Category Archives: Books

Louis L’Amour

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Louis L’Amour was, and is still a great favorite of mine. He’s probably not a great favorite of intellectual elite. At least I’ve read almost nothing about him in the NY and Boston Reviews of Books. (I say that wihtout having done a Google search, not the way I usually do things. But for whatever reason the reading public loves his books, having been sold in the hundreds of thousands, millions world wide, (as well as having been Ronald Reagan’s favorite writer).
But in my opinion his stories are more than just Westerns. But they are Westerns, and I take nothing away from the real achievement of this genre, and the real achievement of Louis L’Amour. His stories at best, and there are many ‘at best” stories, they represent a thinking man’s stories of the West and have much to tell us about people as well as how the West was won, tamed and settled. L’Amour himself wanted to be remembered as a writer of good stories. And that he was.

His books also have much to say regarding who we are, from our beginnings (when was that?), with the first crossing of the first Americans from Siberia into Alaska some 10s of thousands of years ago most likely on the Bering Land Bridge, an area long since under water? What color were we to start with? Red, white, yellow, black of various combinations of all four colors, others? In any case we were never and are not now ethnographically one. The word white supremacist certainly doesn’t come from our history. No matter how far back you might go you won’t get there. For we are now and have always been a people of many colors, many cultures. E pluribus unum. That’s us. And that’s the people who people L’Amour’s more than 100 books.

As for Louis himself, there were many sides to him. As a young man he didn’t sit still, as he would later on his life, but worked at many different jobs. Before settling down in his own home and library, to write, surrounded by the tens of thousands of books he owned and had read, he was a school dropout at 15, and only a bit older a hobo on the Southern Pacific Railroad, a cattle skinner in Texas, a merchant seaman in Singapore and the West Indies, an itinerant bare-knuckled prize prize fighter fighting across a large part of small-town America.

It’s interesting to me, at least, that his books sold well without there being therein a lot of sex and violence. Whereas what sells well today contains huge amounts of sex and violence, as if that’s what it takes to sell. But sex is almost totally absent from Louis’s books and when there is violence it’s always controlled, as in a boxing match that might have come from Louis’s own real life experiences. The violence that is in a L’Amour novel is not the rampant, mindless, cruel and ugly stuff of our films and television screens and for that I’m grateful.

But what I wanted to share with you today is the passage below, taken from the book, Education of a Wandering Man, written by Louis himself about his own reading habits, reading being the biggest part of his education. These are the thoughts of a thinking man, and should be up there with the best of all that has been written, thought, and said about education.

As can be guessed from the title, this book is about education, but not education in the accepted sense. No man or woman has a greater appreciation for schools than I, although few have spent less time in them. No matter how much I admire our schools, I know that no university exists that can provide an education; what a university can provide is an outline, to give the learner a direction and guidance. The rest one has to do for oneself. If I were asked what education should give, I would say it should offer breadth of view, ease of understanding, tolerance for others, and a background from which the mind can explore in any direction. Education should provide the tools for a widening and deepening of life, for increased appreciation appreciation of all one sees or experiences. It should equip a person to live life well, to understand what is happening about him, for to live life well one must live with awareness. No one can “get” an education, for of necessity education is a continuing process. If it does nothing else, it should provide students with the tools for learning, acquaint them with methods of study and research, methods of pursuing an idea. We can only hope they come upon an idea they wish to pursue.

my life is fuller because I realize that I don’t know what I’m doing. me too, and I can laugh about it

I’m delighted with the width of the world.
Richard Feynman

The excerpt below is from the book, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard Feynman, from Chapter 9, The Smartest Mann in the World, which was published as a 1979 interview with with Omni Magazine.

Now Richard Feynman may very well have been, during his lifetime, the smartest man in the world, and to understand his achievement in science demands a knowledge of mathematics ad physics that I, for one, am mostly without. But Feynman has a lot to say in this work, and elsewhere, that I can understand and with which I can identify. Here is a short section from the Omni Interview, no mathematics needed.

Omni: But you can trace influences the other way, say, the influence on you of Hans Bethe or John Wheeler . . .?

Feynman: Sure. But I don’t know the effect I’m having. Maybe it’s just my character: I don’t know. I’m not a psychologist or sociologist, I don’t know how to understand people, including myself.

You ask, how can this guy teach, how can he be motivated if he doesn’t know what he’s doing? As a matter of fact, I love to teach.

I like to think of new ways of looking at things as I explain them, to make them clearer–but maybe I’m not making them clearer. Probably what I’m doing is entertaining myself. I’ve learned how to live without knowing. I don’t have to be sure I’m succeeding, and as I said before about science, I think my life is fuller because I realize that I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m delighted with the width of the world!


Another Must Read, not this time about Trump, but about god

From brain pickings

The creator of brain pickings, Maria Popova, is a Bulgarian-born writer, blogger, literary and cultural critic living in Brooklyn, New York. She is known for her speeches and her blog BrainPickings.org, which features her writing on culture, books, philosophy and eclectic subjects on and off the Internet.
Born: 1985 (age 34 years), BulgariaNationality: Bulgarian, Education: University of Pennsylvania, Residence: Brooklyn, New York, NY (wikipedia.org)


Is There a God? Stephen Hawking Gives the Definitive Answer to the Eternal Question

“Every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God,” the trailblazing astronomer and leading Figuring figure Maria Mitchell wrote in the second half of the nineteenth century as she contemplated science, spirituality, and the human hunger for truth. Every great scientist in the century and a half since has been faced with this question, be it by personal restlessness or public demand. Einstein addressed it in answering a little girl’s question about whether scientists pray. Quantum theory originator Max Planck believed that “science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature [because] we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.” His fellow Nobel laureate and quantum theory founding father Niels Bohr defied the sentiment in his incisive distinction between subjective and objective reality, noting that religions have always addressed the former, while science addresses the latter, which is measurable and therefore knowable. Wolfgang Pauli, whose groundbreaking scientific ideas were greatly influenced by Bohr’s, concluded that the effort to reconcile science and religion “will always be full of pitfalls and one can fall down on both sides.”

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It takes a mind of rare courage and insight to address this abiding question without falling into the most pernicious trap of all — that of artificial compatibilism; to take a lucid stance without fright of offense, then to explain the basis of that stance thoughtfully and sensitively, systematically dismantling every reflexive argument against it. 

That is what Stephen Hawking (January 8, 1942–March 14, 2018) does in his final book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions (public library) — a collection of ten enormous questions Hawking was asked regularly throughout his life, by children and elders, by entrepreneurs and political leaders, by men and women young and old attending his prolific lectures and public appearances, with answers drawn from his extensive personal archive of correspondence, notes, drafts, interviews, and essays. The book — which was conceived during Hawking’s lifetime but finished only after his death with help from his family and academic colleagues, and proceeds from which benefit the Stephen Hawking Foundation and the Motor Neurone Disease Association — opens with the question that has bellowed in humanity’s chest since science first confronted superstition: Is there a God?

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Stephen Hawking (Photograph: Gemma Levine)

Hawking — whom many consider the greatest scientist since Einstein and whose residual stardust was interred between Darwin’s and Newton’s in Westminster Abbey — enlists his disarming deadpan humor in placing the query in a personal context, then uses the fulcrum of his magnificent mind to pivot into the serious answer to the universal question:

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For centuries, it was believed that disabled people like me were living under a curse that was inflicted by God. Well, I suppose it’s possible that I’ve upset someone up there, but I prefer to think that everything can be explained another way, by the laws of nature. If you believe in science, like I do, you believe that there are certain laws that are always obeyed. If you like, you can say the laws are the work of God, but that is more a definition of God than a proof of his existence.

With an eye to the discovery, which began in antiquity and culminated with Kepler and Galileo, that “the heavens” are in fact a complex universe governed by discoverable and discernible physical laws, he builds upon his earlier reflections on the meaning of the universe and adds:

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I believe that the discovery of these laws has been humankind’s greatest achievement, for it’s these laws of nature — as we now call them — that will tell us whether we need a god to explain the universe at all. The laws of nature are a description of how things actually work in the past, present and future. In tennis, the ball always goes exactly where they say it will. And there are many other laws at work here too. They govern everything that is going on, from how the energy of the shot is produced in the players’ muscles to the speed at which the grass grows beneath their feet. But what’s really important is that these physical laws, as well as being unchangeable, are universal. They apply not just to the flight of a ball, but to the motion of a planet, and everything else in the universe. Unlike laws made by humans, the laws of nature cannot be broken — that’s why they are so powerful and, when seen from a religious standpoint, controversial too.

[…]

One could define God as the embodiment of the laws of nature. However, this is not what most people would think of as God. They mean a human-like being, with whom one can have a personal relationship. When you look at the vast size of the universe, and how insignificant and accidental human life is in it, that seems most implausible. 

I use the word “God” in an impersonal sense, like Einstein did, for the laws of nature, so knowing the mind of God is knowing the laws of nature. My prediction is that we will know the mind of God by the end of this century.

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Illustration by Garry Parsons from George’s Secret Key to the Universe — Hawking’s children’s book, co-written with his daughter.

But even with the laws of nature conceded, Hawking recognizes that their existence still leaves room for religions to lay claim to the grandest question — how the universe and its laws began. He addresses the question both plainly and profoundly:

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I think the universe was spontaneously created out of nothing, according to the laws of science.

[…]

Despite the complexity and variety of the universe, it turns out that to make one you need just three ingredients. Let’s imagine that we could list them in some kind of cosmic cookbook. So what are the three ingredients we need to cook up a universe? The first is matter — stuff that has mass. Matter is all around us, in the ground beneath our feet and out in space. Dust, rock, ice, liquids. Vast clouds of gas, massive spirals of stars, each containing billions of suns, stretching away for incredible distances. 

The second thing you need is energy. Even if you’ve never thought about it, we all know what energy is. Something we encounter every day. Look up at the Sun and you can feel it on your face: energy produced by a star ninety-three million miles away. Energy permeates the universe, driving the processes that keep it a dynamic, endlessly changing place. 

So we have matter and we have energy. The third thing we need to build a universe is space. Lots of space. You can call the universe many things — awesome, beautiful, violent — but one thing you can’t call it is cramped. Wherever we look we see space, more space and even more space. Stretching in all directions.

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A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo’s and a contemporary of Kepler’s, found in Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time

The instinctual question is where all the matter, energy, and space came from — a question we hadn’t been able to answer with more than mythological cosmogonies until the early twentieth century, when Einstein demonstrated that mass is a form of energy and energy a form of mass in what is now the best known equation in the history of the world: E=mc2. This reduces the ingredients of the “cosmic cookbook” from three to two, distilling the question to where the space and energy originated. Generations of scientists built upon each other’s work to deliver the answer in the Big Bang model, which holds that in a single moment around 13.8 billion years ago, the entire universe, with all its space and energy, ballooned into being out of the nothingness that preceded it. 

Half a century after Nabokov’s poetic admonition against common sense, Hawking echoes Carl Sagan’s observation that common sense can blind us to the realities of the universe and addresses this deeply counterintuitive notion of generating something out of nothing:

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As I was growing up in England after the Second World War, it was a time of austerity. We were told that you never get something for nothing. But now, after a lifetime of work, I think that actually you can get a whole universe for free. 

The great mystery at the heart of the Big Bang is to explain how an entire, fantastically enormous universe of space and energy can materialise out of nothing. The secret lies in one of the strangest facts about our cosmos. The laws of physics demand the existence of something called “negative energy.” 

To help you get your head around this weird but crucial concept, let me draw on a simple analogy. Imagine a man wants to build a hill on a flat piece of land. The hill will represent the universe. To make this hill he digs a hole in the ground and uses that soil to dig his hill. But of course he’s not just making a hill — he’s also making a hole, in effect a negative version of the hill. The stuff that was in the hole has now become the hill, so it all perfectly balances out. This is the principle behind what happened at the beginning of the universe. 

When the Big Bang produced a massive amount of positive energy, it simultaneously produced the same amount of negative energy. In this way, the positive and the negative add up to zero, always. It’s another law of nature. 

So where is all this negative energy today? It’s in the third ingredient in our cosmic cookbook: it’s in space. This may sound odd, but according to the laws of nature concerning gravity and motion — laws that are among the oldest in science — space itself is a vast store of negative energy. Enough to ensure that everything adds up to zero. 

I’ll admit that, unless mathematics is your thing, this is hard to grasp, but it’s true. The endless web of billions upon billions of galaxies, each pulling on each other by the force of gravity, acts like a giant storage device. The universe is like an enormous battery storing negative energy. The positive side of things — the mass and energy we see today — is like the hill. The corresponding hole, or negative side of things, is spread throughout space. 

So what does this mean in our quest to find out if there is a God? It means that if the universe adds up to nothing, then you don’t need a God to create it. The universe is the ultimate free lunch.

This is where the wheels of our common-sense understanding screech to a frustrated halt — after all, in our daily lives, we can’t just manifest a cone of ice cream or a long-lost lover with the snap of our fingers. But on the subatomic stratum undergirding our physical reality, things work differently — particles pop up at random times in random places only to disappear again, governed by the laws of quantum mechanics, which seem downright mystical in their manifestation but are in fact discovered and calculable laws of the universe. Hawking explains:

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Since we know the universe itself was once very small — perhaps smaller than a proton — this means something quite remarkable. It means the universe itself, in all its mind-boggling vastness and complexity, could simply have popped into existence without violating the known laws of nature. From that moment on, vast amounts of energy were released as space itself expanded — a place to store all the negative energy needed to balance the books. But of course the critical question is raised again: did God create the quantum laws that allowed the Big Bang to occur? In a nutshell, do we need a God to set it up so that the Big Bang could bang? I have no desire to offend anyone of faith, but I think science has a more compelling explanation than a divine creator.

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Another painting by Francisco de Holanda from Cosmigraphics.

Once again he illustrates this assault on our basic common-sense intuitions with that supreme lever of understanding, the analogy:

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Imagine a river, flowing down a mountainside. What caused the river? Well, perhaps the rain that fell earlier in the mountains. But then, what caused the rain? A good answer would be the Sun, that shone down on the ocean and lifted water vapour up into the sky and made clouds. Okay, so what caused the Sun to shine? Well, if we look inside we see the process known as fusion, in which hydrogen atoms join to form helium, releasing vast quantities of energy in the process. So far so good. Where does the hydrogen come from? Answer: the Big Bang. But here’s the crucial bit. The laws of nature itself tell us that not only could the universe have popped into existence without any assistance, like a proton, and have required nothing in terms of energy, but also that it is possible that nothing caused the Big Bang. Nothing.

This explanation, Hawking points out, rests on the shoulders of Einstein’s groundbreaking relativity theory — that daring leap of the imaginative intellect, which furnished the staggering revelation that space and time are a single entity comprising the basic fabric of the universe. Hawking writes:

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Something very wonderful happened to time at the instant of the Big Bang. Time itself began.

To understand this mind-boggling idea, consider a black hole floating in space. A typical black hole is a star so massive that it has collapsed in on itself. It’s so massive that not even light can escape its gravity, which is why it’s almost perfectly black. It’s gravitational pull is so powerful, it warps and distorts not only light but also time. To see how, imagine a clock is being sucked into it. As the clock gets closer and closer to the black hole, it begins to get slower and slower. Time itself begins to slow down. Now imagine the clock as it enters the black hole — well, assuming of course that it could withstand the extreme gravitational forces– it would actually stop. It stops not because it is broken, but because inside the black hole time itself doesn’t exist. And that’s exactly what happened at the start of the universe.

[…]

As we travel back in time towards the moment of the Big Bang, the universe gets smaller and smaller and smaller, until it finally comes to a point where the whole universe is a space so small that it is in effect a single infinitesimally small, infinitesimally dense black hole. And just as with modern-day black holes, floating around in space, the laws of nature dictate something quite extraordinary. They tell us that here too time itself must come to a stop. You can’t get to a time before the Big Bang because there was no time before the Big Bang. We have finally found something that doesn’t have a cause, because there was no time for a cause to exist in. For me this means that there is no possibility of a creator, because there is no time for a creator to have existed in.

Hawking concludes with his most direct, personal answer to the universal question:

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It’s my view that the simplest explanation is that there is no God. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realisation: there is probably no heaven and afterlife either. I think belief in an afterlife is just wishful thinking. There is no reliable evidence for it, and it flies in the face of everything we know in science. I think that when we die we return to dust. But there’s a sense in which we live on, in our influence, and in our genes that we pass on to our children. We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe, and for that I am extremely grateful.

Rather than dispiriting, this lucid awareness of our ephemerality can be the wellspring of our noblest, most deeply spiritual and spiritualizing impulses — a catalyst for finding holiness in the richness of life itself, in the splendor of this peculiar and irreplaceable planet, rooted in the awareness that, in the poetic words of naturalist Sy Montgomery, “our world, and the worlds around and within it, is aflame with shades of brilliance we cannot fathom — and is far more vibrant, far more holy, than we could ever imagine.” Hawking channels this orientation of mind and spirit in a stirring passage from the book’s introduction:

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Another One day, I hope we will know the answers to all these questions. But there are other challenges, other big questions on the planet which must be answered, and these will also need a new generation who are interested and engaged, and have an understanding of science. How will we feed an ever-growing population? Provide clean water, generate renewable energy, prevent and cure disease and slow down global climate change? I hope that science and technology will provide the answers to these questions, but it will take people, human beings with knowledge and understanding, to implement these solutions. Let us fight for every woman and every man to have the opportunity to live healthy, secure lives, full of opportunity and love. We are all time travellers, journeying together into the future. But let us work together to make that future a place we want to visit. Be brave, be curious, be determined, overcome the odds. It can be done.

Two kinds of Truth

Donald Trump’s truth (better untruth) is of the second kind. And he probably doesn’t even know the meaning of a noble action. let alone the meaning of Michael Connelly’s words “truth as the unalterable bedrock of one’s life and mission.”

Bosch: “What that kid did was noble. When this all comes out, people will probably say he was stupid and naive and didn’t know what he was doing. But they won’t know the truth. He was being noble. And there isn’t a lot of that out there in the world anymore. People lie, the president lies, corporations lie and cheat.… The world is ugly and not many people are willing to stand up to it anymore. Why I did what I did was that I didn’t want this kid did to go by without… well I guess I didn’t want his killers to get away with it.”

Even serial killer Borders knew there were just two kinds of truth in this world. The truth that was the unalterable bedrock of one’s life and mission. And the other, malleable truth of politicians, charlatans, corrupt lawyers, and their clients, bent and molded to serve whatever purpose was at hand.

From Michael Connelly’s novel, of the same name.

John MacDonald on Finality

Cessation. Ending.

A stopping of her. I heard the night sounds of country and city. Yawk of a night bird nearby. Faraway eerie pulsing of siren. Whispering drone of light traffic on University Drive, lights in moving patterns. Grinding whine of trucks moving fast, a mile or so away. Random night wind clattering palm fronds.

This was the world, bustling its way on through its allotted four billion more years of time, carrying its four billion souls gracelessly onward. A lot of them had stopped tonight, some in blood and terror. I tried to comprehend the enormity—the obscenity—of the fact that Gretel Howard had been one of them, just as dead as the teenagers who impacted a tree at a hundred and ten miles an hour near Tulsa, the flying dentist who didn’t see the power lines, the Muslim children dead by fire in Bangladesh, the three hundred elderly in Florida who would not make it through the night in their nursing-home beds.

I could not fit my mind around the realization of finality.

From: The Green Ripper: A Travis McGee Novel

Timothy Ferris, Dogma and Discovery

One can live by dogma or by discovery.

Dogmas (from the Greek for received opinions that “seem good”) may seek to unify people (as is the implied intent of religious dogma, religio being Latin for “binding together”) but insofar as a dogma must be taken on faith it winds up bifurcating humanity into a faithful us and a suspect other. Scientific discovery might have divided the world, but instead has found that all human beings are kin—to one another and to all other living things—in a universe where stars and starfish alike obey the same physical laws. So as humans move from dogma toward discovery, we increasingly find ourselves inhabiting one world.

[Ferris, Timothy. The Science of Liberty (p. 261). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition.]

Or, one can live as a duck in water:

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Or, as a goose in a field:

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Paintings by Rokhaya, 2018

 

Dwight Eisenhower on the God path

I encountered for the very first time just the other day, Kevin Kruse and his book, One Nation Under God.

I had never read him, much to my chagrin because he had well worked the earth that I was just beginning to turn over, and I could have been much further along in my own planting if I had had him with me. Anyway, I jumped into his work and I haven’t stopped reading him since I began just a few days ago.

He doesn’t use my own expression, God’s path, or better maybe, God’s way, but he is really talking about Krusethat, about how our entire country would, or will have become now with Trump and his Evangelical base, a nation of people following God’s path.

This movement, of course, is more than anything else what has gifted us the presidency of Donald Trump. And here the irony is sharp indeed. We couldn’t have chosen a less god-like person to lead us into becoming an even more God decked out nation. And a God decked out nation was not the nation of the Founding Fathers. And in fact God was never mentioned in the Constitution, our founding document.

And who is principally responsible for this happening? Our nation swathed in God language? And here again the irony is no less sharp. The man who has done most to put the country on a God path is the man who did most to defeat the Axis powers during the Second World War, General Dwight Eisenhower. Going from waging war to waging God. Is General James ‘Mad Dog‘ Mattis another one? Can you wage God? Well Ike did. And Trump is trying but he happily doesn’t have the smarts to do so, as for so much else that he would like to do for the country.

Here is Kevin Kruse’s shortened and edited account of what Ike almost without asking us, the American people, no more than he had asked Charles deGaulle about his plans for invading France in 1944, about what he was intending to impose upon the people, about how he dressed us up in the language of God, from the prayer breakfast to begin the day, to the evening prayer of thanksgiving at the end of the day for all of God’s wondrous gifts.


THE INAUGURATION OF PRESIDENT DWIGHT D. Eisenhower was much more than a political ceremony. It was, in many ways, a religious consecration. Though such a characterization might startle us today, the voters who elected Eisenhower twice by overwhelming margins would not have been surprised.

In his acceptance speech at the 1952 Republican National Convention, Eisenhower promised that the coming campaign would be a “great crusade for freedom.” As he traveled across America that summer, Eisenhower met often with Reverend Billy Graham, his close friend, to receive spiritual guidance and recommendations for passages of Scripture to use in his speeches….

Eisenhower won 55 percent of the popular vote and a staggering 442-to-89 margin in the Electoral College. Reflecting on the returns, Eisenhower saw nothing less than a mandate for a national religious revival. “I think one of the reasons I was elected was to help lead this country spiritually….”

The inaugural ceremonies on January 20, 1953, set the tone for the new administration. Some of Eisenhower’s supporters tried to get Congress to designate it a National Day of Prayer, but even without such an official blessing, the day still had all the markings of one. In the past, incoming presidents had attended religious services… but Eisenhower turned spirituality into spectacle. At a transition meeting with his cabinet nominees, he announced that they and their families were invited to a special religious service at National Presbyterian Church the morning of the inauguration….

Immediately after his oath of office, in his first official words as president, Eisenhower asked the 125,000 Americans in attendance—and the estimated seventy million more watching live on television—to bow their heads so that he might lead them in “a little private prayer of my own” he had composed himself that morning.

“Almighty God,” Eisenhower began, “as we stand here at this moment my future associates in the Executive branch of Government join me in beseeching that Thou will make full and complete our dedication to the service of the people in this throng, and their fellow citizens everywhere.” The inauguration and its immediate aftermath established the tenor for Eisenhower’s entire presidency.

On the first Sunday in February, Eisenhower became the first president ever to be baptized while in office, taking the rite before the congregation of National Presbyterian Church. That same night, Eisenhower broadcast an Oval Office address for the American Legion’s “Back to God” ceremonies, urging the millions watching at home to recognize and rejoice in what the president said were the spiritual foundations of the nation.

Four days later, he was the guest of honor at the first-ever National Prayer Breakfast, which soon became an annual tradition…. The convening pastor led a “prayer of consecration” for Eisenhower, who then offered brief remarks of his own. “The very basis of our government is: ‘We hold that all men are endowed by their Creator’ with certain rights,” the president asserted. “In one sentence, we established that every free government is embedded soundly in a deeply-felt religious faith.”