WRITTEN BY JOSEPH LOCONTE
Joseph Loconte is a senior fellow at Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy, where he writes widely about the role of religion in promoting democracy, human rights, and social justice. He is the editor of "The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler's Gathering Storm."
The American presidency has been described as the most powerful political office in the world. Perhaps in no other Western democracy does the position of president occupy the singularly important role that it does in the United States. The head of the Executive Branch of government, defender of the Constitution, Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces—the American president assumes all of these roles and more. He serves as the living symbol of the nation’s democratic values. Though easily overlooked, some of America’s most beloved presidents have been men of deep religious conviction. They have shaped not only the national character, but also America’s image and influence before a watching world.
George Washington and the Character
of the Republic
More than any other national leader, George Washington embodied the American ideal of republican government: a government of free people that could only be sustained by moral virtue and the willing consent of the governed. When a group of disaffected soldiers threatened civil disobedience, for example, Washington won them over with these words: “In the name of your common Country, as you value your own sacred honor, as you respect the rights of humanity, and as you regard the Military and National character of America,” do not “open the flood Gates of Civil discord, and deluge our rising Empire in blood.” After assuming office, members of the Newport Hebrew Congregation wrote to congratulate Washington. His response articulated the American principle of religious liberty with exceptional power. He reminded the Jewish assembly that the government of the United States “gives bigotry no sanction” and offered them this wish: “May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of the other inhabitants…while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” After a brilliant military career that helped secure Independence, Washington could have been named King of America—and some hoped to make him so. But he would have none of it. He resigned his military commission, ran for president, and refused to serve more than two elected terms. “We now have a national character to establish,” he said, “and it is of the utmost importance to stamp favorable impressions upon it.” Though not without his faults, Washington raised a standard of presidential character that remains the American democratic ideal.
Abraham Lincoln: Ending the Scourge
A visit to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. suggests something of the resolve, the solemnity, the grandeur, and the moral seriousness of Abraham Lincoln, the president who freed America’s slaves. No leader believed more deeply in the universal appeal of American democracy, what he called “the last best hope of earth.” At the same time, no president faced the moral failings of the United States with greater sobriety (he issued numerous calls for “public humiliation, prayer, and fasting” and inaugurated the first day of national thanksgiving). Lincoln came to despise America’s besetting sin—slavery—both for its innate cruelty and its destructive influence on the national character. “I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world—and enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites—cause the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity.” Yet the abolition of slavery came at a terrible cost: a civil war that took the lives of 600,000 Americans. Lincoln led the nation through four of the bloodiest years in its history. Mindful of the hand of Providence and “the judgments of the Almighty,” he nevertheless opted for mercy and clemency for the defeated Southern Army. “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right,” he implored, Americans must join together to “bind up the nations wounds” to achieve a “just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” Sometimes called “the redeemer president,” Lincoln simultaneously sustained a profound sense of divine justice and spiritual humility—and employed it to preserve America’s experiment in democratic freedom.
Theodore Roosevelt and the Fight for
Perhaps best known for his foreign policy aphorism—“speak softly and carry a big stick”—Theodore Roosevelt believed firmly in the principle of peace through strength. “We infinitely desire peace,” he said, “and the surest way of obtaining it is to show we are not afraid of war.” Despite his tough rhetoric, though, Roosevelt proved to be a skillful negotiator. He helped resolve the Russo-Japanese War (for which he received the first Nobel Prize awarded to an American), a conflict over Morocco, and several clashes in Central America. During his administration, Roosevelt improved relations with Great Britain, began construction of the Panama Canal and “pursued as enlightened a policy in the Philippines as America’s imperialist assumptions allowed.” Other assumptions, however, would be scrapped—including, for example, the idea of an industrialized society that treated citizens as fodder for corporate greed. “Nine-tenths of my fighting,” he wrote, “has been against men of enormous wealth, and their henchmen.” And fight them he did: He passed a food and drug law, curbed child labor, improved wages and working conditions, and championed workers’ compensation laws. Behind his Progressive agenda was a religious ideal: the application of “uncorrupted Christianity” and the Golden Rule to domestic life. Roosevelt brought the same moral zeal to counter the rapacious exploitation of natural resources by private industry. An avid hunter and conservationist, he emerged as America’s first environmentalist president. His Reclamation Act of 1902 funded dozens of projects to prevent the destruction of soil, forests and wildlife. He established five national parks and set aside millions of acres of public land. After leaving office, Roosevelt called conservation a “great moral issue” that helped ensure “the health and continuance of the nation.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt and the
‘Arsenal of Democracy’
When Franklin D. Roosevelt became president in 1933, the nation was in the throes of the worst economic crisis of its history, the Great Depression. A quarter of the workforce was unemployed, banks were in freefall, and millions of people were cast into poverty and homelessness. Amid this chaos FDR created the New Deal—a vast expansion of government involvement in the economy to address social needs. With a Democratic Congress behind him, Roosevelt established a myriad of federal programs and agencies, from the Works Progress Administration to the Social Security Act. His policies not only transformed the Democratic Party, but permanently redefined the role of government vs. the private sector in the provision of social welfare. 1933 also was the year that Adolf Hitler rose to power in Nazi Germany. While Germany was rearming, the United States was slashing its military budget. FDR signed the 1935-36 Neutrality Acts, which cut off American aid to either side in a European war. In a 1936 re-election speech, Roosevelt reflected the isolationist mood when he vowed to keep the United States out of another European war: “We shun political commitments which might entangle us in foreign wars; we avoid connection with the political activities of the League of Nations…We are not isolationist except in so far as we seek to isolate ourselves completely from war.” It would take the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 to prompt Roosevelt to declare war on the Axis Powers and implement a radical war-time economy. Once fully engaged, the American president became a tenacious and morally charged Commander-in-Chief. “We are fighting to cleanse the world of ancient evils, ancient ills,” he said. “There never has been—there never can be—successful compromise between good and evil.” By the time Roosevelt won an unprecedented third term as president, he had forged a close friendship with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The “special relationship” between the United States and Great Britain—based on their shared military sacrifice and democratic values—proved to be decisive in defeating the Axis states and rescuing Europe from the tyranny of fascism.
John F. Kennedy and the Burden of
Though John F. Kennedy is considered an icon of political liberalism, the hawkishness of his foreign policy—with its robust democracy agenda—would draw the ire of most contemporary U.S. Democratic leaders and British Labour Party MPs. In his inaugural address of January 1961, he affirmed the Jeffersonian belief that the “the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God." He vowed, not only to Americans, but to the world community, that “we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Kennedy meant business. His first interventionist scheme on behalf of democracy—the plan to help Cuban exiles overthrow communist dictator Fidel Castro—ended in failure and disgrace. Evidently emboldened by American weakness, the Soviet Union secretly began construction of a ballistic missile site in Cuba. Its discovery, and Kennedy’s decision to order a naval blockade of the island, brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war. Proclaiming his opposition to the spread of Communism, Kennedy stepped up political, economic, and military support for South Vietnam against the North Vietnamese regime of Ho Chi Minh. Under Kennedy’s watch, the number of U.S. military serving in the conflict jumped from 1,800 to over 16,000, setting the stage for the most divisive foreign war in American history. In June of 1963 JFK visited West Berlin and used the construction of the Berlin Wall—separating the communist East from the Democratic West—to excoriate Soviet Communism. “Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect,” he said, “but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in." Kennedy also believed strongly in the use of American “soft power,” and created the Peace Corps, an international volunteer program that sends Americans into underdeveloped nations to promote education, agriculture, health care, and other initiatives. Worried about the influence of communism in South America, he also launched the Alliance for Progress to promote economic development, trade, and human rights. “Let us once again awaken our American revolution,” he said, “until it guides the struggles of people everywhere—not with an imperialism of force or fear but the rule of courage and freedom and hope for the future of man.” Though JFK was felled by an assassin’s bullet in November of 1963, much of his democratic idealism continues to inspire the Party faithful.
Reagan and the End of the Cold War
Barely three months after Ronald Reagan took office as president in January of 1980, he was shot by a would-be assassin outside the Washington Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C. The bullet pierced his lung, missing his heart by less than an inch. While in the operating room, Reagan quipped to his surgeons: “I hope you’re all Republicans.” One of them replied: “Today, Mr. President, we’re all Republicans.” This was Reagan in character—a leader who not only possessed a core set of political beliefs, but also a sense of decency and humor that disarmed his critics. It is easy to forget, though, how deeply unpopular Reagan was among the liberal establishment of his day, at home and abroad. His tax cuts and “supply side” economics incensed defenders of big-government and an ever-expanding welfare state. His support for democracy movements worldwide unleashed the scorn of the political left. His description of the Soviet Union as “an evil empire” was denounced as “crude” and “moralistic.” His massive military build-up stoked fears of a nuclear conflagration. In each case, the force of elite opinion—and the drift of recent history—was against him. “What I am describing now,” he told Britain’s House of Commons, “is a plan and a hope for the long term—the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people.” The speech got decidedly mixed reviews. Yet Ronald Reagan, the tenacious one-time lifeguard from Tampico, Illinois refused to back down. His tax cuts helped jump-start the American economy and create 20 million jobs. His moral assessment of the Soviet Union gave hope to thousands of dissidents. The deployment of Pershing II and Tomahawk missiles in Europe—amid fiery protests involving millions of people in capitals across the continent—checked the expansion of Soviet power. Meanwhile, Reagan’s commitment to a missile defense shield, dubbed “Star Wars,” helped drive the Soviet Union to economic ruin. Though alternately chided as a “warmonger,” a “washed-up actor,” or a “happy dunce,” Reagan advanced a foreign policy doctrine of confronting Soviet aggression that proved immensely prescient and effective. His approach to negotiations with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev—“trust but verify”—reduced the risk of nuclear war by reducing the means of waging war. Reagan rejected the conventional wisdom that a nation’s behavior, and not its political ideology, mattered most. “Our military strength is a prerequisite to peace, but let it be clear we maintain this strength in the hope it will never be used,” he said, “for the ultimate determinant in the struggle that’s now going on in the world will not be bombs and rockets but a test of wills and ideas, a trial of spiritual resolve, the values we hold, the beliefs we cherish, the ideals to which we are dedicated.” Three years after Ronald Reagan left office, the collapse of the Soviet empire was complete.
Bush and the War on Terror
During the 2000 presidential campaign, Republican nominee George W. Bush criticized the foreign policy failures of the Clinton White House by declaring that his administration was not interested in “nation-building.” For the first eight months of his first term in office, Bush kept his promise. He launched an ambitious domestic agenda, including education reform and a massive tax cut. He created a “faith-based initiative” to forge partnerships between government and church-based charities helping the poor. With the end of the Cold War and shrinking U.S. military expenditures, president Bush advanced no bold, new vision for American leadership in the world. Then came the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which killed 3,000 Americans, most of them civilians. Within weeks Bush ordered a U.S-led assault on Afghanistan, the safe harbor for the masterminds of 9/11. “In a second world war, we learned there is no isolation from evil,” Bush told the U.N. General Assembly. “We affirmed that some crimes are so terrible they offend humanity itself. And we resolved that the aggressions and ambitions of the wicked must be opposed early, decisively, and collectively, before they threaten us all. That evil has returned, and that cause is renewed.” In January of 2002, in his State of the Union address, Bush described an “axis of evil”—a nexus of rogue regimes, Islamic terrorists, and weapons of mass destruction—that threatened the foundations of civilization itself. “I will not wait on events while dangers gather. I will not stand by as peril draws closer and closer,” he said. “The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.” Thus the emergence of the Bush doctrine: The United States was engaged in a “war on terror” and must act “pre-emptively” to thwart a catastrophic terrorist attack on the United States. The new doctrine provided the major rationale for the U.S.-led war against Iraq in 2003. The failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, however, sparked the most acrimonious debate over U.S. foreign policy since the Vietnam war. The Bush doctrine also involves the promotion of democracy abroad, a staple of U.S. foreign policy since the beginning of the Cold War. Yet here as well the Bush doctrine has proved controversial. It is the Middle East, he insists, that most desperately needs democratizing. “Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe,” he told a Washington audience in November of 2003. “As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export.” The Bush administration arguably has taken on the task of nation-building with a vengeance. This is true not only of America’s ongoing efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also—perhaps most surprisingly—in Africa. Bush’s unprecedented $15 billion HIV/AIDS initiative targets mostly African states ravaged by the disease. In addition to his humanitarian argument for ramping up the U.S. commitment to fight the pandemic, Bush cites the problem of “failed states” as breeding grounds for terrorism. The impact of the Bush doctrine on international peace and security remains hotly debated. Nevertheless, the president’s AIDS initiative already is considered the most principled, generous, and strategic commitment to the African continent of any Western leader—and must surely figure into any estimation of his legacy.
W.B. Allen, George Washington: A Collection (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1988)
Fred Barnes, Rebel in Chief: Inside the Bold and Controversial Presidency of George W. Bush (Crown Forum, 2006).
Richard Carwardine, Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power.
Robert Dallek, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963 (New York: Back Bay Books, 2003).
Dinesh D’Souza, Ronald Reagan: How An Ordinary Man Became An Extraordinary Leader (New York: The Free Press, 1997).
Michael Gerson, Heroic Conservatism (New York: HarperOne, 2007).
Robert G. Kaufman, In Defense of the Bush Doctrine (Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2007)
Doris Goodwin Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.
Forrest McDonald, The American Presidency: An Intellectual History (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1997)
Jon Meacham, Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship (New York: Random House, 2004)
Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (New York: Random House, 2001)
John O’Sullivan, The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister (Washington, D.C: Regnery Publishing Incorporated, 2008)
Thomas G. West, Vindicating the Founders: Race, Sex, Class, and Justice in the Origins of America (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1997)
 Richard Brookhiser, Founding Father: Discovering George Washington (New York: Free Press, 1996), p. 44)
 William J. Bennett, Our Sacred Honor (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997), pp. 330-331.
 Allen C. Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1999), p. 189.
 Gary Scott Smith, Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 146-147, 154-155.
 Remarks by the President to the United Nations General Assembly, U.N. Headquarters, New York, November 10, 2001.
 Remarks by the President at the 20th Anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy, United States Chamber of Commerce, Washington, D.C., November 6, 2003.