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President's precedent

Politics | George W. Bush is not the first to be guided by Christian faith; Presbyterian Benjamin Harrison set a high standard

Issue: "Brothers up in arms," Oct. 26, 2002

Government must not fear religious faith, President Bush often says. "We must welcome faith," he said once again earlier this month in Baltimore.

But some members of the press do not welcome it. The Washington Post seemed shocked last year that Attorney General John Ashcroft holds daily Bible studies at the Justice Department. Murmurs continue about the several Bible studies that go on in the White House. (Two weeks ago author Bruce Wilkinson was guest speaker at one.)

Some pundits who don't know history sometimes attack Mr. Bush and Mr. Ashcroft for supposedly breaking precedent and applying their Christian faith to public policy issues. They don't know that most presidents have done that.

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Take one largely forgotten leader, Benjamin Harrison. Elected to the presidency in 1888, Harrison had the audacity to have Bible study and prayer in the White House. He also was an active elder in the First Presbyterian Church of Indianapolis. Like Mr. Bush, Harrison lost the popular vote in 1888 but won the electoral college majority by carrying his home state, Indiana, by 2,000 votes out of 537,000 voters, and winning New York state by just 13,000 votes out of 1.3 million.

The federal government did not give massive federal grants to social-service agencies in the late 19th century, so Harrison never raised the issue that President Bush has advocated-whether the government should fund faith-based groups for social services. Instead, Harrison gave out of his own pocket generously to charities and people in need.

When he came to Indianapolis before the Civil War, he volunteered at the YMCA, which then had a strong Christian emphasis. In a commencement address at his graduation from the University of Miami in Ohio, Harrison faulted the poor laws of England for making charity too impersonal. In his thinking, individuals and churches had the primary responsibility to care for the poor-that's similar to the idea behind the Bush initiative.

Harrison, committed to stopping the spread of slavery, also was an early leader of what became the Republican Party. In his loss of the popular vote to Grover Cleveland in 1888 he may have had a genuine grievance, according to Butler University historian George Geib. With the abandonment of Reconstruction policies, blacks were disenfranchised in the South and Harrison lost thousands of likely votes. (Ex-slaves generally voted Republican.) In his Inaugural address, Harrison warned: "The community that by concert, open or secret, among its citizens denies to a portion of its members their plain rights under the law has severed the only safe bond of social order and prosperity."

As president, Harrison invited staff and family members to pray with him, and no debate about separation of church and state ensued. "He started every day at the White House with prayer, right after breakfast," notes Phyllis Geeslin, executive director of the Benjamin Harrison Home in Indianapolis: "He lived his faith on a daily basis. He sought God's counsel on every decision he made," as he had since his youth. (While training for Civil War military service, Harrison wrote home to his wife, asking for prayer: "I hope you all remember us at home and that many prayers go up to God daily for my Regiment and me. Ask Him for me in prayer, my dear wife, first that He will enable me to bear myself as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.")

Harrison's wife died just before the 1892 election, when he also lost the White House to Cleveland. As a one-term, 19th-century president, Harrison has not received much attention from historians, partly because of a bias among many toward presidents who expanded the federal government's reach.

But historian James Cash wrote this in Unsung Heroes: "In his daily living Harrison probably took his religion more seriously than any other president. Part of his eloquence suggests Ecclesiastes or Habakkuk. His condemnation of the rich and selfish suggest influence by Amos and other Old Testament prophets."

Harrison helped his church select a site and lay the foundation for a building now in the hands of an inner-city Presbyterian Church of America congregation. That church, Redeemer Presbyterian, is developing the kind of faith-based initiatives that President Bush has advocated from the White House bully pulpit.

Redeemer members provide volunteer home repair work for needy families in a nearby neighborhood and are helping a private inner-city school dedicated to racial reconciliation. Harrison would likely be pleased to see the 100-year-old building used for the purposes that he and others in the church had in mind when they selected the site.

Russ Pulliam
Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of God's World Publications' board of directors.

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