Tevi Troy: The Presidential Bible Course

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If you’re looking for a way to celebrate Presidents Day on Monday, but aren’t planning on buying a used car or a new mattress, you could do worse than spend time reading the Bible.

Our first presidents, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, were all avid readers – of history and philosophy, as well as the Bible.

During her years at Princeton, Madison even studied Hebrew in order to better understand the Good Book. John Quincy Adams wrote letters to his son about the teachings of the Bible, including his philo-Semitic but grim assessment of the Jewish prophets as “messengers, specifically commissioned by God, to warn the people of their duty, to foretell the chastisements awaiting their transgressions.”

Abraham Lincoln was one of the most avid readers of any American president, although he had a limited selection of books as a child. Fortunately, his books included the Bible, which he read and reread. From this he learned a common but elevated language, which enabled him to connect with ordinary Americans, who understood his frequent allusions and biblical references.

Lincoln’s famous overture to the Gettysburg address—”Eighty-seven years ago”—may sound stilted to a modern Twitter user, but it made perfect sense to Bible-savvy Americans who knew Psalm 90:10. The verse describes a man’s lifespan as “thirty years and 10; and if because of strength, they are eighty years”.

President Lincoln reading the Bible to his son in 1865.

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The Bible continued to influence presidents throughout the 20th century, some more deeply than others. Woodrow Wilson didn’t talk public policy on the Sabbath, recited Grace before his meals, and read the Bible every night. When biographer Ray Stannard Baker visited Wilson on his sickbed after a stroke, Baker noticed that Wilson was flanked by mystery novels and an old Bible.

Curiously, even though presidents often kept their Bibles handy, Air Force One did not always have a Bible on board until the 1970s. This was a problem on November 22, 1963, when Lyndon Johnson was sworn into the presidential plane after the tragic assassination of John Kennedy. Without a Bible to hand, the non-Catholic Johnson took the oath on a missal, the liturgical prayer book of the Catholic Church. Gerald Ford assured that it would not happen again. He specifically requested that a Bible be placed in the aircraft cabin whenever he was on board. Having a Bible on board is now an Air Force One tradition.

The Bible has continued to be a close companion to more recent presidents. Jimmy Carter, a devout Southern Baptist, even wrote a study Bible, “NIV [New International Version] Lessons from Life Bible.” Ronald Reagan also admired the Bible, saying at one point, “All the complex and horrific questions we face at home and in the world have their answer in this one book.”

Bill Clinton kept a Bible handy during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. He wasn’t just putting on a show; he knew the Bible well. After Commerce Secretary Ron Brown died, White House speechwriters inserted Brown’s favorite Bible verse into the president’s eulogy. When Mr. Clinton saw it, he said, “Oh, that’s Isaiah 40:31. It looks like the new English translation. I myself prefer the King James version.

George W. Bush was a disciplined reader, reading 95 books in 2006 alone. Additionally, our 43rd President has also engaged in an annual whole Bible reading, as well as a daily devotional.

Barack Obama also read the Bible, but with a personal touch. In his book “The Audacity of Hope”, he writes that “When I read the Bible, I do so with the conviction that it is not a static text but the Living Word and that I must continually be open to new revelations, whether from a lesbian friend or an anti-abortion doctor.”

Mr. Obama’s interest in the new revelations extends to his daily devotion. Joshua DuBois, former executive director of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, emails Mr. Obama a daily devotional thought that often includes wisdom from unbiblical sources, including Johnny Cash and Nina Simone.

Continuing presidential devotion to the Bible has been a constant throughout American history, one that connects us directly to our founding fathers. Even as the basic cultural elements of the founding era have disappeared and television, Twitter and movies have taken their place, the Bible has remained prominent in American life. The book our founders have read and pondered in the past will continue to offer a hopeful path for Americans, a path that will inspire presidents, and the rest of us, for generations to come.

Corrections & Amplifications
The Bible verse describing a man’s lifespan as “thirty years and 10” comes from Psalm 90:10. An earlier version of this editorial misidentified the source.

Mr. Troy is a former White House aide and the author of “What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House.”

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