Commander and Chaplain: The Faith of Presidents
Faith and the Presidency From George Washington to George W. Bush
Smith, Gary Scott
Oxford University Press, USA
July 17, 2009
680 pp., $24.95
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, but both were Unitarians in belief.
John Adams: Congregationalist/Unitarian, Saw God's hand in U.S. history
John Quincy Adams clearly identified with Unitarianism. And the most famous Unitarian was William Howard Taft. He was affiliated with a well-known Unitarian congregation in Washington. In the 1908 campaign, Teddy Roosevelt campaigned for and defended him; he argued that Taft's religious views were essentially mainstream except on the deity of Christ, and that they shouldn't be an issue in the election.
Thomas Jefferson: Episcopalian/Unitarian, A devoted Bible reader
In a country that celebrates the separation of church and state, the House of Representatives recently and overwhelmingly reapproved "In God We Trust" as the U.S. motto. This suggests that religion continues to play a significant role in our public life.
The role is great. We have a more strident group of agnostics and atheists and non-churched people in our country than we've ever had. We can go back to the group that now calls itself Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (originally called Protestants and Other Americans United for the Separation of Church and State), which started in 1947. Over the past 60 years, this group has complained that Americans are not properly recognizing the boundaries of the First Amendment. But the issue has become more important in the past 10 to 15 years. So there is more pressure than ever on politicians to be careful about the way they express their faith. We also have much more media scrutiny than ever.
At the same time, we've continued to have many religious candidates and presidents. The presidency of George W. Bush is well known for this, but we can also go back to Bill Clinton. Arguably, Clinton used more religious rhetoric than George W. Bush did. And we've had a series of recent presidents—George H. W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter—who claimed to have deep faith. Obviously Clinton did some things that made people question his, but they all used a great deal of religious rhetoric, and certainly all of them stepped over the boundaries of what separationists say is permissible.