God In The White House | Notes & Review

Randall Balmer. God In The White House: A History – How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush. HarperOne, 2008. (243 pages)


Fame is a vapor, popularity an accident,
Riches take wing, and only character endures. – Horace Greeley

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof… …no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States. – UNITED STATES CONSTITUTION


This book aspires to answer a relatively simple question: How did we get from John F. Kennedy’s eloquent speech at the Rice Hotel in Houston on September 12, 1960, in which he urged voters effectively to bracket a candidate’s faith out of their considerations when they entered the voting booth, to George W. Bush’s declaration on the eve of the 2000 Iowa precinct caucuses that Jesus was his favorite philosopher? (1)

George W. Bush’s narrow victory in 2000 can be viewed as an attempt by voters to cleanse the Oval Office of Clinton’s personal transgressions, just as Carter’s election i 1976 represented an attempt to purge the nation of Nixon-era corruptions. (3)

…Americans were content to disregard religion as a criterion for voting in 1960, whereas by 2004 they had come to expect candidates fully to disclose their religious views and to expound on their personal relationship to the Almighty. | This book attempts to trace that transition. (3)

I offer instead a narrative that tells the story not only of the politicization of religion in the final decades of the twentieth century, but also the “religionization” of our politics. (4)

My reading of American religious history suggests that religion always functions best from the margins of society, not in the councils of power. (5)

One | Protestant Underworld: John F. Kennedy and the “Religious Issue”

I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all. – John F. Kennedy’s speech on his religion, September 12, 1960 (8)

Although nothing can be said which will impress the prejudiced, there is a sizable group of thoughtful people who are seriously troubled about the prospect of having a President whose religion is what they regard as authoritarian. Their doubts are far more serious than such silly questions as the weight of the Vatican upon our domestic or foreign policies for they deal with such philosophical questions as intellectual freedom. – Archibald Cox of Harvard (18)

There are many valid issues upon which the forthcoming Presidential campaign should be waged, but voting for or against a candidate on the basis of his religious affiliation is not one of them. – the Crusader, a magazine published by the American Baptist Convention (39)

You make a sweeping judgment about the Catholic Church and then jump to the conclusion regarding the fitness of an American to be president of these United States. … The people are not planning to elect a Catholic for the president of the United States. They are planning to elect an American citizen. It matters not what his religion might be. … We should urge the American people to rise above prejudices of every kind and go to the polls in November and vote as Americans for an American to be president of Americans. … If religion is present at the polls in November I hope it will be an inclusive religion that embraces the fact of the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of God, and then leaves every particular denomination and group to choose his own theology, his own ritual, and his own form of church government. – J. H. Jackson, president of the National Baptist Convention in an open letter to Billy Graham (40)

Two | Do Unto Others: Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, and the Improbable Presidency of Gerald R. Ford

Johnson’s stubborn engagement in Vietnam has tended to obfuscate his domestic achievements, notably the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Johnson could hardly be accused of theological sophistication, but he had gleaned from his parents at least the rudiments of a kind of “golden rule” Christianity. (52)

Late at night on July 2, 1964, after Johnson had signed the landmark Civil Rights Act earlier that day, Bill Moyers found the president in an uncharacteristically melancholy mood. “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican party for a long time to come,” he said. (53)

…social problems are moral problems on a large scale. – L.B. Johnson

Gerald Ford, formerly a member of Congress from Michigan, is the only president in American history never to have been elected either president or vice president. (68)

Three | Born Again: Jimmy Carter, Redeemer President, and the Rise of the Religious Right

Carter burst onto the scene at precisely the moment when Americans were searching for a kind of savior, someone to lead them out of the wilderness of shame and corruption to the promised land of redemption and rehabilitation. His promise that he would “never knowingly lie” to the American people, and his declaration that the United States deserved a government “as good as the American people” struck a chord. (79)

The 1976 election was significant in that many of Carter’s supporters were evangelical Christians, a large number of whom had not been politically active until then. (79-80)

Brown v. Board of Education, May 17, 1954

Meeting in St. Louis during the summer of 1971 the “messengers” (delegates) to the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution that stated, “we call upon Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” The Southern Baptist Convention reaffirmed that position in 1974 and again in 1976.

| Shortly after the Roe decision was handed down on January 22, 1973, W.A. Criswell, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, expressed his satisfaction with the ruling. “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person,” one of the most famous fundamentalists of the 20th century declared, “and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.” [Quoted in “What Price Abortion?” Christianity Today, March 2, 1975, 39 [565]. (94)

Green v. Connally changed that. Evangelical leaders, prodded by Weyrich, chose to interpret the IRS ruling against segregationist schools as an assault on the integrity and the sanctity of the evangelical subculture. (98)

The Bob Jones case found its way all the way to the Supreme Court in 1982, when the Reagan administration argued on behalf of Bob Jones University. On May 24, 1983, however, the court ruled against Bob Jones (William Rehnquist, later appointed chief justice, was the loan dissenter). The evangelical defense of Bob Jones University and it’s racially discriminatory policies may not have been motivated primarily by racism. Still, it’s fair to point out the paradox that the very people who styled themselves the “new abolitionists” to emphasize their moral kinship with the 19th century opponents of slavery actually coalesced as a political movement, effectively, to defend racial discrimination. (99)

The Baptist tradition of defending the autonomy of the church from the state and the state from the church, however, was another casualty of the conservative take over of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1979. The conservatives who took charge of the denomination quickly demonstrated that they had little interest in patrolling Roger Williams’s “wall of separation.” They sought instead to compromise, and eventually to obliterate, the provisions of the First Amendment. Adrian Rogers, the pastor elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1979, for instance, was one of the speakers at a massive Religious Right rally in the course of the 1980 presidential campaign where Ronald Reagan articulated his narrow, pointedly unilateral understanding of the First Amendment. “The First Amendment was written not to protect the people and their laws from religious values,” Reagan said, “but to protect those values from government tyranny.” [Quoted in Howell Raines, “Reagan Backs Evangelicals in Their Political Activities,” New York Times, August 23, 1980] (103-104)

Four | Listing Right: Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and the “Evil Empire”

Among evangelicals, the prohibitions against divorce have been close to absolute throughout American history and for most of the 20th century. Anyone who was divorced faced likely expulsion from evangelical congregations, or at least ostracism – unless she (usually) or he was the aggrieved party. Through the 1970s, evangelical magazine such as Christianity Today regularly contained articles warning against the sin and the danger of divorce. By the 1980s, however, those admonitions about divorce dropped almost entirely from view.

| What happened? Ironically, by the late 1970s the rate of divorce among evangelicals was virtually the same as that in the larger population. Churches had to deal more and more frequently with congregants who had been divorced. Evangelical leaders, therefore, many of them newly politicized, started to look for “sins” outside the evangelical community. The denunciation about divorce diminished; evangelical leaders began to emphasize abortion and, later, homosexuality – “sins” that they could safely identify outside evangelicalism, or so they thought.

| The second reason for the sudden de-emphasis of divorce was political. In the run-up to the 1980 presidential campaign, the leaders of the Religious Right decided to anoint as their political savior a divorced and remarried man, Ronald Reagan. (112-113)

Despite the fact that Reagan repeatedly insisted that abortion ranked at or near the top of his moral concerns, despite his earlier support for legalized abortion, and despite his repeated promises to outlaw it as president, the subject of abortion appears nowhere in his 726-page autobiography. [Reagan, American Life, passim.] (114)

The failure of the Reagan administration to prosecute the agenda of the Religious Right as vigorously as its leaders had every right to expect that he would created a keen sense of disappointment on the part of the Religious Right. (121)

This cannot be tolerated. If the idea that economic issues are more important than moral issues take hold, then it says something about what we stand for – Paul Weyrich

Five | Dualistic Discourse: The Clinton Interregnum and Bush Redux

Many of Clinton’s critics, including those in the Religious Right, were none too eager to forgive. Even the pastors who offered council came in for criticism from evangelical leaders. When a prominent Baptist minister castigated Campolo for spending time with Clinton, and Campolo replied that the president, like everyone else, was a sinner in need of grace, the minister retorted, “Clinton does not deserve grace.” (141)

If Bush could, with Jesus’s help, effect his own reclamation from alcohol, perhaps he could rescue the nation from the tawdriness of the Clinton years. Salvation by proxy. (146)

The larger point is that, by 2000, the contours of an individual candidate’s faith and system of belief had become firmly ensconced in the arena of public discourse. | The 2000 presidential campaign also suggests that the particulars of the candidate’s faith or religion matter little, so long as the fidelity appears to be sincere. (147)

Americans, apparently, if the Lieberman case provides any indication, want their candidates to profess some kind of faith – and they seem not terribly concerned about the particularities of that faith. “Our form of government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith,” Dwight Eisenhower reputedly declared in 1952, “and I don’t care what it is.” Some variation of that sentiment applies to the presidential politics the turn of the twenty-first century as well. (147)

By 2004, forty-four years after Kennedy’s speech at the Rice Hotel in Houston, the rhetoric of religion had become part of the argot of campaign discourse. Although Jimmy Carter had introduced the language of personal piety into presidential politics, at least in the modern era, the Republican Party had seized the initiative, beginning with Ronald Reagan and abetted by the Religious Right. (153)

Conclusion | Cheap Grace: Piety and the Presidency

The Kennedy paradigm of indifference toward the candidate’s faith, having held through the 1972 election, dissolved dramatically following the Watergate scandal and Richard Nixon’s resignation. Suddenly in the wake of the Nixon administration’s culture of corruption and Nixon’s manifold prevarications, a candidate’s faith seem to matter. It was a perfect opening for a Washington outsider, a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher who offered himself as a kind of redeemer to a deeply divided nation. Indeed, given his relative obscurity as a one-term governor of Georgia, it’s difficult to imagine Carter’s meteoric rise to the Oval Office under any other circumstances. | Carter’s candidacy re-introduced religion into presidential politics.(156)

The introduction of religious language and faith claims into presidential politics raises an important question: So what? Does a candidate’s faith or even his moral character make any substantive difference in how he governs? (158)

Does probity translate into policy? The record of the past four decades is mixed. (161)

These example suggest that the quest for moral rectitude in presidential candidates may be chimerical. The candidates’ declarations of faith over the past several decades provide a fairly poor indicator of how they govern. (162)

Perhaps it’s time to shift our attention away from the candidates and toward the electorate. What is it we expect from our presidents? Do we look for charisma and political skills, experience in foreign and domestic policy, and administrative competence? Or do we demand that candidates for the White House pass some sort of catechetical test? It’s not an either-or proposition, of course, but the record of the last four decades of the twentieth century suggest that we’ve moved toward the latter and away from the former. (162)

But at what cost? The president of the United States is not a high priest. He or she is commander-in-chief, not pastor-in-chief. Surely it’s legitimate to consider a candidate’s faith (or lack of same) as an insight into his character, but it should be only one of many considerations. To put it in the starkest terms, when I enter an operating room or board an airplane, my primary consideration is whether the surgeon or the pilot is competent; if I learn that that she attend a church or synagogue the previous weekend I might like her better, perhaps, or be more inclined to strike up a conversation. But my principal concern is her ability to perform the task I’ve asked her to do.

| Perhaps it’s inevitable that in the United States, which has no religious establishment, we look to the president as a kind of moral figurehead, the sum total of our projections about the supposedly goodness and honor and moral superiority of America and Americans. We expect the president to be the vicarious embodiment of the myths we have constructed about the United States of America.

| But no one – not John Kennedy or jimmy Carter and, not Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush – can shoulder that burden. It’s too much to ask of any mortal to be the repository of our collective projections, especially when our assessment of America’s standing in the world and our aggregate moral character is so inflated. And yet politicians continually invite us to see them as embodiments of our supposed virtue. They assured us that we Americans are good and moral and decent people, and we need only to elect a good and moral and decent president and all will be well. Foolishly, naïvely, we play along. (163)

And we play along with the cycle of sin and redemption because it offers a kind of cheap grace. We turned to Jimmy Carter in 1976 to purge the nation of Nixon’s sins but also to absolve ourselves of complicity. Simply by casting a vote, we could put the whole sordid matter behind us and not trouble ourselves with nettlesome questions about why we, the electorate, elevated Nixon to the White House in the first place. Here was a man whose entire career was littered with dirty tricks and shady dealings, most of which were well-known to American voters. He was a man who seriously compromised civil liberties and who massively escalated the ruinous war in Vietnam. Yet not only did we elected him president in 1968, we returned him overwhelmingly to the office four years later. These circumstances raise serious questions about the American voters who put Nixon in office and allowed him to remain there. Simply pulling the lever for Carter in 1976, however, allowed us to evade those questions. Cheap grace.

| Bill Clinton’s history of philandering was hardly a secret when he ran for president in 1992, but the salacious revelations of his sexual behavior in the White House made most American squirm. Rather than ask ourselves difficult questions about our collective tolerance for sexual license and promiscuity in American society, transitory relationships, the endless barrage of sexually themed messages on television, or the easy availability of pornography, we simply pulled the lever for George W. Bush, who offered big promises about restoring integrity to the White House. Cheap grace. (164)

And here the danger of prostituting the faith in pursuit of political power comes into bold relief. The same leaders of the Religious Right who claim to be “pro-life,” who have anointed themselves the moral arbiters of society, have refused unequivocally to condemn the use of torture. (166)

Should a candidate’s faith matter to voters? The record of the final four decades of the twenty-first century suggests that professions of religious belief on the campaign trail do not provide a good indicator of how a president comports himself in office. There is, in short, no direct correlation between probity and policy. (167)

But are we asking the right questions? The contours of a candidate’s faith are fair game as insight into her or his character, but we should also ask probing questions about other matters–economics, foreign policy, social issues–and then pay careful attention to the answers. Is there any evidence to believe that a candidate’s profession of faith is anything more than window-dressing or a play for religious voters? Is there reason to believe that a candidate’s moral compass, even with no religious affiliation or a tepid declaration of faith, will guide his or her decision-making? (168)

The problem of religiously inflected political rhetoric, it seems, lies not so much with the politicians as with the populace. We allow politicians to hypnotize us with lullabies about faith and morality, and then we fail to take that rhetoric seriously, much less hold them to the principles they articulate so blithely. (170)

What does that say about us, the voters? I think it suggests that we, too, talk a good game about faith and religion and morality, but the rhetoric fails to match the reality. If we were the overwhelmingly “Christian nation” that many claim we are, how could we possibly countenance some of the policies carried out in our name–most recently, for instance, the prosecution of the war in Iraq and the Bush administration’s persistent, systematic use of torture? | The answer, it seems, is that our collective affirmations of faith are no more sincere than those of our politicians. (170)

The vacuous declarations of faith we hear from our politicians echo our own vacuous declarations of faith. Perhaps our insistence on demanding piety and probity from our politicians is a measure of the deficiency of both we sense in ourselves. (171)

Religion has been bleached out by the bromides of political rhetoric as well as by the comfortable myth that the United States is a “Christian nation.” We have been blinded by the false gospel of America’s moral superiority, which finds little resonance of late in our policies. Many politicians have proven themselves quite adept at feeding us this pabulum. We devour it shamelessly. (171)

If we persist in vetting the faith of our presidential candidates, we must find a way to reinvest both religion and the political process with a profundity befitting the importance of both. That, in turn, entails treating the faith claims of candidates seriously and calling politicians to account when they fail to live up to the principles they purport to affirm. If such accountability became part of the political process, chances are that politicians might think twice before offering grandiose protestations of faith, especially when they know that such claims cannot withstand scrutiny. (172)

The larger burden falls on us, the electorate. If we insist on regarding ourselves as a religious people, if we persist in making claims for our nation’s moral superiority, then we must hold ourselves and our nation accountable to the values we espouse. Otherwise, we should drop all pretense of piety, political or otherwise. If we want to view ourselves as a religious people, however, it’s not sufficient to merely allow politicians to function as the vicarious projections of our faith. We have to engage in the arduous work of living up to our professed ideals, both individually and collectively. | Anything less is cheap grace. (173)


Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy addresses the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, a group of Protestant ministers, on the issue of his religion, Sept. 12, 1960.


On Sept. 12, 1960, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy gave a major speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, a group of Protestant ministers, on the issue of his religion. At the time, many Protestants questioned whether Kennedy’s Roman Catholic faith would allow him to make important national decisions as president independent of the church. Kennedy addressed those concerns before a skeptical audience of Protestant clergy. The following is a transcript of Kennedy’s speech:

Kennedy: Rev. Meza, Rev. Reck, I’m grateful for your generous invitation to speak my views.

While the so-called religious issue is necessarily and properly the chief topic here tonight, I want to emphasize from the outset that we have far more critical issues to face in the 1960 election: the spread of Communist influence, until it now festers 90 miles off the coast of Florida; the humiliating treatment of our president and vice president by those who no longer respect our power; the hungry children I saw in West Virginia; the old people who cannot pay their doctor bills; the families forced to give up their farms; an America with too many slums, with too few schools, and too late to the moon and outer space.

These are the real issues which should decide this campaign. And they are not religious issues — for war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barriers.

But because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected president, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured — perhaps deliberately, in some quarters less responsible than this. So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again not what kind of church I believe in — for that should be important only to me — but what kind of America I believe in.

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.

For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew— or a Quaker or a Unitarian or a Baptist. It was Virginia’s harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom. Today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you — until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.

Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end; where all men and all churches are treated as equal; where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice; where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind; and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.

That is the kind of America in which I believe. And it represents the kind of presidency in which I believe — a great office that must neither be humbled by making it the instrument of any one religious group, nor tarnished by arbitrarily withholding its occupancy from the members of any one religious group. I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation, or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.

I would not look with favor upon a president working to subvert the First Amendment’s guarantees of religious liberty. Nor would our system of checks and balances permit him to do so. And neither do I look with favor upon those who would work to subvert Article VI of the Constitution by requiring a religious test — even by indirection — for it. If they disagree with that safeguard, they should be out openly working to repeal it.

I want a chief executive whose public acts are responsible to all groups and obligated to none; who can attend any ceremony, service or dinner his office may appropriately require of him; and whose fulfillment of his presidential oath is not limited or conditioned by any religious oath, ritual or obligation.

This is the kind of America I believe in, and this is the kind I fought for in the South Pacific, and the kind my brother died for in Europe. No one suggested then that we may have a “divided loyalty,” that we did “not believe in liberty,” or that we belonged to a disloyal group that threatened the “freedoms for which our forefathers died.”

And in fact ,this is the kind of America for which our forefathers died, when they fled here to escape religious test oaths that denied office to members of less favored churches; when they fought for the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom; and when they fought at the shrine I visited today, the Alamo. For side by side with Bowie and Crockett died McCafferty and Bailey and Carey. But no one knows whether they were Catholic or not, for there was no religious test at the Alamo.

I ask you tonight to follow in that tradition, to judge me on the basis of my record of 14 years in Congress, on my declared stands against an ambassador to the Vatican, against unconstitutional aid to parochial schools, and against any boycott of the public schools (which I have attended myself)— instead of judging me on the basis of these pamphlets and publications we all have seen that carefully select quotations out of context from the statements of Catholic church leaders, usually in other countries, frequently in other centuries, and always omitting, of course, the statement of the American Bishops in 1948, which strongly endorsed church-state separation, and which more nearly reflects the views of almost every American Catholic.

I do not consider these other quotations binding upon my public acts. Why should you? But let me say, with respect to other countries, that I am wholly opposed to the state being used by any religious group, Catholic or Protestant, to compel, prohibit, or persecute the free exercise of any other religion. And I hope that you and I condemn with equal fervor those nations which deny their presidency to Protestants, and those which deny it to Catholics. And rather than cite the misdeeds of those who differ, I would cite the record of the Catholic Church in such nations as Ireland and France, and the independence of such statesmen as Adenauer and De Gaulle.

But let me stress again that these are my views. For contrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.

Whatever issue may come before me as president — on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject — I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.

But if the time should ever come — and I do not concede any conflict to be even remotely possible — when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do the same.

But I do not intend to apologize for these views to my critics of either Catholic or Protestant faith, nor do I intend to disavow either my views or my church in order to win this election.

If I should lose on the real issues, I shall return to my seat in the Senate, satisfied that I had tried my best and was fairly judged. But if this election is decided on the basis that 40 million Americans lost their chance of being president on the day they were baptized, then it is the whole nation that will be the loser — in the eyes of Catholics and non-Catholics around the world, in the eyes of history, and in the eyes of our own people.

But if, on the other hand, I should win the election, then I shall devote every effort of mind and spirit to fulfilling the oath of the presidency — practically identical, I might add, to the oath I have taken for 14 years in the Congress. For without reservation, I can “solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States, and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution, so help me God.

Transcript courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

— review —

Dr. Balmer has written, not just profoundly on this issue, but also prophetically. His writings not only educate, providing an historical perspective that is insightful and sobering, they also inspire and exhort. I’m so deeply appreciative of this contribution to our conversation, and I feel moved to continue the hard work–the ground work–of becoming the embodiment of the most sacred and human of our religious principles: love, compassion, justice, mercy, image, creation, care, service, etc. The truth, that “organizational change implies individual change” resonates, even in politics.

Thank you, Dr. Balmer, for your work.

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  1. Pingback: Okay. Let’s Talk About It. | vialogue

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