Skip to main content

Church Meets State in the Oval Office

In 1960, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy asked the nation to disregard his religion; in 2000, George W. Bush stated Jesus was his favorite philosopher. How did faith become such an important criterion for the presidency? Religion professor and evangelical newspaper columnist Randall Balmer explains.

38:29

Other segments from the episode on January 28, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 28, 2008: Interview with Randall Balmer; Review of the musical group, Fleshtones, new recording "Take a good look;" Review of the television show "In treatment."

Transcript

DATE January 28, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Author Randall Balmer discusses new book "God in the
White House"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In the new book "God in the White House," Randall Balmer examines how faith
has shaped the presidency, from John F. Kennedy, who argued that being
Catholic was irrelevant to his qualifications as president, to George W.
Bush, who said that Jesus was his favorite philosopher. Balmer says the
narrative tells the story not only of the politicization of religion, but also
the religionization of politics. Balmer describes himself as an evangelical
Christian whose understanding of the teachings of Jesus points him toward the
left of the political spectrum. He's a professor of religious history at
Barnard College, Columbia University, and a visiting professor at Yale
University Divinity School and Dartmouth College. He's editor-at-large for
Christianity Today. His book "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey Into
the Evangelical Subculture" was adapted into a PBS documentary series.

Randall Balmer, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

Mr. RANDALL BALMER: My pleasure, Terry. Good to be with you again.

GROSS: Now your book starts with JFK, the first Catholic president. During
his campaign, he argued that religion wasn't a legitimate criterion for
choosing a president. Was faith typically discussed by presidential
candidates then?

Mr. BALMER: It wasn't all that common for presidential candidates to really
talk about their faith in kind of personal confessional terms, and I think the
reason for that is simply that most Americans assumed that a candidate would
have some sort of faith and most Americans assumed it would be a kind of
generic Protestant faith. When Eisenhower ran in 1952, for example, it came
out in the course of the campaign that he had never been baptized as a
Christian, and his response was, `Well, as soon as the campaign is over, I'll
get around to it.' Can you imagine a candidate today saying something like
that?

GROSS: So how did Kennedy try to neutralize the religion issue during his
campaign?

Mr. BALMER: Kennedy, as he was gearing up for the 1960 campaign, recognized
that the religious issue--as it was known then--would be an issue in the
campaign, and there were several reasons for that. Of course, you have the
historical precedent of the 1928 presidential campaign when Alfred E. Smith,
the Democratic governor of New York and a Roman Catholic was the Democratic
nominee, and he lost to Herbert Hoover largely because of religious issues in
that campaign. And the other precedent that Kennedy had to deal with was the
publication and the popularity of a book by Paul Blanshard called "American
Freedom and Catholic Power," published in 1949 by Beacon Press in Boston,
which was quite popular. It went through several editions, 11 printings in as
many months; and what was remarkable about that book was not that this was an
anti-Catholic screed, which in many ways it was, arguing that the Roman
Catholic church, Roman Catholicism generally, was antithetical to American
democratic institutions, but the fact that it had been written by someone who
was not a--some wacko from somewhere but someone who had advanced degrees from
places like the University of Michigan and Columbia University. So it was a
respectable--or at least seen as a respectable--issue to bring up in 1949, and
this book was enormously popular.

GROSS: What were some of the other things that were said against him because
he was Catholic? What were some of the arguments being made then about the
dangers of having a Catholic president?

Mr. BALMER: The principle argument was simply that a Roman Catholic, because
he owes his obedience finally to the pope, to the Vatican, would be
influenced, or might be influenced in his policies by the Vatican. And so
Kennedy had to lay that to rest. And he did so finally with this remarkable
speech he gave at the Rice Hotel in Houston on September 12th, 1960, in which
he argued, in effect, that voters should bracket out a candidate's faith when
they went into the voting booth.

GROSS: You reprint some of the anti-Catholic tracts that were published
during Kennedy's campaign. Let me read a couple of excerpts of things that
were published. "That a Roman Catholic president in the White House is the
next step planned by the hierarchy of enthroned cardinals, bishops and
priests. Help us defeat the Roman political machine from making America
Catholic. Don't let any Catholic convince you that his oath to his state or
government comes first. A Catholic is bound to his church from infancy."

How much traction did these things have?

Mr. BALMER: I think it had quite a bit. The anecdotal evidence that I
uncovered at the JFK Library and other places indicated that these tracts,
these broadsides, were circulating fairly widely within the countryside. And
just before the voting in many Protestant churches is so-called Reformation
Sunday, which of course commemorates Martin Luther's nailing of the 95 theses
to the cathedral door at Wittenburg on October 31st, 1517, and this was the
occasion for a kind of last-minute, last-gasp appeal by many Protestant
ministers arguing that their people should not vote for a Roman Catholic for
president.

GROSS: On the other side, there were religious groups that said religion
shouldn't be an issue when it comes to electoral politics, there was a group
called the Fair Campaign Practices Committee, which included rabbis,
Catholics, Protestant leaders. George Romney was one of the members, the
father of Mitt Romney, who went on himself to become governor of Michigan in
'62. They prepared a special statement on religion in the 1960 campaign. Can
you give us a sense of what it said?

Mr. BALMER: It said, in effect, that we should disregard, or at least
discount, a candidate's religious preferences or his religious affiliations as
we consider who we're going to vote for for president. And they were trying
to, in effect, guarantee the rights of minority religious groups that they
would have equal access to elective office, including the presidency.

GROSS: And how effective was their statement?

Mr. BALMER: I think that was part of a growing reaction in the 1960 campaign
to all of this anti-Catholic rhetoric and all of this anti-Kennedy rhetoric.
So I think it was part of a reaction. And, in fact, when the Protestant
ministers gather at the Mayflower Hotel just after Labor Day in 1960 campaign
and issue a press conference or conduct a press conference afterwards, trying
to call attention to the Catholic issue, I think that the reaction was fairly
significant on the part of the public, saying, `How dare you raise these
issues?' And, in fact, one of the reporters asked Norman Vincent Peale, `Well,
did you guys discuss Nixon's Quakerism and how that might affect his conduct
as president?' And Peale responded with an utterly unintentionally funny
remark that turned out, in fact, to be quite prophetic. He said, in effect,
that Nixon never let his faith bother him in any way.

GROSS: Well, tell us more about this group that became known as the Peale
Group that gathered at the Mayflower Hotel.

Mr. BALMER: The Peale Group really has its origins in the previous month in
August of 1960, and even before that. Billy Graham, who of course was Nixon's
friend and longtime confident, had sent a letter to John F. Kennedy--which I
came across in the JFK Library early in August of that year--in which he--it
was a very friendly letter. He said that there had been rumors that he, Billy
Graham, had intended to introduce the so-called religious issues in the fall
campaign and Graham assured Senator Kennedy that he had no intention of doing
so. He allowed that he would probably vote for Richard Nixon, his friend,
during that fall election; but he was not going to raise the religious issues.
About 10 days later, however, Graham convenes a meeting of Protestant
ministers in Montreux, Switzerland, including Norman Vincent Peale, who at
that time was pastor at the Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, for the
purpose of finding ways to deny Kennedy election to the presidency in
November. Coming out of that meeting in Switzerland then there's a group of
Protestant ministers--and Graham was not at that meeting--a group of
Protestant ministers who meet at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, trying to
call attention to Kennedy's faith and how that might affect his conduct as
president.

GROSS: It sounds like Billy Graham was being a little disingenuous. On the
one hand, he's saying to Kennedy, `Well, you know, I have to vote for Nixon
because he's my old friend, but if you get elected I'll help rally everybody
to supporting you.' But at the same time he's helping to organize this like
anti-Kennedy, anti-Catholic group.

Mr. BALMER: I think it's probably fair to say that Billy Graham was being
disingenuous with Kennedy, and I don't want to be too hard on him because he's
an honorable man; and I think in this case, however, there's clear evidence
that Graham, if not reneged, he at least waffled on his pledge to John
Kennedy.

GROSS: And so what did this group do, like what action did they actually
take?

Mr. BALMER: They didn't take much concrete action as nearly as I can tell,
but the press conference that came out of this meeting--and it was 150
ministers gathered at the Mayflower Hotel, so it was a fairly large group--and
the press conference sought to call attention to that. And there was such a
reaction on the part of, first of all, the reporters, but I think Americans
generally to the kind of brazen politicization that this group was engaged in
that I think ultimately it worked to their disadvantage; and Kennedy probably,
in the end, benefited form it. And in fact, the meeting at the Mayflower
Hotel was, as nearly as I can tell, the immediate catalyst for Kennedy
deciding to go before the Houston Ministerial Association and give his famous
address on why a Catholic can be president of the United States.

GROSS: You know, it's funny when Kerry was campaigning for president against
George W. Bush, there were bishops that wanted to deny Kerry communion
because of his pro-choice position. Do you think that those bishops' actions
seem to justify or, you know, play into the concerns about a Catholic
president being pressured to follow the church?

Mr. BALMER: I think they do. And I think what I regretted for--on Kerry's
behalf in 2004--is that Kerry tried to protest against this sort of thing; and
I think the proper counterargument would have been, `Well, if you,'-addressing
the bishops--`If you're going to deny communion to me because of my pro-choice
stand, then it seems to me you also have to deny communion to other
politicians, many of them Republicans, who defy Vatican teachings on, say,
capital punishment or the morality of the invasion of Iraq.' That would have
been a fair and I think fairly effective rebuttal to the threats by the
Catholic bishops.

GROSS: Getting back to Kennedy, do you think that being Catholic actually
affected any of his decisions in the White House?

Mr. BALMER: I don't think it did. I think it--there's fairly clear evidence
that Kennedy made good on his promise to govern as president without trying in
any way to inflect his religious views into his policies as president. So I
think he was very effective and faithful to his pledge.

GROSS: My guest is Randall Balmer. His new book is called "God in the White
House."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: (Station audio difficulties)...President Bush. Now you write that
after Kennedy tried to remove religion as an issue in the campaign, Nixon kind
of brought religion back into the White House. In what way did he bring faith
into presidential politics?

Mr. BALMER: I think that Kennedy's speech was so effective in 1960 that what
I call the "Kennedy Paradigm" of voter indifference towards a candidate's
faith really prevailed--not only in 1960, at least sufficiently so that
Kennedy could be elected in 1960--in '64, '68, again in 1972. And one index I
would cite for that is that when Mitt Romney's father, George Romney, then the
governor of Michigan, ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968,
no one mentioned his faith, his Mormon faith was not an issue. I think that,
ironically, Richard Nixon reintroduces faith to presidential politics in
obviously a negative and kind of a backhanded way. I think it's impossible to
imagine the presidency, or even the candidacy of Jimmy Carter, a one-term
governor of Georgia, had it not been for Richard Nixon. Americans were tired
of the culture of corporation that had surrounded the Nixon administration.
They were tired of Nixon's endless prevarications, and here you have an
outsider to Washington, a Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher coming out of
nowhere, not a Washington insider, promising never knowingly to lie to the
American people, wanting a government as good and decent as the American
people, and the voters ate it up.

GROSS: So you're saying Nixon brought faith back into presidential politics
by being so morally corrupt that people wanted to vote for just somebody who
they felt had a moral sense from their religion. But on the other hand, you
say Nixon instituted worship services in the White House. He brought Billy
Graham to the White House to conduct services. Billy Graham offered a prayer
at Nixon's inauguration in which he thanked God that, `Thou has permitted
Richard Nixon to lead us at this momentous hour of history.' And he instituted
worship services in the White House. Can you talk about the impact of that?

Mr. BALMER: I think it's hard to escape the impression that those measures
that Nixon took, with the White House worship services in particular, were
anything but political theater. And, in fact, Chuck Colson has a memorandum
that I quote in the book where he says that he had been instructed by either
Nixon himself or Haldeman, I forget now who had done this, to invite in effect
wealthier Republican donors as a kind of inducement for them to provide
further support financial and otherwise to Nixon, especially as he approached
re-election in 1972. I think it would be very hard, and I certainly haven't
run across any historian prepared to argue, that Nixon was a deeply pious and
devout man whose piety, whose understanding of the faith really was reflected
in his policies as president.

GROSS: Jimmy Carter was the first self-identified evangelical president.
When you reread or listen back to things that he said when he was campaigning
for the White House, what do you hear that you think you wouldn't have quite
got then? Things that may sound different to us now now that religion has so
permeated presidential politics?

Mr. BALMER: I like to joke at times that when Jimmy Carter declared on the
eve of the South Carolina primary in 1976 that he was a born-again Christian,
he sent every journalist in New York scurrying to his Rolodex trying to figure
out what in the world he meant by that; and in fact, the national press, the
media, were utterly unprepared for a comment like that and didn't know what to
make of it. Now that sort of language, of course, has become commonplace in
American presidential politics. People talk about conversion experiences.
People talk about being born again. But for the time, at least for the
national media, that was something novel.

I think the important dimension of the Carter campaign in 1976 was that he was
able to lure many evangelicals out of their apolitical torpor. Ever since the
Scopes trial of 1925, evangelicals had been politically quiescent, for a
number of reasons. One of them was simply that they felt that the larger
culture was corrupt and not worth paying attention to and certainly politics
was corrupt. Jimmy Carter, using this language of being a born-again
Christian--and I remember this very clearly myself, having grown up as an
evangelical--we paid attention. This was new. This was exciting that one of
our own was actually mounting a credible campaign for the presidency, and
Carter was able to lure enough evangelical voters back into the political
arena--Southerns especially but others as well--that it really made a
difference I think in the 1976 presidential campaign.

GROSS: But then many of those evangelical voters became disillusioned with
Carter?

Mr. BALMER: I think that is the great irony of presidential politics over
the last century, is what happened then. Very quickly, prodded by politically
conservative activists, evangelicals turn against Jimmy Carter. And what I
try to expose in the book and I think I document copiously is that the
religious right did not--did not--coalesce as a political movement in direct
response to the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973. Catholics were already onboard
on the anti-abortion movement well before Roe v. Wade, but it was not an
issue for evangelicals. In fact, the Southern Baptist Convention, which is
hardly a bastion of liberalism, had passed a resolution calling for the
legalization of abortion, and this was a resolution that was reaffirmed in
1974, again in 1976. It was not the abortion issue. What galvanized
evangelicals as a political block, as a political movement, was instead the
actions of the Internal Revenue Service to go after the tax-exempt status of
Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, because of its racially
discriminatory policies, and that Carter was unfairly blamed for this by the
architects of the religious right, and they used that against him and
mobilized to defeat him four years later in 1980.

GROSS: And you're referring to a court decision that said that charitable
organizations couldn't qualify for tax-exempt status if they demonstrated
racial discrimination?

Mr. BALMER: That's right.

GROSS: And Bob Jones University wanted to retain its tax-exempt status, but
at the same time, I guess it didn't allow African-Americans to become students
there or to teach there.

Mr. BALMER: Bob Jones University did not allow African-Americans to be
enrolled at the school until 1991 and did not allow unmarried
African-Americans as students until 1995. The lower court ruling that really
became the catalyst for the rise of the religious right was a ruling called
Green v. Connelly, issued in 1971, by the district court of the District of
Columbia; and it upheld the Internal Revenue Service in its ruling that any
organization that engages in racial segregation or discrimination is not, by
definition, a charitable organization and as such has no claim to tax-exempt
status. And as the IRS began applying that ruling and enforcing it various
places, including Bob Jones University, that is what galvanized evangelical
leaders into a political movement that we know today as the religious right.

GROSS: Randall Balmer will be back in the second half of the show. He's the
author of the new book "God in the White House."

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Randall Balmer, author
of the new book "God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from
John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush." It's about how religion became
politicized and how politics became religionized. When we left off, he was
explaining that it wasn't abortion that galvanized the religious right. It
was a 1971 lower court ruling affirming the IRS's position that any
organization that engages in racial discrimination or segregation is by
definition not a charitable organization and therefore has no claim to
tax-exempt status.

So if abortion wasn't really the issue around which the Christian right
initially organized, how did it become that rallying issue?

Mr. BALMER: According to one of the architects of the religious right, who
told me this directly, after they had organized on the issue of Bob Jones
University and more broadly the issue of government interference in these
schools, as they understood it, there was a conference call among these
various evangelical leaders and the political consultants who were trying to
organize them into a political movement, and several people mentioned several
issues. Finally the voice on the end of one of the lines said, `How about
abortion?' And that's how abortion was cobbled into the agenda of the
religious right, late in the 1970s in preparation for the 1980 presidential
election.

GROSS: After evangelical Christians became disillusioned with President
Carter, they rallied around candidate and then president Ronald Reagan. You
point out that that seems kind of paradoxical considering that Reagan was
divorced, remarried. He wasn't a church-goer. We later learned that his
wife, Nancy, consulted an astrologer when analyzing his schedule. So what do
you make of that?

Mr. BALMER: I think it's an odd pairing, it's an odd marriage, if you don't
mind my using that expression. Ronald Reagan, of course, was a divorced and
remarried man who, by the way, as governor of California in 1967, signed into
law the most liberal abortion bill in the country. So he was an odd choice
for evangelical activists, especially as we look back on their agenda these
days. I remember very clearly growing up as an evangelical in the 1950s,
1960s, and even into the 1970s, that divorce was a very real issue. If
someone within the congregation was divorced, chances are that she or he would
be excluded from the congregation, or certainly ostracized by many members of
the congregation. This was one of the great taboos within evangelicalism.
And what I found, looking through the pages of Christianity Today magazine, as
just one example of this, is that the denunciation of divorce in the 1970s as
compared to the 1980s is dramatic. After 1980, after evangelicals had
embraced Ronald Reagan as their political savior, these denunciations drop
almost entirely from sight after 1980, and I think that's a rather telling sea
change within evangelicalism.

GROSS: When discussing the meaning of the separation of church and state,
President Reagan used an interpretation that is often used by evangelical
leaders, which is, `The First Amendment was written\ not to protect the people
and their laws from religious values, but to protect those values from
government tyranny.' Was he the first president that you're aware of to use
that interpretation of the First Amendment?

Mr. BALMER: I think that's probably would be the first to articulate it in
quite that way. But I think the beauty of the First Amendment as I read
American history is that it has protected both the government and religion
from one another. My reading of American religious history is that anytime
religion gets entangled with the state, with government, is the faith, it's
religion that suffers. I was one of the expert witnesses, for example, in the
Alabama 10 Commandments case, arguing against Judge Roy Moore and his
placement of the 10 Commandments monument in the judicial building in
Montgomery, Alabama. And what I find so striking about that case--well, there
are many things, but one of the anecdotes that came out of that case was that
as the workers were preparing to remove the monument after Judge Thompson
ruled, correctly, in my judgment, that the monument violated the establishment
cause of the First Amendment, one of the protestors screamed, `Get your hands
off my God!' And if I'm not mistaken, one of those commandments etched into
the side of that monument says something about a graven image. And that's, I
think, the real danger when you conflate church and state, the integrity of
the faith is compromised. It's compromised, for example, when you're trying
to introduce proscribed public prayers into public schools. It becomes
ritualized and fetishized and trivialized; and I think that's the real danger
in these attempts to blur this line of separation between church and state.e

GROSS: Christian conservatives rallied around Ronald Reagan, but how often
did he publicly discuss his faith?

Mr. BALMER: Reagan didn't discuss his faith very much. And in fact, as he
pointed out, he wasn't a terribly faithful churchgoer, in fact he wasn't at
all. And what I found really striking about the Reagan presidency, as I began
to do research on this, is that Reagan ran for office twice, in 1980 and again
in 1984, arguing that abortion and the making--and the outlawing of abortion
was the defining moral issue of our times, and yet even his most fervent
supporters now acknowledge that he made very little effort, other than making
a speech once or twice in a kind of symbolic way, he exerted very little
political effort to outlaw abortion. And, in fact, in his autobiography, more
than 700 pages, I didn't find the issue once; and I think that's a very
telling comment about Reagan and his real commitment to the issue of abortion.
I shouldn't say that quite so strongly. I don't know about his real
commitment on the issue of abortion, but I think it raises questions at least
why he didn't even address the issue once in his autobiography.

GROSS: My guest is Randall Balmer. His new book is called "God in the White
House."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Randall Balmer and he's the author of the new book "God in
the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to
George W. Bush."

Well, let's move on to our current president, George W. Bush. How do you
think he changed the language of personal faith as a presidential candidate
and as a president?'

Mr. BALMER: I think that Bush's comment on the eve of the Iowa precinct
caucuses in response to a question that Jesus was his favorite philosopher
utterly astonished most people, certainly Europeans and the British were just
utterly flummoxed by a comment like that. But when a candidate delivers an
answer like that, "Jesus is my favorite philosopher," it seems to me that it's
fair and appropriate and even mandated that we follow up on an answer like
that. `Gee, Governor Bush, your favorite philosopher says that we should turn
the other cheek, that his followers should love that enemies. How is that
going to affect your foreign policy in the event of, say, a foreign attack on
the United States. Or, `Governor Bush, your favorite philosopher expressed
concern for the tiniest sparrow. Will that sentiment find any resonance in
your environmental policies.' I think those are fair questions and Bush opened
himself up to questions like that, to a kind of cross-examination.
Unfortunately, no one in the media and none of the voters really followed up
on this rather strange declaration on his part.

GROSS: How do you perceive the evangelical leaders using their political
power now compared to when Bush or Reagan was running for office?

Mr. BALMER: I think we're seeing a sea change in evangelical attitudes about
voting and political behavior generally. The old-line leaders of the
religious right, people like Chuck Colson and James Dobson, continue to insist
that the only salient, moral issues of our time are abortion and same-sex
unions; and I think grassroots evangelicals, particularly younger
evangelicals, simply don't see it that way. The issue of climate change and
global warning is for them a very, very real issue; and I think it's fair to
point out, if you're going to push for the teaching of intelligent designs in
the public school, then it seems to me you'd want to take some interest in the
handiwork of the intelligent designer, and I think a younger generation of
evangelicals understands that. They get it and the older generation simply
does not.

Other issues, I think--the war in Iraq, this government's use of torture--I
think that there is a kind of a awakening going on among grassroots
evangelicals. They're no longer marching in lockstep to the wishes of people
like James Dobson and Pat Robertson and so forth. So I think things are
changing in very, very interesting ways in the 2008 presidential race.

GROSS: Do you--do you hear a change in how Democratic presidential candidates
are speaking about religion?

Mr. BALMER: Absolutely. I think the lesson for Democrats from the 2004
presidential election was that they had to learn to speak the language of
faith. I think there's a peril for Democrats in doing that, if it comes off
as being contrived or disingenuous. But so far what I've heard from the
Democratic candidates seems to be quite sincere and from the heart; and as
long as they do that, they will be able to at least whittle away at some of
this notion that Democrats are somehow rabid secularists and anti-God or
whatever sort of rhetoric is circulating out there.

GROSS: Mike Huckabee is the only candidate now who identifies as a born-again
Christian. What do you hear when you hear him speak about his faith? How
does that compare to what you've heard before from candidates?

Mr. BALMER: I think in that sense Mike Huckabee is very much in the
tradition of Jimmy Carter talking about being a born-again evangelical
Christian. What worries me about Huckabee is all these language now about
revising the Constitution so that it reflects the fact that we are a Christian
nation. This sort of argument, this sort of path I think is very, very
dangerous. Religion has flourished in this country, faith has flourished in
this nation precisely because the government has stayed out of the religion
business. And once you begin to conflate church and state, once you begin to
blur this line of separation between the two, both institutions are
compromised; but I'm particularly worried about the compromise of the faith.
Faith becomes a fetish. Faith becomes trivialized when it is associated with
the state.

My reading of American religious history is that religion has always
functioned best from the margins of society and not in the councils of power,
because once you begin pandering after political power, you lose your
prophetic voice, you lose your prophetic edge. The great genius of 19th
century evangelical activism was that it was working from the margins of
society and working on behalf of those who were marginalized, and I simple
don't see that range of concerns reflected in the actions and the agenda of
the religious right at the turn of the 21st century.

GROSS: Has there ever been a presidential candidate who actually got a
foothold who was secular and said, `You know, I don't believe in God. I don't
practice a religion.'

Mr. BALMER: Some people have argued that James Monroe may have been perhaps
the only real secular president in American history, but people have also made
claims to that effect with Abraham Lincoln, who was not orthodox in any sense
that we would recognize today as being religious. And, in fact, if Lincoln
were running for president today, chances are he would be dismissed, at least
by a large section of the voters, as being insufficiently religious,
insufficiently pious. So it hasn't happened very much. It certainly hasn't
happened much lately where you have a truly secular candidate for president
who is successful.

GROSS: Randall Balmer, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. BALMER: My pleasure, Terry.

GROSS: Randall Balmer is the author of "God in the White House."

(Announcements)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Rock critic Ken Tucker on The Fleshtones' new
recording "Take A Good Look"
TERRY GROSS, host:

There's a new book about the band The Fleshtones and the band has a new CD
called "Take a Good Look." The Fleshtones started out three decades ago in
Queens, New York, a bunch of amateur musicians united by a love of '60s garage
rock. Most bands that came of age during the punk rock '70s either broke up
or faded away, but The Fleshtones persisted. Rock critic Ken Tucker says
their new CD is one of their best ever.

(Soundbite of music)

THE FLESHTONES: (Singing)
Well, come on
Yeah, would I be wrong
Well, come on
Girl, coming on too strong
Well, come on
Where the...(unintelligible)...
Everyone can see that you're coming on to me
I'm going to tell your girlfriend
Yeah, yeah
and your boyfriends too
Come on, girl
That they haven't a clue
Yeah, yeah
(Unintelligible)...
Well, come on

(End of soundbite)

Mr. KEN TUCKER: If you can resist that sound, you're a stronger soul than I,
and I don't want to know you. The Fleshtones' combination of strangled
vocals, hand claps, slamming drums, and stabbing organ makes a lot of their
music sound like freshly unearthed singles from the '60s and '70s, orgies
between The Beau Brummels and Paul Revere & the Raiders, and the sentiments
that the band shouts, as well as the harmonica puffed into this next song,
evoke a Summer of Love vibe.

(Soundbite of music)

THE FLESHTONES: (Singing)
People, listen
Gather around and hear what I say
If you think you get excited
Well get yourself a lot of
Come on...(unintelligible)...
'Cuz it's the greater wealth
than your mental health
Yeah, you better love yourself
because if you don't
than no one else will

(End of soundbite)

Mr. TUCKER: The Fleshtones love themselves, but in an ego-free manner.
They're committed to making what they only half-jokingly call "super rock."
It's the spirit of nonstop party music. Among the band's admirers is REM,
whose Peter Buck produced their 1993 album "Beautiful Light." The Fleshtones'
new album, "Take a good Look," was produced by Ivan Julian, once a linchpin of
the great, much shorter-lived band Richard Hell & and the Voidoid. Julian
carves out space in the cluttered din for the lead vocals of Peter Zaremba.

(Soundbite of music)

THE FLESHTONES: (Singing)
If you don't see me this summer
If you want to know what I'm doing
(Unintelligible)...
I'm having more than one
(Unintelligible)...on a summer afternoon
Here each one tastes as good as the last
They set me up and I don't have to ask
I love the boardwalk by the side of the sea
But most of all sentimental movies
So if you don't see me this summer
If you want to know what I'm doing
(Unintelligible)...
I'm having more than one
(Unintelligible)...on a summer afternoon

(End of soundbite)

Mr. TUCKER: There's a new book called "Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones,
America's Garage Band," in which author Joe Bonomo chronicles the joys and
agony of committing yourself to a lifetime of making rock 'n' roll without the
status of rock stardom. The Fleshtones come across as wild and dedicated,
disciplined and open to any improvisation life throws at them. Of course,
they have their regrets. To judge by this song, they wish they'd done the
supposedly anti-rock 'n' roll thing and stayed in school.

(Soundbite of music)

THE FLESHTONES: (Singing)
I'm going back to school
I gotta get me an education
I gotta...(unintelligible)...
And then I write a little poetry
I'm going back
I'm going back
I'm going back to school
I gotta learn something new
I gotta re-examine my life
And then I'm going to know what to do
I'm going back
Going back, going back to school...

(End of soundbite)

Mr. TUCKER: What academia lost in having various Fleshtones in tenured
positions around the country, the music world continues to benefit from. As a
result, The Fleshtones will come to your town for a night, throw up a wall of
amplifiers, shake the ground with their vast catalog of woulda, shoulda,
coulda been hits and then hit the road. Take a good listen to "Take a Good
Look" and you'll hear the price and pleasure of opting for permanent
immaturity.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor at large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
"Take a Good Look" by The Fleshtones.

Before we get to our review of the new HBO series "In Treatment," I want to
let you know that tomorrow our guests will be Mick Jones, the former lead
guitarist of The Clash, and Tony James, formerly of Generation X. Their band
Carbon Silicon has a new CD. Here's the opening track.

(Soundbite of music)

CARBON SILICON: (Singing)
If people started caring about who they meet
And people started smiling at everyone they meet
And people started looking for good instead of bad
Realize what they could lose and what they always had
People started growing instead of being crushed
And people start slowing down instead of being rushed
And people started looking with very different eyes
And this information that comes as a surprise
Good morning is the news
and all of it is good
Good evening is the news
and all of it is good
And the weather's good...

(End of soundbite)

(Announcements)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: David Bianculli on new HBO series "In Treatment"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Today HBO embarks on a risky experiment in primetime programming, a new drama
series called "In Treatment" that's about a psychotherapist and his patients.
What's risky isn't so much the subject as how it's being presented. Our TV
critic David Bianculli has this review.

Mr. DAVID BIANCULLI: Therapy sessions on TV are nothing new. They were
pricelessly funny on "The Bob Newhart Show," and endlessly fascinating on "The
Sopranos," endlessly fascinating because "The Sopranos" never ended. And from
the true life confessionals of "Dr. Phil" to the circus antics of Jerry
Springer, people talking about their problems always has proven to be a
popular form of television, however repugnant.

But "In Treatment," premiering tonight on HBO, is something new because of the
way it's presented. Based on a hit series from Israel, which pioneered this
unusual way of scheduling a primetime series, "In Treatment" stars Gabriel
Byrne as Paul, a therapist treating a handful of patients on a rotating basis.
Every Monday, we see Paul with Laura, a patient for a year who suspects she
may be in love with him. On Tuesdays Paul sees Alex, a brand-new patient, a
bomber pilot recently back from Iraq. On Wednesdays it's another new patient,
Sophie, a teen gymnast and Olympic hopeful with two broken arms. On
Thursdays, it's a session of couples therapy with Jake and Amy, who have
plenty of problems. And on Fridays, Paul seeks out guidance from his own
therapist, Gina. That weekly schedule is repeated for nine weeks. That's 45
half-hour shows in all, just about the length of a full season's worth of a
one-hour drama series. Logistically, viewers should know that there are lots
of ways to catch up, from online to on-demand; but the really important thing
to know is that "In Treatment" is worth the effort.

I can see why the concept caught on in Israel, because it's addictive. Each
episode and each week adds more components, more conflicts, more surprises.
I've seen seven weeks out of the nine and I can't wait to see the rest. A
large part of the success of "In Treatment" comes from the actors. Each
episode is like a one-act play, very intimate, very demanding, but you never
see the actors playing for the cameras or reaching for too much. Gabriel
Byrne, who's been a favorite actor of mine ever since "Miller's Crossing," is
in every episode and never falters. And the rest of the actors are up to the
challenge as well. "In Treatment" is exceptionally well cast. My favorites
include: Dianne Wiest as Paul's therapist; Blair Underwood as the Iraqi war
veteran; Josh Charles as the hostile husband in couple's therapy; and Melissa
George from "Alias," as Laura, the patient who reveals that she's been fixated
on Paul. That's the session that starts off the series, and it sets the hook
almost instantly.

(Soundbite of "In Treatment")

Mr. GABRIEL BYRNE: (As Paul) How long have you felt like this?

Ms. MELISSA GEORGE: (As Laura) A year. From the first session. I thought
it would go away. I thought it's just an infatuation. That's all. It's
getting worse. You've become the center of my life.

Mr. BYRNE: (As Paul) Laura, I'm your therapist. The parameters and the
limitations are established and ethically defined. I'm not an option.

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: Just to show you how complicated things get, let's jump to week
five. Alex, the pilot played by Blair Underwood, has met and dated Laura
after meeting her outside Paul's office. Paul's not really comfortable with
that; but as Alex points out, Paul's not comfortable with a lot.

(Soundbite of "In Treatment)

Mr. BLAIR UNDERWOOD: (As Alex) See, that's the real problem with all your
theories, Paul. They completely ignore your side of the whole equation, that
you are also human. Yeah, you have this nice theory that I see you as my
father, and that's why I want to--what'd you say?--defy you. But what about
you? Why do you keep making it seem as if you have no personal stake in this,
as if you're only here for me? It's a deception, Paul.

OK. Let's take Laura, for example. You play such a big role in her life,
it's unbelievable. She knows nothing about you. She's sure you're one of the
most perfect people she's ever met, and she hasn't the faintest idea of who
you are, what your beliefs are, how long you've been married, nothing.
Doesn't that just seem a little insane to you? Who are you? Really?

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: This tiny universe of Paul's continues to widen. Eventually we
meet the mother of the young gymnast, who attends a session. And most
tellingly of all, we spend more and more time with Paul's wife, Kate. She's
played by the remarkable Michelle Forbes from "Homicide: Life on the Street"
and more recently from "Battlestar Galactica." When we get our first glimpses
of Kate, she seems fairly hostile and aloof; before long we discover why.

"In Treatment" is one long exercise in discovery. It explores therapy while
humanizing therapists, and it's a series of character studies as concentrated,
as compelling, as you'll find anywhere on television. I'm so into the show,
I'm not thinking primarily about the caliber of their performances, I'm
worried about what will happen to the characters. That's a sign, I think, of
a really good TV series. Then again, it may be a sign that I need some
professional help, and I know just the therapist I'd like to consult.

GROSS: David Bianculli writes about television for tvworthwatching.com.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

43:25

Black Power Scholar Illustrates How MLK And Malcolm X Influenced Each Other

In his book, The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., Peniel Joseph braids together the lives of the two civil rights leaders. He says that King and Malcolm X had "convergent visions" for Black America — but their strategies for how to reach the goal was informed by their different upbringings.

43:11

Veteran GOP Strategist Takes On Trump — And His Party — In 'It Was All A Lie'

In his new book, It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump, Stuart Stevens argues that the party's support for Trump isn't just a pragmatic choice. Instead, he says, it reflects the party's complete abandonment of principles it long claimed to embrace, such as fiscal restraint, personal responsibility and family values.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue