I have an idea I would like to test. In reading how American presidents of the post-WWII period tried to explain to the nation why America must fight wars, I’ve noticed a difference in how they discuss time. It seems that various presidents have operated under different imperatives imposed by their ideas about time. In short, they saw different ways of understanding how war changes the pace of change. For me, there are two different ways they thought about time: political time and theological time. The former requires action sooner rather than later and emphasizes the imperative of acting in order to move the nation in line with its professed values. The latter, requires patience because moving too fast would cause greater problems and would ultimately undermine the values that make change in the future possible.
So let me use two examples to illustrate this observation. Take Eisenhower’s farewell address as an example of theological. Even though much has been made about his ominous warnings regarding the military industrial complex, Eisenhower ended his address by ruminating about time. He knew that he was ending his time as a major public official, and that in a sense he represented a group of Americans who had been part of the greatest, most terrifying struggles of the century and were now growing older and likely less relevant. Moreover, like Niebuhr and Lincoln, Eisenhower had developed a deep appreciation of the limitations of not merely his office, but of humanity itself. He told the American people: “Together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose.” So, according to Ike, ideas, not great sweeping policy statements and strategic plans, had to guide the United States. But developing those ideas took time and after eight years as President, Eisenhower said, “I confess that I lay down my official responsibilities in this field with a definite sense of disappointment.” No nation, no army, no single person could create the peace that people so desperately wanted. And so he ended his long career in public service imploring Americans “to be strong in our faith that all nations, under God, will reach the goal of peace with justice. May we be ever unswerving in devotion to principle, confident but humble with power, diligent in pursuit of the Nation’s great goals.” And just as he began his time as President with a prayer, he ended his final term asking Americans to pray that “in the goodness of time, all peoples will come to live together in peace guaranteed by the binding force of mutual respect and love.”
Compare the tone of Ike’s address to Jimmy Carter’s famous speech on human rights delivered in May 1977 at the University of Notre Dame. In a memorable section of Carter’s remarks, he declared:
The world is still divided by ideological disputes, dominated by regional conflicts, and threatened by danger that we will not resolve the differences of race and wealth without violence or without drawing into combat the major military powers. We can no longer separate the traditional issues of war and peace from the new global questions of justice, equity, and human rights.
It is a new world, but America should not fear it. It is a new world, and we should help to shape it. It is a new world that calls for a new American foreign policy–a policy based on constant decency in its values and on optimism in our historical vision.
Carter followed this statement by explaining how this bold realignment of American foreign policy was already underway because of actions taken by his administration. The specificity of his list is both impressive and slightly incredible—as if the engineer-president had a to-do list for creating a new world order.
Thus while Ike regretted that he failed to do more to stem the growing tension of the cold war—especially the threat posed by the Soviet-American nuclear stand-off—he seemed to caution against imagining that there was a quicker or easier solution to such huge problems. Carter, on the other hand, seemed to believe that Vietnam had so clearly illustrated the terrible consequences of failing to make American values responsive to global conditions, that he needed to take drastic measures quickly to correct this incongruence.
I have a theory as to why this difference exists: Ike was ambivalent about religion; Carter was devout. The more devout a president’s faith in religion, the more of an imperative there was to launch changes that would fundamentally alter the nation’s course. Furthermore, the born-again Christianity of Carter and George W. Bush played a role in how they saw time and change in a political sense. Those presidents such as Eisenhower, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and (I think) Obama are less inclined to see radical change in the world made manifest by American action. What I am floating is a theory that there has been a “born-again” model of civil religion used by presidents of devout religious faith and a theological model of civil religion used by presidents of less devout and more ambivalent faith. While Carter and Bush obviously saw different roles for the United States in the world, they both seemed to think that the nation could act in ways that would make it and the global politics more moral.