To have so many candidates in the current campaign say faith is a significant part of their lives and has a major impact on how they think about politics and policies—this is unique." So says Gary Scott Smith, professor of history at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. He should know. He wrote a book that examined the faith of 11 American presidents (Faith and the Presidency from George Washington to George W. Bush, Oxford University Press), and is working on another that looks at the faith of 11 more, including President Obama.
Presidents have often made assertions of faith, Smith says, but to have such a high percentage of candidates do so is unusual in American history. Senior managing editor Mark Galli talked with Smith about what difference, in fact, faith has made in the White House.
What strikes you most about the religious nature of this election?
First, that there is confusion about the nature of Obama's faith. On the one hand, you have 20 percent of the population still saying he's a Muslim. You have a group of socially liberal evangelicals who are very positive toward Obama's faith. You have theologically and politically conservative evangelicals and Catholics who are quite upset with the President because of various policies he holds, particularly on abortion and gay rights. So you have quite a spectrum.
Second, on the Republican side, it's unique to have two Mormon candidates (Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney), which has raised a lot of concern among evangelicals.
But in our history, we've had at least four presidents who were Unitarians—who were heterodox from a traditional Christian perspective. John Adams was a Congregationalist, and Thomas Jefferson was an Episcopalian, ...