During the Suez Crisis in 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s secretary of the interior went looking for his boss one morning and found the most powerful man in the world in an unlikely posture: He was on his knees in prayer.
During the crisis, which involved an Israeli-French-British force invading Egypt and capturing the Suez Canal, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev threatened to rain down nuclear missiles on Europe.
But prayer prevailed, and Eisenhower was instrumental in diffusing the situation.
Eisenhower once said, “I think that prayer is just simply a necessity, because by prayer I believe we mean an effort to get in touch with the Infinite.”
This Independence Day, The Outlook is taking a look back at Eisenhower, a president who put his faith first as he led America.
Craig Osten, co-author of “The Soul of an American President: The Untold Story of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Faith” with Alan Sears and Ryan Cole, said that Eisenhower’s faith greatly influenced his decision-making process.
“In all of his decisions, he involved God right from the very beginning,” Osten said. “He very much believed in the dignity of man. Whenever he made decisions he was very careful about how those decisions were going to impact others around him.”
Before he began his first inaugural address, Eisenhower surprised the crowd by asking everyone to bow their heads as he prayed a short prayer he wrote himself.
“Give us, we pray, the power to discern clearly right from wrong, and allow all our words and actions to be governed thereby, and by the laws of this land,” he prayed. “Especially we pray that our concern shall be for all the people regardless of station, race or calling.”
“He basically gave his administration over to God right there at the inauguration,” Osten added.
Faith as a child
Eisenhower grew up in Kansas attending a River Brethren church, which was an off-shoot of the Mennonite faith.
The family began each meal with a Bible lesson and spent evenings reading the Bible together.
Osten said Eisenhower was steadfast and faithful throughout his life.
“He persevered through so many trials … and personal disappointments,” he said. “A lot of people when they go through disappointments and tragic loss will turn away from their faith. If anything, it made his faith stronger.”
Eisenhower said his most traumatic experience was losing his first son, Doud, who died of scarlet fever at age 3.
Private vs. public
For many years, Eisenhower kept his faith private.
But his time as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War II changed his heart.
“After World War II, when he saw the evil of the concentration camps and the horrible stuff that had been done because God had been removed from Nazi Germany, that really shook him to the core, and he began to be much more outspoken about his faith,” Osten said.
While Eisenhower was campaigning for president in 1952, TIME Magazine published an article titled “Faith of the Candidates” in which he said: “You can’t explain free government in any other terms than religious. The founding fathers had to refer to the Creator in order to make their revolutionary experiment make sense; it was because ‘all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights’ that men could dare to be free.”
Eisenhower wanted to get baptized and join a church, but he felt it would be misleading to do it before the election, Osten said.
“He never wanted his faith to be seen as something he was using for personal promotion,” Osten said.
Eisenhower won the election in a landslide, and 10 days after his inauguration, he was baptized at the National Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C.
Eisenhower opened cabinet meetings with prayer, and he began the annual National Prayer Breakfast.
Evangelist Billy Graham advised Eisenhower throughout his presidency.
Eisenhower was instrumental in having the phrase “under God” inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance, and he signed a law making “In God We Trust” the official motto of the United States.
He once said that America’s problems might be easier to solve, if every American “would dwell more upon the simple virtues: integrity, courage, self-confidence and an unshakeable belief in his Bible.”
Though Eisenhower was a career military man, he often made comments about hating war.
“He knew of the human toll of war … and that’s why he would do everything he could as president to avoid putting troops in harm’s way unless it was absolutely necessary,” Osten said.
Six months after taking office, Eisenhower secured an armistice to end the Korean War, though the Cold War with the Soviet Union continued.
“He came to realize that the Achilles heel of the Soviet Union was its atheism and the lack of hope,” Osten said. He presented the Cold War as “a war of Godliness against atheism.”
Church attendance and growth in the United States were at all-time highs in the 1950s.
Faith motivated Eisenhower to work on civil rights issues, though some historians contend he could have done more.
However, Osten said he believed people’s actions wouldn’t change until their hearts had changed.
“He and Billy Graham were working on changing people’s hearts on civil rights issues,” he said.
Eisenhower proposed the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960 and signed those into law after Congress passed them.
“He did more on civil rights than any president since Abraham Lincoln, and that was all because of his faith,” Osten said.
Throughout his presidency, Eisenhower saw the importance of faith, and he wasn’t afraid to speak up.
In a speech in support of the American Legion’s “Back to God” program he said: “Whatever our individual church, whatever our personal creed, our common faith in God is a common bond among us. In our fundamental faith, we are all one. Together we thank the Power that has made and preserved us a nation. By the millions, we speak prayers, we sing hymns—and no matter what their words may be, their spirit is the same —‘In God is our trust.’”