesus Christ or not. And if invoked Jesus Christ, my dad was out of there. He literally left for about five minutes, muttering things I can’t repeat on the radio.
But what’s really interesting is that presidents used Billy Graham to kind of triangulate between Protestant, evangelical true believers on the one hand, and, let’s say, Jewish families like mine, that were very, very eager to assimilate into what became known as a civil religion. A religion that was non-denominational, that was open to Christians, and Jews, and in theory, even Muslims, although that they were not talked about all that much in that period.
And what that really underscores is the very delicate line that presidents had to walk. They needed their spiritual advisers, and Billy Graham was first among all of them. But they also had to demonstrate that they could be a president for all denominations and religions. That they could bring us all together, under God, one nation under God, against this common godless enemy, the Soviet Union.
Peter, I’m curious to know what Thomas Jefferson, who in many ways was all about creating a civil religion, what Thomas Jefferson would think of where we are today.
PETER: Well, Brian, Jefferson very much would have endorsed the notion of a big tent religiosity. And even Billy Graham’s revivals that Ed remembers nostalgically, they were inviting. They were not divisive. You just come forward and be part of this great group, and Brian, you’re welcome, too, OK? And even decadent Unitarians such as myself.
But that’s changed now. And I think that’s a remarkable thing, because civil religion– that notion that we had a God, nature’s God, whatever you want to call the kind of God that Abraham Lincoln invoked, the God of manifest destiny, the God on our coinage, that God that we pledge allegiance to– well, we’re not there anymore. And I think some of the anger and rage you feel from advocates of Christian America is a sense that moment has passed. And now, instead of bringing people together, religious faith is, as it has historically been in Western civilization, a great fracture in the body politic.
ED: Yes. You know, pulling the camera back like this reminds us at the moment of Billy Graham was actually the great anomaly in American history. I don’t think there was a time, any other time. In the 19th century, people imagined that the America was more unified, more religious, more Christian. It really wasn’t in the way that we saw in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s.
[MUSIC – JACK DUPREE, “GOD BLESS OUR NEW PRESIDENT”]
PETER: That’s going to do it for today, but you can join us online and let us know what you thought about today’s show. And while you’re there, ask us questions about our upcoming episodes. We’ve got a show about the history of manufacturing, a Halloween special about the history of horror, and be sure to send us your favorite presidential debate moments for a history of debating. You’ll find it all at backstoryradio.org, or send email to back firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter @backstoryradio. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.
BRIAN: This episode of BackStory was produced by Andrew Parsons, Bridget McCarthy, Nina Ernest, Emily Gadek, and Ramona Martinez. Jamal Milner is our Technical Director. Diana Williams is our Digital Editor, and Melissa Gismondi is our Researcher.
With help from [? Sequoyah ?] [? Carrillo ?], Emma Greg, Aidan Lee, Liz [? Macaulay ?], and [? Payton ?] Wall. Backstory is produced at the Virginia Foundation for Humanities. Major support is provided by the Shiocan Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Additional support is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humantiies, and the environment, and by History Channel– history made every day.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia and the Dorothy Compton professor at the Miller Center of Public Affairs. Peter Onuf is Professor of History Emeritus at UVA and senior research fellow at Monte Cello. Ed Ayers is Professor of the Humanities and President Emeritus at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
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