While writing “Presidential Courage,” I discovered that one of the biggest hidden influences on the nine Presidents in my book was religious faith – a faith that most of them concealed.
One story I tell is of Harry Truman deciding whether or not to recognize Israel in 1948. He had the power to decide whether the new Jewish state would survive. Truman’s Secretary of State, George Marshall, was threatening to quit. I discovered that Truman’s wife Bess was privately so bigoted that she would not even let Jewish people into her house in Missouri. On the other side, Truman’s old Jewish haberdashery partner, Eddie Jacobson, tearfully begged him to help his people resist another Adolf Hitler.
Truman never wore religion on his sleeve. His grandfather had warned him that if someone prayed too ostentatiously, “you better go home and lock up your smokehouse.” But as a quiet Baptist and Bible-reader, Truman was much affected by his favorite Psalm, Number 137: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”
Another of my stories reveals Ronald Reagan showing the guts to turn his back on some of his oldest hardline supporters to try to end the Cold War. Few people knew how much Reagan was moved by the memory of his cherished mother Nelle, a saintly lay preacher, who had insisted to young Ronnie that Soviet Communism would one day be swept away by religion. Reagan’s daughter Maureen recalled that Nelle “had the gift for making you believe that you could change the world.”
Reagan feared that Armageddon was near. When the President told a Korean visitor that the Messiah’s second coming would be preceded by “armies invading the Holy Land” and a plague in which “the eyes are burned from the head,” aides begged him to keep his views to himself: he was scaring people!
When Reagan survived his near-fatal shooting in 1981, he felt God had spared him so that he could abolish the world’s arsenal of “immoral” nuclear weapons – which he and the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev almost achieved in their 1986 Iceland summit.
Although Nelle died in 1962, Reagan’s mother was always on his mind. This is clear from a heretofore-unknown conversation I discovered between Reagan and Gorbachev in Moscow during their next-to-last summit in 1988. Reagan said that now that he and Mikhail were “friends,” he wanted to tell him something in secret. If it ever leaked, he said, he’d deny he had ever said it.
Reagan told Gorbachev it was his “kind of personal dream” that Gorbachev would let all Soviet citizens attend “the church of their choice.”
Disgruntled, Gorbachev insisted that the Soviets had “evolved” beyond such primitive practices as religion. Taking the offensive, he asked Reagan why Americans did not give full rights to nonbelievers.
Reagan retorted, “They do.” He said his own son Ron was “an atheist, although he calls himself an agnostic.”
Gorbachev tried to change the subject by proposing a joint mission to Mars.
Smiling, Reagan changed it back, saying that Mars was “in the direction of heaven,” but not as close as what he had mentioned. He told Gorbachev he’d always yearned to serve his atheist son “a perfect gourmet dinner, have him enjoy the meal, then ask him if he believed there was a cook.”
Tired of arguing, Gorbachev said, “The only possible answer is yes.”
Of my nine courageous Presidents, the one whose private religion I found the most captivating was Abraham Lincoln’s. Through his 30s, Lincoln was a religious skeptic and had to assure voters that he was not “an open scoffer at Christianity.” The trauma of the Civil War and the deaths of his sons Eddie and Willie pushed him toward reading the Bible as President. He told an old friend, “Take all of this book upon reason that you can, and the balance on faith, and you will live and die a happier and better man.”
Lincoln did not cite God as authority for his policies. Quite the opposite. He felt his moral duty was to discover what God wanted him to do. In a handwritten, undated note found in his desk after his assassination, Lincoln gave us the best clue to his religious faith.
Lincoln scrawled that while “the will of God prevails,” he was struggling to understand His attitude toward the Civil War. The Almight “could have either saved or destroyed the Union” without a civil war: “And, having begun, he could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.”
Lincoln observed that it was “quite possible” that God’s purpose is something different” from either North or South. Thus as Commander-in-Chief he must keep on trying to discover what it was.
Throughout American history we have never had a more eloquent expression of how religious faith can empower and guide a moral and courageous President.
Michael Beschloss is a presidential historian and author of several books, including Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, 1789-1989 (Simon and Schuster).