'So Help Me God': Faith and the Presidency
- Wednesday, September 22, 2004
George W. Bush’s deep personal faith significantly impacts his performance as president and has evoked much commendation and criticism. All this attention on religion leads many to conclude incorrectly that Bush is unique or at least very unusual among American presidents.
Speaking to the Democratic National Convention in July, Ronald Reagan’s son Ron condemned politicians who wear their faith on their sleeves, a rather transparent reference to President Bush. The recent PBS documentary “The Jesus Factor,” op-eds in leading newspapers, books like Stephen Mansfield’s The Faith of George W. Bush, David Aikman’s A Man of Faith: The Spiritual Journey of George W. Bush, Paul Kengor’s God and George W. Bush, and articles in numerous religious periodicals have described, celebrated, or denounced the relationship between his faith and such political policies as the faith-based and community initiatives, partial birth abortion, homosexual marriage, stem cell research, AIDS in Africa, and the war in Iraq.
As the 2004 election heats up, the news is filled with analysis of Bush’s evangelical faith and John Kerry’s Catholicism and the role of various religious groups in the campaign.
All this attention on religion leads many to conclude incorrectly that Bush is unique or at least very unusual among American presidents. Because of their secular perspectives and selective analysis of our presidents, many political pundits and scholars have helped foster this faulty impression. Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Jimmy Carter are generally considered men of devout faith, but the substantial influence that their religious convictions had on other presidents is largely overlooked.
Many chief executives have regularly attended church, read the Bible, prayed, and discussed religious themes. Their personal faith has also played a role in shaping their policies.
Scholarly treatment of three presidents illustrates my point. After a decisive conversion experience as a youth, William McKinley participated faithfully in the life and ministry of the Methodist Church, prayed and read the Bible daily, often testified to his faith, and consistently displayed Christian moral virtues. He strongly supported Christian missions, exhibited great compassion, and frequently declared that God directed history and his own life. In 1898 McKinley urged Americans to “give devout praise to God, who holds the nations in the hollow of his hands.” As president, he habitually sought God’s guidance in making decisions and devising policies. His courageous death after being wounded by an assassin’s bullet in 1901 and his impressive character prompted many contemporaries to compare him with Christ.
In numerous addresses, Franklin Roosevelt stressed the importance of spiritual renewal, faith, and social justice and urged Americans to work to achieve a more robust spiritual life. He declared in 1934, “The object of all our striving should be to realize that ‘abundant life’” Christ came to bring. The testimony of friends, associates, and observers, Roosevelt’s personal convictions, relationship with the Episcopal Church, actions as president, and private and public statements all reveal that his faith was important to him. In 1935 he invited more than 120,000 clergymen to give him “counsel and advice” about the impact of his administration’s domestic policies. The entire time he was president Roosevelt served as the senior warden of the St. James Episcopal Church in Hyde Park, New York. He composed prayers for his first inaugural address and the D-Day invasion.
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