Religion in the Oval Office: The Religious Lives of American Presidents
Reviewed by Matthew Hill, History, Liberty University
For too long, the religious dimension of the American presidency has been neglected. Outside the never-ending debate on the religious convictions of the Founding Fathers, four of whom became president, far too little research has been devoted to this subject. The religious dimensions of the Civil War have drawn interest in recent years, and in a post-9/11 atmosphere, religion is getting its due in international relations. Similar studies on the American presidency are catching up, with recent religious biographies of Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush. Adding to this mix, Gary Scott Smith is the author of a previous study of 11 presidents, Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush (Oxford, 2006), which is best seen as the first volume in this series. The 11 presidents Smith discusses in this new volume are John Adams, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, William McKinley, Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barak Obama.
Smith follows a similar format in each chapter. Structurally, there is some variation, but for each president, he provides a general religious biography and discusses their relationship with religious groups, their philosophy of government, and specific events in their administration that illustrate how religion influenced their policies. By nature, this is a dicey subject, as it is can be difficult to establish cause and effect and a linear line from religious convictions to policymaking. Historians also have to discern whether a president—or any public figure—is sincere about their faith or using it as a rhetorical device for political effect. Such discernment is not impossible, and Smith handles it skillfully. One great feature of Smith’s work is that, while there is a connecting theme, each chapter can stand alone as an essay on an individual president.
A brief profile of these presidents will be instructive. John Adams, perhaps the most learned of the earliest presidents, never could reconcile his own rationalistic thinking with Christian orthodoxy. Although cranky and somewhat sour by disposition, he rejected the original sin and supernaturalism of his Puritan heritage and embraced Unitarian theology. However, he never stopped endorsing the public utility of religion.
James Madison’s contribution to religious liberty is notable for two achievements: his Memorial and Remonstrance and the First Amendment. Much like Washington, though, Madison was elusive about his religious convictions, though he was influenced by his boarding school minister Donald Robertson and by John Witherspoon at Princeton.
Smith argues that the political philosophy of John Quincy Adams cannot be understood apart from his religious convictions. An avid churchgoer, Adams read the Bible daily, wrote hymns, and gave religious speeches. However, like his father, he refused to promote national fast days of prayer and thanksgiving because he felt it overstepped his constitutional boundaries.
Andrew Jackson, on the other hand, remains a paradox. A towering figure in his age, he was often crass, bullish, violent, and presided over the infamous Trail of Tears and the expansion of the slavery. However, his theology was more orthodox than many presidents, and Jackson never tired of defending the atoning work of Christ.
Less surprising is William McKinley, who has been long recognized for his religious convictions. McKinley cited humanitarian reasons for intervening in Cuba and more explicitly and controversially saw annexation of the Philippines as a God-given responsibility to bring the Filipinos civilization and political stability.
Very differently, Herbert Hoover was the nation’s first Quaker president, though his church attendance was sporadic. Despite this, Hoover often made good use of the Good Samaritan story to explain his belief that private aid, rather than government aid, worked best to alleviate suffering. However, he explicitly stipulated that relief aid should especially target poor black communities, as illustrated in his assistance of Mississippi flood victims.
Harry Truman had a both Baptist and Presbyterian background. He constantly angered Christians by his poker playing, bourbon drinking, use of foul language, and membership in the Freemasons. Nevertheless, his religious rhetoric was often very inspiring, and it was Truman who first extended U.S. diplomatic recognition to the newly formed state of Israel. Like Hoover, Nixon was raised a Quaker, though he drifted from this tradition as he got older. Many of his actions defied for instance the Quaker doctrine of pacifism, such as his joining the navy and his bombing campaigns in Vietnam. Smith concludes succinctly that Nixon was not “sophisticated, insightful, or inspiring” (292) when he addressed religion, though he never formally renounced his religious heritage.
George H. W. Bush was reared a Low-church Episcopalian. Smith argues that his theology was orthodox, and he generally befriended evangelicals. His “point of Light” campaign targeted volunteer work in low-income neighborhoods and was popular in this circle, though Bush rarely wore his religiosity on his sleeve.
Not surprisingly, Bill Clinton does not fare well with Smith. Though raised a Southern Baptist, his high-profile womanizing as both governor and president call into question his religious sincerity. Though Clinton could speak the language of evangelicals, his personal behavior hardly reflected sincere biblical convictions.
Lastly, Smith quickly dismisses any lingering rumors that Barak Obama is a crypto-Muslim. Although these accusations persist in some circles, Smith sees no reason to take them seriously. What is beyond question is that Obama was raised in liberal theological circles that privilege the practical, social side of the Gospel over the doctrinal. Though his longtime association with Jeremiah Wright raised red flags, Smith at least takes Obama’s religious convictions seriously.
In summary, this work is valuable not only for Smith’s excavation of the religious lives of these 11 presidents, but even more so because Smith asks us to take them seriously. It is a reminder that there is a distinction between the separation of church from state and the separation of religion from politics. The former may be desirable and even necessary, but the latter is impractical and impossible. In the end, the advocates of the latter assume that one’s core inner convictions, if guided by religion, should play no role in the public square. From a philosophical point of view, it is rooted in the false assumption that secularism is by default neutral. Both philosophy and common sense demonstrate that this is false, as secularism comes with its own set of assumptions and pre-suppositions and is hardly a neutral position. Whether the religious convictions that guided these 11 presidents led to wise policymaking is another story, but as Smith shows, it is a story worth exploring.