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Preachers and presidents

By Alan Matheson - posted Monday, 10 March 2008

The way Americans do religion, particularly during presidential campaigns, bemuses and frequently scares the hell out of the rest of the world.

Huckabee is “a second commandment Christian”; McCain is not certain if he’s a Baptist or an Apocalyptic Christian Zionist; and Clinton secretly prays with “The Fellowship”. And would you sign up to a candidate who urges his supporters to “join God’s army” and become “soldiers of Christ”.

Books such as Lindsay’s Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite; Goldberg’s Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism; and, Hedges’ American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America; each reflect dimensions of the debate between faith and politics.


It’s not a debate that can be easily dismissed in Australia. The Economist, for example, concluded “faith will unsettle politics everywhere this century”. On the basis of a US Presidential Middle East apocalyptic vision, for example, Australia went to war. The Christian-led destruction of the Australian state school system now sees a rapidly increasing Christian-based school system. In this replacement system the American import creationism, and its hybrid Intelligent Design (ID), are now being taught in science classes.

An important first step is to understand the nuts and bolts of how religion actually works in US rituals like presidential campaigns. Such campaigns embody what Wallis calls a “presidential theology”, which “casts national aspirations and ambitions in religious metaphors, speaks of transcendent moral values, mixes piety with patriotism, invokes God’s name when speaking of national identity and generally blurs the line between biblical faith and cultural religion”.

It’s the details, however, on how, when and where the Religious Right and its wealthy political backers move, that mystifies outsiders. Two recent publications provide some help.

Gilgoff’s The Jesus Machine is a remarkable analysis of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family (FOF). Before FOF, it was the Moral Majority, followed by the Christian Coalition, which provided the Religious Right’s leadership.

Dobson is a highly regarded, respected, and a “behind the scenes, political fixer”. While FOF is his base, he has created, a range of front organisations including, FOF Action (“the political arm of FOF”), the Family Research Council (“command central for Washington’s Christian Right”), the Alliance Defence Fund, as well as a plethora of state-based councils and organisations, such as the Ohio Restoration Project and its thousand “Patriot Pastors”. His membership with the shadowy Council for National Policy and the more secretive Arlington Group provide the political muscle for The Jesus Machine.

Dobson’s footprints can be found on every piece of legislation dealing with abortion, attacks on gays and lesbians, Supreme Court nominees, as well as state and national political candidates, including those running for president. He also doesn’t like Harry Potter, too many witches, goblins and poltergeists!


If Dobson is the organisation man, then Billy Graham was a one-man machine - “the Elvis of evangelists”,” the inventor of golf course spirituality”, and “the pastor to presidents”, who is constantly seduced with sleepovers in the White House.

Gibbs and Duffy’s book, The Preacher and The Presidents, is a devastating critique of the world’s most successful preacher, a man fascinated by the power of the Oval Office, who is ever ready to be used and manipulated. Wherever presidents have trod, Graham was not far behind.

As Eisenhower declares war on “godless communism”, it’s Graham who assures him that America is “the chosen”, and together they call people to a national day of prayer. When opposition threatens Reagan’s plans to sell AWACS to Saudi Arabia, it is Graham who is called on to settle down the Israeli friendly evangelicals. There was never a war where Graham was not in the Oval Office. He prayed with Truman for confrontation with North Korea. “Nobody”, said a staffer, “could make Johnson feel he was right about Vietnam like Billy Graham could”. It was Graham who was called to the White House for dinner, prayer and a sleepover, the night the first Gulf war was declared.

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About the Author

Alan Matheson is a retired Churches of Christ minister who worked in a migration centre in Melbourne, then the human rights program of the World Council of Churches, before returning to take responsibility for the international program of the ACTU.

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