Often, America’s religious life in the 1950s is dismissed as sterile and conventional. Supposedly President Dwight Eisenhower typified generic, superficial religion with his oft quoted quip: “Our government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”
The quote actually came from Eisenhower in 1952 after meeting his WWII fellow commander, Soviet Marshal Grigori Zhukov. Ike was explaining to reporters how America’s creed of equality was based on the “Judeo-Christian concept,” contrasting with the Soviet understanding of religion as the “opiate of the people.” Eisenhower was not describing his own personal theology.
Grandson David Eisenhower’s Going Home to Glory, a new memoir of his grandfather’s retirement years, helps to clarify the record. (For a review, go here.) In religion, as in so much else, Ike was far more sophisticated than commonly realized. When still a young man in the 1970s, as part of research for the book published 35 years later, David Eisenhower interviewed the clergy who knew his grandfather well, including Billy Graham. David’s remembrance is not chiefly about religion, of course. But the book’s title captures its underlying theme of an aging solider and statesman who is preparing to go “home to glory.”
Ike’s mother was the devotee of the River Brethren, an Anabaptist sect, and she trained her sons extensively to memorize Scripture. Much later she joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses. For much of his adult life, though not irreverent, Ike had not belonged to a church, sometimes attending liberal Mainline Protestant congregations that he complained focused more on politics. Upon his 1952 election to the presidency, the former general resolved to become a church member. Joining a pacifist, separatist sect from his childhood was unlikely for the nation’s chief magistrate and commander in chief. Billy Graham steered Eisenhower to National Presbyterian Church, whose pastor had been a World War II military chaplain. Perhaps Graham also surmised that orderly Presbyterianism would appeal to the organizer of D-Day. And Mamie Eisenhower had been Presbyterian.
National Presbyterian Church was then in a stately downtown sanctuary just south of Washington’s Dupont Circle, only a brief drive north of the White House. Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson, among other presidents, had attended the congregation. J. Edgar Hoover was a member. It offered the perfect dignified stage for a President’s attendance. But Eisenhower, who was far more complex than the avuncular golfer often imagined by friends and critics, was interested in more than show. Reputedly the Rev. Edward Elson explained to the new President that all new church members had to be catechized in a membership class. Eisenhower’s schedule would not allow attendance. But he invited Elson to instruct him one-on-one at the White House in the ways of Presbyterianism, which Elson supposedly did. Ike was the first and only sitting president to be baptized while in office.
Eisenhower composed his own prayer that he read at his first inaugural. And he also invited cabinet members to open cabinet meetings with prayer. Urbane sophisticates, then and now, mocked this supposedly pitiable bourgeois exercise in civil religion. But like other American statesmen, Ike probably intuited that Judeo-Christian civil religion was a unifying moral force that was infinitely preferable to most of its likely alternatives.
Ike took his churchgoing seriously and sometimes had Rev. Elson over to the White House to explain his sermons. David Eisenhower recites in his book how one sermon, “The Love of Christ Controlleth All Men,” provoked the President into pondering the impact of his golf course rages. Amusingly, Eisenhower once hosted the Methodist Council of Bishops at the White House but kept the meeting very brief so as not to delay his golf holiday. The bishops could hear the departing helicopter even before they left the grounds.
After retirement, the Eisenhowers became active at Gettysburg’s Presbyterian congregation, whose young pastor, the Rev. James MacAskill, Ike especially appreciated. Young David as a teenager even found the minister “spellbinding.” Having a former president in MacAskill’s flock attracted offers of larger churches with greater salaries. Unwilling to see him leave, Ike intervened to ensure a higher salary for the minister. In turn, MacAskill was impressed with Eisenhower’s own depth of religious faith and his immunity to passing fads.
Reputed to have cited his appointment of Earl Warren as U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice as one of his greatest errors, Eisenhower disapproved of the 1963 court ruling banning Bible readings from public schools. Ike saw religion as a crucial moral force, particularly for civil rights. He had been the first president to sign civil rights legislation since Reconstruction, and he supported the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. As David Eisenhower writes, his grandfather thought the “Warren Court’s bias against the church undermined its promotion of equal rights because sociology was no substitute for moral teaching.” In that ruling’s wake, Ike delivered a sermon at his Gettysburg church.
“I do not see how any Supreme Court in the world can declare teachings in this vein illegal,” Ike preached. “There is no reason for Americans to raise their children in a communist type school that denies the existence of a God.” He noted that the “theory of the equality of man is religious in origin.” And he observed: “To raise our children in a moral atmosphere is to recognize the existence of a Supreme Overlord.”
Five years later, Eisenhower was confined to Walter Reed Medical Center for his life’s remaining months. One of the last visitors he summoned was Billy Graham, whom he asked to recite the plan of salvation Graham had first shared to him 14 years earlier. Graham did so, to which Ike responded, “I’m ready.”
Ike’s deep but non-dogmatically articulated faith, reinforced by his active churchmanship, was reassuring and unifying for America before the social revolutions and culture wars of later decades. No president since has quite been able to repeat the feat. Eisenhower’s religious beliefs and practices may have seemed conventional, but they were deeply felt, and effectively served the nation.