Book Review

Book Review: God in the Obama Era: Presidents’ Religion and Ethics from George Washington to Barack Obama by Niels C. Nielsen

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Faith is a powerful ideological force in American politics, and God in the Obama Era gives readers a better understanding of its influence on the way nineteen presidents of the United States performed their duties, as well as how it might influence the current president. Helping readers navigate the tricky waters of the role of religion in politics, Professor Niels C. Nielsen provides as objective an analysis such a topic can get by looking into the influences of faith in the governance of one of the most powerful countries in the world, including examining the role of religion in the personal life of the 20 leaders discussed.

Professor Nielsen is well suited to write this book; after teaching at Yale University’s Department of Religion, he moved to Texas where he now is the founding chairman of its department of religious studies and Professor of Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University (Houston).

It’s all the more important to understand the role religion played in past presidents’ successes and failures as it has always been present, be it obviously set at the forefront of the administration or kept away from the limelight. Examining the past is important to prevent us from making the same mistakes again. This is all the more important that with the wealth of information now available to us, it’s easy to lose our footing and be swept away by fear and media-driven hysteria. God in the Obama Era serves as a great example of how to detach oneself from such hysteria to base one’s opinions on facts.

Professor Nielsen analyses the role of religion in the presidency of 19 past presidents and the current one. Each president is given his own chapter, and thankfully you don’t need to be extremely well-versed in American history to understand, learn from, and enjoy this book, as Professor Nielsen gives readers enough of a historical perspective to appreciate the analysis he does in the influence of religion in each president’s term. I should know – I’m not American!

Rather than to write the text from a theological perspective, Professor Nielsen chose to write from a historical one, thus grounding his book in facts rather than opinions. In Professor Nielsen’s own words, his book is written “for persons who wish to evaluate what an ambitious new leader has done and may do in the larger and longer setting of the history of his office.” Combined with the fact that each president gets his own chapter, God in the Obama Era can therefore be read either chronologically or according the one’s personal whims and preferences.

Each chapter starts with a small commentary on what the current president has in common with the one the chapter is dedicated to. It’s a great way to put today’s happenings in the perspective of historical facts. Although the situation in today’s America is unique and nothing quite like what previous presidents have had to deal with, there are always lessons history teaches us that can serve us well.

In turn, each chapter is itself divided in different sections highlighting certain particularities (with regards to religion) of the president being analysed. While the titles to each section leads are not systematic, it doesn’t mean that the approach to each of these sections isn’t so; each chapter includes personal information, a historical perspective and the consequences of said president’s choices after he left office.

Professor Nielsen’s book is an engaging and easy one to read. At times, it even sounds like an extremely good lecture, the kind given by college professors who never see drooping eyelids or an empty seat in their classroom. It is my hope that this quality will make many young people pick this book up, as it is up to us to understand the social processes at work to help advance human civilization. After all, religion isn’t an easy topic to talk about, despite the important role it plays in everything related to governance, from decisions regarding the current economic crisis, social justice, war, global warming, immigration and social security, including healthcare. How can we fully participate in the governance of our society if we don’t know what the forces influencing it are?

God in the Obama Era is definitely not a book to be read only once; neither is it a book that should only be read. The wealth of information it provides combined with the number of interesting reflections that Professor Nielsen walks the reader through is bound to make of this book a great topic for hours upon hours of discussion, making it a great pick for a book club.

Nielsen’s book is all the more important to read in that religion scares many people. By being more comfortable with its influence on something as observable as the trappings of the presidency, we can start looking into the influences of different religions in the lives of those around us and our own selves, and reflect on the implications of the interactions of these varying frameworks for life. Learning to discuss a subjective topic such as religion in an objective matter is extremely important in a world that is becoming smaller by the day. If we go back in the past with the help of Professor Nielsen and understand the influence religion has had on previous presidents and its consequences, we are going to be better equipped to deal with the influence of religion on governance in today and tomorrow’s world. God in the Obama Era gives readers the perspective to go beyond the media’s rhetoric and independently think for oneself about the influence of religion on governance.

Get out your highlighter and Post-its, you are going to need them!

First published here on Blogcritics.

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