Malcolm D. Magee. What the World Should Be: Woodrow Wilson and the Crafting of a Faith-Based Foreign Policy. Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2008. 189 pp.

Americans have generally seen President Woodrow Wilson as a tragic figure—an idealist whose fruitless quest to secure U.S. membership in the League of Nations ruined his health and left his country isolated from the remainder of the world for two decades. For many, Wilson was either a dreamer out of touch with the complexities of international affairs or a prophet whose rejected prescriptions for world peace could have prevented the resumption of a second world war only two decades after the end of the first.

There is truth in both views, but people often miss the role Wilson's Reformed Christianity played in his conduct of his country's foreign policy. Malcolm D. Magee, Director of the Institute for the Study of Christianity and Culture in Lansing, Michigan, has written this book to set the record straight. Though some scholars have sought to play it down, Magee argues for the crucial influence of Wilson's faith, not only in God, but also in his own status as a divinely chosen instrument for carrying out God's will. This influence was so strong that it sometimes trumped ordinary political considerations, making it difficult for him to accept the need for compromise.

The Virginia-born Wilson was the son of Rev. Joseph Ruggles Wilson, a minister in the Presbyterian Church. Woodrow was thus raised in a family deeply immersed in the southern Presbyterian ethos and in the orthodoxy of Princeton Seminary. Accordingly, he never embraced the "pietist" polarity of sacred versus secular. For Wilson, true religion was one "pervading every act—which is carried with us into every walk of life and made our one stay and hope." Though some Americans argue that the separation of church and state implies that religion must be kept out of politics, Wilson himself could never have accepted this. Instead, he envisioned religion as holistic and all embracing.

Here Magee briefly draws parallels between Wilson and the great Dutch Christian educator and statesman, Abraham Kuyper, who delivered the Stone Lectures at Princeton while Wilson was teaching there. Magee finds no evidence of communication or influence between the two, though he believes that Wilson must have known these lectures. Yet if the two took similar approaches, this was due to their shared Reformed confession of faith, with all its implications for their respective countries' social and political lives.

Where Wilson and Kuyper most differ, however, is in their eschatology, or understanding of the biblical doctrine of the Last Things, to which Magee alludes only indirectly. Whereas Kuyper was under no illusions concerning the progress of evil in the present age, especially in the political ideologies spawned by the French Revolution, Wilson envisioned a continual progress towards the coming of God's kingdom and saw human beings playing a central role in it. Here, for all his confessional orthodoxy, he was almost certainly closer to the ethos of the Social Gospel movement of that era than to Kuyper.

No compromise

A key implication of Wilson's holistic Christianity is that the spiritual warfare between good and evil, light and darkness, extends to the whole of life. He brought this conviction into his own career, initially as a Princeton professor, later as president of the university, and ultimately as President of the United States. Given the reality of this cosmic struggle, there could be no neutrality or middle ground between the causes of Christ and Satan. One must choose whom to serve.

When Wilson became president in 1913, he established what Magee refers to as a "Presbyterian Camelot," nominating as his first Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, a fellow Presbyterian who had brought "populism" into the American political vocabulary during his own unsuccessful presidential campaigns in the 1890s. Yet as his presidency progressed, Wilson became less evidently a team player and more of a loner, persuaded of his own divinely-appointed role in implementing God's will, as he was given to understand it. This made for a certain rigidity in his dealings, not only with foreign leaders, but with his own administration and, ultimately, the Senate.

This complicated his policies towards the civil conflict in Mexico, where he chose sides by too easily identifying one of the three contesting groups with goodness and righteousness and the others with evil. In the First World War, Wilson managed to see the Kaiser's Germany as evil and Britain as good for three reasons: first, his Presbyterianism had originated in the British Isles; second, as a political scientist, he had long thought highly of British political institutions; and third, the Princeton theologians he admired had expressed concerns over "German theology" and its apparent "infidelity to the truth."

Wilson's tendency to moralize complex matters of public policy, coupled with his own declining health, left him increasingly unable to compromise when it came to shepherding the Covenant of the League of Nations through the ratification process in the Senate. Even small concessions on his part could have rescued his overall agenda, but so persuaded was he of his own messianic mission that he felt that any compromise would spell unfaithfulness on his part.

Despite Wilson's evangelical Reformed convictions, it seems evident from Magee's account that he underestimated the continuing impact of sin even on those whom Christ has redeemed, including himself. If any lesson can be learned from Wilson's presidency, it is perhaps that Christians' efforts at political reform and social improvement, however well intended and articulated, must be tempered with a generous measure of humility.

David T. Koyzis is professor of political science at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, Canada.