In 1956, former President Harry Truman was asked by a priest in Rome what St. Francis had done for him. “Nothing,” Truman jocularly replied, “but give me a sore throat and a stomach ache in his town of San Francisco.”
Truman’s response to the priest is provocative because it is the reverse of what you would expect a president to say. In general and throughout American history, presidents—for the most self-protective reasons—not only avoid comments that might offend a vote of faith as sacrilegious, but also tend to exaggerate the depth of their personal religious conviction and practice. Richard Nixon, for instance, kept Reverend Billy Graham close at hand and started regular, well-publicized prayer services at the White House—even though, as the later record demonstrates, faith does not seem to have loomed large in his approach to presidential leadership.
Truman’s comment to the priest suggests that he was one of the rare past presidents whose seeming public nonchalance about religion concealed a deeper, more complex and more interesting reality: he was more of a Christian than people realized. The ignorance of Truman’s peers about his private beliefs is not astounding because, in my experience, two facets of a president’s private life that are among the most difficult to discern—either at the time or in history—are marriage and religion.
As I have written elsewhere, Truman was brought up to know the Scriptures, some verbatim, and felt that “every problem in the world would be solved if only men would follow the Beatitudes.” (He had a favorite verse among the Psalms, which was, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”) Although his beloved wife Bess was an Episcopalian, he felt strongly enough about being a Baptist that he stayed one, convinced that it provided the common person the shortest route to God.
It is not difficult to conclude from Truman’s diaries and letters that his views about honesty, political ethics, the role of government in helping people and exacting justice, and even some specific issues like recognizing the newly-declared State of Israel in 1948 had their roots in his religious conviction. Nevertheless, he liked to make flippant remarks suggesting otherwise. One reason was to show he was not like those bogus politicians, of whom there were so many in the Bible Belt, who were “fakirs” (a favorite Truman epithet) about religion. He loved to quote his grandfather’s warning that if someone prayed too loud “you better go home and lock up your smokehouse.”
Lyndon Johnson was considered by many of his contemporaries to be the model of a candidate and president whose church attendance was largely compelled by political motivation—for instance, the time he stopped in Phoenix to attend church on the Sunday before the 1964 election, seizing the opportunity to stick a finger in the eye of his opponent, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. During the 1960 campaign, Johnson flaunted his Protestant affiliation (Disciples of Christ) in order to attract voters to the Kennedy-Johnson ticket who were uneasy about JFK’s Catholicism. What seems to have deepened his Christian commitment was the experience of sending young Americans to the front lines in Vietnam and soon learning that his decisions had hastened their early deaths.
Like Abraham Lincoln, who once said that he could not comprehend how a president could survive giving such orders without being driven to his knees, Johnson sought refuge in church—increasingly, the church of his younger daughter, Luci, who had converted at age eighteen to Catholicism. Lady Bird Johnson told me decades later that her husband had found such comfort in the Catholic Church and “Luci’s little monks” that she had once thought it only a matter of time before LBJ became a converted Catholic himself.
Ronald Reagan was often ridiculed by political adversaries as someone who courted evangelical Christians but had so little in common with them that he did not bother to go to Sunday church himself. In fact, Reagan did go to church as a private citizen in Los Angeles, where his pastor recalled himself and the president spending “many hours on our knees,” with Reagan enjoying “the total experience—the sadness, the rejoicing, the singing.”
As Reagan told his diary, he decided to avoid church as president after his almost-assassination two months after taking office made it clear that he had become “a hazard to others,” which would require his attending in a bulletproof vest. His late mother, Nelle, was a warmhearted lay preacher of the Disciples of Christ, who, after she moved from Illinois to Los Angeles and tried to help strangers of all kinds, made Reagan and wife Nancy fear for her physical safety. For world history, probably the most important thing Nelle taught young Ronnie, who was thought to be the Reagan son who most resembled his mother, was that the Soviet government had committed a monumental sin by depriving the Soviet people of religion, and that anyone who could reverse that monstrous act would be part of the “Divine Plan.” During the first year of his Presidency, Reagan wrote to a friend that “religion might very well turn out to be the Soviets’ Achilles heel.” Throughout his negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev, one can find, in Reagan’s diaries, letters and memoranda, comments suggesting that his optimism about ending the Cold War was fueled by religious conviction.
Reagan even told aides about Gorbachev, the avowed atheist: “I’m sure this man believes in God. If I could only get him alone, I’m sure I could talk to him about these things!” Not for the first time, Reagan’s advisers jovially shook their heads, impressed by their boss’s imaginative talent for seeing what he wanted to see in people. But in fact, he was not entirely wrong to see at least a flicker of religious curiosity in Gorbachev that was carefully concealed by the Communist Party’s demand that their leaders deny the existence of God.
Gorbachev provided a more genuine insight into his private belief in 2008, during a visit to Italy, when he knelt at the tomb of St. Francis of Assisi. Asked later about it, Gorbachev was quoted as saying, “St. Francis is, for me, the alter Christus, another Christ. His story fascinates me and has played a fundamental role in my life.” Gorbachev’s laurel for St. Francis illuminates the ever-abiding tension between what politicians say in public and believe in private about religion. His words could have gotten him fired, were he still president of a vigorous Soviet Union, but in 1956 America, they would have been a political winner for Harry Truman.