Faith and the Presidency …

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by Barton Swaim,

from The Wall Street Journal,

These days a president’s true beliefs and convictions are obscured by anodyne, ecumenical rhetoric.

In 2011, an ABC-Washington Post poll found that, by a 66% to 29% margin, Americans think “political leaders should not rely on their religious beliefs in making policy decisions.” I sympathize with the 5% who didn’t answer. To speak of a politician “relying” on religious beliefs assumes that those beliefs are external to the one who holds them, a body of doctrines to which he mindlessly defers. Refusing to “rely” on his religious beliefs, conversely, would require the believer to cease being himself; it can’t be done.

If it’s not a matter of simple reliance, then, what is it? The only way to get near the link between belief and political practice is to examine officeholders in the context of their times; that is what Gary Scott Smith does in “Religion in the Oval Office,” a follow-up to his “Faith and the Presidency From George Washington to George W. Bush” (2006).

In each chapter, Mr. Smith discusses the president’s religious upbringing, his mature views on religion, his character, his philosophy of government, and two or three of his policies as manifestations of his religious principles. “Religion in the Oval Office” is meticulously researched, drawing on primary sources as well as previous scholarship. Mr. Smith is a capable (though not always lively) writer, and he has a nice way of upending readers’ assumptions about various presidents’ religious views.

He makes an excellent case, for instance, that John Adams was not the rationalist we often suppose. He was not a trinitarian, certainly, and he rejected the doctrine of the atonement and parts of the Bible. But he believed in miracles, divine providence and an afterlife (“without the supposition of a future state I can make nothing of the Universe, but a Chaos”); he read and respected his Puritan antecedents and faithfully attended Sunday services wherever he was.

Some presidents appear more genuine in their religious adherence than perhaps we are accustomed to thinking.

Mr. Smith is only partly successful, however, in finding the ways in which faith directed or informed policy. Earlier presidencies yield more insights than recent ones.

James Madison was reticent about his faith—he seems to have written and said almost nothing about his religious views after he left Princeton. … Although he frequently issued religious pronouncements—during the War of 1812 he issued four national days of “public humiliation and prayer”—he deliberately used generic language. One critic complained that nothing in one of Madison’s proclamations would offend “a pagan, an infidel, [or] a deist.”

Andrew Jackson rarely articulated a relationship between his religious principles and his policy goals, but Jackson’s faith was both authentic and fervent.

McKinley, on the other hand, openly expressed his evangelical faith and its role in his thinking.

… we ought to esteem rather than scorn a president who, having gathered the available data, can approach a momentous decision with the kind of humility it takes to pray and yet to make a decision boldly and without equivocation.

As the book moves further into the 20th century it illuminates less.

As the White House’s public-relations offices have expanded, and as each holder of the office has been obliged to appeal to more and more constituencies and consequently avoid statements that might reflect private opinions, presidents have slowly withdrawn behind a wall of anodyne, ecumenical rhetoric.

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