American and European Leftists are now officially appalled by reports that President Bush is a very religious man who asks God for guidance in carrying out presidential duties. The president’s Bible-based faith is seen as the root cause of disagreeable American policies, including support for Israel. Interestingly, former president Carter’s invocation of his own deeply held Christian faith as a reason not to escalate the war with Iraq does not seem to raise similar problems. But there’s nothing new about a president taking the Bible seriously, and two of America’s greatest Democratic presidents show the wonderful results that can follow.
All over the United States, Democrats annually gather for their party’s “Jefferson-Jackson Dinner” — a celebration of the party’s two founders. Thomas Jefferson created the Democratic Republicans in opposition to Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists; Andrew Jackson formed the modern Democratic party, which is now the nation’s oldest.
Andrew Jackson’s fiercest struggle as president was over the Second Bank of the United States. Created in 1816 with a 20-year charter, the bank received all federal government deposits and paid no interest on them. Accordingly, the bank and its president, Nicholas Biddle, had vast amounts of boodle to distribute for political gain. Many politicians, including Daniel Webster (Whig, Mass.), received graft from the bank in exchange for votes.
In 1832, President Jackson denounced the bank as a “hydra of corruption,” vetoed a bill to recharter it, and began to withdraw federal deposits. Biddle retaliated by calling in bank loans in a manner calculated to produce what he called “evidence of suffering.” The country was thrown into financial chaos. In 1834, the Whig majority in the Senate retaliated against Jackson’s bank policy by passing a motion of censure.
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning history The Age of Jackson, the great liberal historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. accurately characterized the bank battle as a great struggle between the interests of labor, farmers, the south, and the west against Northeastern financial interests who wanted a central bank to grant special privileges to a financial elite.
Jackson took his Presbyterian faith very seriously. He read the Bible every night, and applied its principles directly to the Bank War. His 1832 veto message proclaimed that government must not create “artificial distinctions” which “make the rich richer, and the potent more powerful.” Instead, government should concern itself only with “equal protection, and, as Heaven does its rains, shower its favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor.”
As the economic crisis worsened, some Democrats urged Jackson to relent. He replied, “Go to the monster. Go to Nicholas Biddle. I will not bow down to the golden calf.”
One Sunday morning, Jackson felt himself ready to surrender, which he admitted in a letter to a friend. Then he wrote, “I must stop. The church bells are ringing and I must attend.” His iron determination returned.
Finally, in 1834, Biddle gave up, ending the economic warfare. Under the leadership of James K. Polk, then the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Congress passed a bill to wind down the affairs of the bank. The bank’s federal charter expired in 1836, although it survived until 1839 under a Pennsylvania charter. For the rest of the 19th century, the working people of America enjoyed (except for a brief period around the Civil War) a sound national currency and an economy free from the special-interest distortions of a central bank. Polk would defeat bank supporter Henry Clay for the presidency in 1844, as Jackson had in 1832.
The 20th century president most like Andrew Jackson was Harry Truman. Both rose from humble circumstances. Both came from border states (Tennessee for Jackson, Missouri for Truman). Both treated black people fairly in the armed services. Truman, of course, provoked the Dixiecrat rebellion by integrating the U.S. military. At the Battle of New Orleans, Gen. Jackson formed an integrated fighting force that proved the strength of diversity. When objections were raised to Jackson giving weapons to the free blacks of Louisiana, he replied, “place confidence in them, and . . . engage them by every dear and honorable tie to the interest of the country who extends to them equal rights and privileges with white men.” His words became a great embarrassment to antebellum defenders of racial privilege. Truman (like President Bush) pursued a Jacksonian foreign policy: determined to use force when necessary to protect American interests, and convinced of the moral superiority of American freedom to all forms of foreign tyranny.
In the latest issue of Books & Culture, a Christian book review monthly, Gerald McDermott details the role of Truman’s Southern Baptist faith in his Israel policy. While mainline Protestants (with some important exceptions, such as Schlesinger’s friend Reinhold Niebuhr) tended to disparage Zionist hopes for a Jewish state, religious conservatives (a group that included people like Truman who were not necessarily political conservatives) rejoiced in Zionist aspirations as the fulfillment of prophecy and the just restoration of the Jewish homeland which God had promised the Jews by sacred covenant.
Only hours after the declaration of the State of Israel, President Truman overrode the objections of the State Department and the War Department, and made the United States the first nation to grant recognition to Israel. Truman used American clout to convince the U.N. to recognize Israel, too. When ceasefire lines were being drawn after the failed Arab war to exterminate the Jews, Truman insisted that Israel have the Negev, which more than doubled Israel’s territory. Israelis believed that without Truman they would not have survived.
As recounted in the Second Book of Chronicles, in the 6th century B.C. the Jewish kingdom was conquered by the Babylonian Empire, the Temple was destroyed, and the Jews were carried into Babylonian captivity. Half a century later, the Babylonian Empire was overthrown by the Persian Empire of Cyrus the Great. Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to their holy land:
In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah, the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and to put it in writing: “This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: ‘The LORD , the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Anyone of his people among you — may the LORD his God be with him, and let him go up.’”
Paul Charles Merkley’s book, The Politics of Christian Zionism: 1891-1948, describes a meeting in 1949, at the end of Truman’s presidency, between Truman and the chief rabbi of Israel:
The rabbi went on to assert: “God put you in your mother’s womb so you would be the instrument to bring about Israel’s rebirth after two thousand years.” We are told by a witness that, “On hearing these words, Truman rose from his chair and, with great emotion, tears glistening in his eyes, he turned to the Chief Rabbi and asked him if his actions for the sake of the Jewish people were indeed to be interpreted thus and the hand of the Almighty was in the matter.”
A few months later, retired President Truman was honored at the Jewish Theological Seminary. One of Truman’s friends introduced him to the professors as “the man who helped create the State of Israel.”
Truman said, “What do you mean ‘helped to create’? I am Cyrus. I am Cyrus.”
Personal religious conviction is no guarantee of presidential success. America and the world are still recovering from the disastrous second term of Woodrow Wilson. Yet today Andrew Jackson and Harry Truman are rightly revered by Democrats and by many Republicans as fine presidents. Their Bible-based faith helped give them the courage to take the hard path of defying popular opinion and standing firm for justice. While the Jackson and Truman presidencies were not perfect, they were at their best when Jackson and Truman were inspired to follow eternal standards of morality rather than political expediency.
Only a minority of Americans and a very small minority of Europeans believe in Christianity as devoutly as does George W. Bush. Even so, a fair reading of American history should give people of all political and religious faiths — including Democrats who happen to be atheists — reason to hope that the president’s sincere faith will help him make brave and compassionate decisions.