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'So Help Me God': Faith and the Presidency

  • Dr. Gary Scott Smith Guest Columnist
  • Published Sep 23, 2004
'So Help Me God': Faith and the Presidency

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.

As numerous speakers at his funeral emphasized, Ronald Reagan claimed that his relationship to God was vital to him and deeply influenced his perspective on life. “Religion is a guide for me,” Reagan asserted in 1984. “To think that anyone could carry out the awesome responsibilities of this office without asking for God’s help through prayer strikes me as absurd.”  He spoke frequently to religious groups, repeatedly discussed spiritual and moral issues in his public addresses, wrote about his faith in hundreds of letters, and regularly interacted with Protestant and Catholic religious leaders.

Despite these facts, most biographers have provided scant analysis of McKinley’s, Roosevelt’s, or Reagan’s personal faith, extensive use of religious rhetoric, or the influence of their religious convictions on their policies as president. This is also true for many other presidents, most notably John Quincy Adams, Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield, Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, and Dwight Eisenhower.

While concerned about the separation of church and state, most Americans have wanted their chief executives to possess and display a substantial religious faith, especially on important public occasions and in times of crisis. They have also wanted presidents to affirm transcendent principles and promote traditional morality while avoiding a sectarian religious agenda. Many have also desired presidents to set high standards for personal ethics and excellence. Numerous chief executives have exuded a deep faith in God and his control of human affairs.

Momentarily stepping back from the heat of election season, a careful review of history demonstrates that George W. Bush shares something in common with many of his predecessors, both Democrat and Republican - a commitment to his faith that influences his life and policies. Hopefully, contemporary scholars will help us recover this truth.

Gary Scott Smith, Ph.D. is a professor history at Grove City College. He is currently working on his latest book "Faith and the Presidency: Religion, Politics and Public Policy from George Washington to George W. Bush." His most recent book is "The Search for Social Salvation: Social Christianity and America, 1880-1925." Contact Smith at gsmith@gcc.edu.

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