At one of the first planning meetings for Books & Culture, in 1994, someone cited as a model of intellectual engagement the fierce exchanges of letters that are sometimes to be found in the pages of the New York Review of Books. Another participant in the meeting strongly disagreed, suggesting that such exchanges serve largely to draw attention to the inflated egos of the writers.
No doubt that is often the case, but nevertheless we badly need more sustained debate. The notion that there is something fundamentally unedifying about such give-and-take is unsupportable. Of course disagreement can easily degenerate into personal attacks and petty quarrels, but without genuine engagement we have no solid basis for choosing between conflicting claims.
—John Wilson, editor, Books & Culture
George Grant's response to my piece in CT, available on his Web site, is embarrassing for the reader if not for the writer. In it he makes several basic errors, suggesting (for instance) that the now massive skin trade in the Philippines which grew alongside the U.S. military presence in that country has no historical connection to the occupation of the Philippines by the U.S. military in the early twentieth century.
The way that Mr. Grant's political biases dictate how he writes history is also evident in his comments on William Jennings Bryan, purveyor of a "fantastic witch's brew of political socialism, cultural radicalism, and dispensational fundamentalism." It is Mr. Grant's prerogative to dislike Bryan but it is odd that he should so glibly—and inaccurately—attack a historical figure who, everyone agrees, was a committed Christian, even if of a variety unpalatable to Mr. Grant.
Instead, Mr. Grant apparently wants us to believe that Theodore Roosevelt was a devout orthodox Christian. In my Anglo-Catholic church we pray each week for people whose faith is known to God alone, so I am not in a position finally to say whether Roosevelt was a believer or not. As far as the public record goes, however, Roosevelt provided little evidence that he was a committed orthodox Christian.
Roosevelt grew up a Unitarian; he was a hardcore social Darwinist until the last years of his life (thus his lust for the U.S. acquiring unquestioned power in the western hemisphere and a balance of power in Asia); and, as was common at the time, he was given to exploiting the Bible to nationalistic ends. Mr. Grant's own book proves the latter point: as evidence for Roosevelt's supposed devotion to the Good Book, Mr. Grant depicts Roosevelt ransacking the Bible for support of manifest destiny. (I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on late nineteenth-century Canadian nationalists' use of the Bible and I know that this sort of thing was common among English-speaking politicians and imperialists.)
As Grant suggests, there's no doubt that Roosevelt knew the Bible well. But given the historical context in which Roosevelt lived, that doesn't mean very much. The Bible was a common source of allusions and figures of speech. Scratch the rhetoric and what you'll usually find is Scripture being employed to further manifestly political ends. (I invite readers to see my exceedingly dull article, "The Bible and Protestant British North American Identity in the Early 1860s" in the American Review of Canadian Studies [winter 1999].)
Yes, Roosevelt paid the usual presidential respects to Christianity, but I don't recall that he showed much explicit personal devotion to it. Woodrow Wilson, on the other hand, seemed to possess a personal devotion to Christian faith and to the Scriptures but, predictably, that Democrat is panned (albeit briefly) in Mr. Grant's book.
I hasten to say that I happen to be a fan of Teddy Roosevelt's. He is an extraordinary figure. But his actions, like everyone's, had consequences—some good, some bad. I think that charity requires that the whole man be taken into account; and, in any event, hagiography informed by ignorance is pernicious.
Let me also say that I am willing to be corrected in this matter. But I certainly hope to see more than a list of Roosevelt's theologically empty biblical allusions and references to his cordial and thoroughly mundane nods in the direction of the West's Christian heritage.
Preston Jones is contributing editor for Books & Culture.
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Grant's Carry a Big Stick: The Uncommon Heroism of Theodore Roosevelt is available from ChristianBook.com and other book retailers.
Christianity Today recently published an article about Christian recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize and unsung Christian peacemakers. Roosevelt was not listed among those "explicitly influenced by Christian principles."
"I speak as one proud of his Holland, Huguenot, and Covenanting ancestors, and proud that the blood of that stark Puritan divine Jonathan Edwards flows in the veins of his children," Theodore Roosevelt wrote in his autobiography.
Other articles by Preston Jones for Christianity Today and our sister publication Books & Culture include:
The Last Frontier? | "'If you see a moose, make sure you don't get between it and its calf.' This postprandial advice was offered to me by my mother-in-law, who knows something about moose … " (B&C, Jul/Aug 2000)
Aliens, A-Bombs, and Mastodons | Travels in Nevada and Colorado (B&C, Jan/Feb 2000)
California Haze | A review of Paradise Lost: California's Experience, America's Future, An Empire Wilderness: Travels Into America's Future, and Eyewitness To the American West (B&C, Sept/Oct 1999)
Lord of the Pets (B&C, Sept/Oct 1998)
My Farrakhan Obsession (B&C, Mar/Apr. 1998)
A Canadian with an Attitude | A profile of Canadian evangelicals that contrasts them with their counterparts in the American South. (CT, Apr. 7, 1997)
Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
History Bully | Christian scholars speak not-so-softly over a big sticking point: Theodore Roosevelt's faith. (June 4, 2001)
'Taken Up in Glory' | The Ascension has been forgotten in many Protestant churches, jettisoning an essential part of the Christian story. (May 21, 2001)
Who Won? Who Cares? | Skip the latest ballot reviews and read Italo Calvino's brilliant election novella "The Watcher." (May 14, 2001)
Infamy Indeed | John Gregory Dunne suggests imperialistic Americans got what they deserved at Pearl Harbor. (May 7, 2001)
Rantings of a Not-So-Primly Dressed Person With Too Much Time | The Chronicle of Higher Education infuses some not-so-subtle bigotry into its fetal-tissue research coverage. (Apr. 30, 2001)
Big Numbers, Big Problems | Christianity is in the midst of a massive global shift. But how much of a difference is it making in its new homelands? (Apr. 16, 2001)
DiIulio Keeps Explaining, But Is Anyone Listening? | At a media luncheon in Washington about Bush's faith-based initiatives, answered questions get asked one more time. (Apr. 9, 2001)
Public-izing Faith | Recent articles in Touchstone, Commonweal, and The New York Times serve as reminders that faith is not merely "a private thing." (Apr. 2, 2001)
How Can I Keep From Singing? | Arne Bergstrom has looked suffering square in the eye all over the world. Now he sings about hope. (Mar. 26, 2001)
To Poland, for an Evening | Once in a great while, a film like Kieslowski's The Decalogue discovers how to transport an audience. (Mar. 19, 2001)
Examining Peacocke's Plumage | The winner of the 2001 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion rejects everything resembling Christian orthodoxy, but that doesn't stop him from co-opting the language. (Mar. 12, 2001)
Are Scientists Taking Orders from Pat Robertson? | A Salon.com essay accuses the Intelligent Design movement of being primarily an arm of "conservative Republicans" and the "religious right." (Mar. 5, 2001)