Thursday, April 21, 2016

Faith and College History

With a little extra time in my schedule this spring (I finished Bede in just three days – report coming soon), I’ve been reading Gary Scott Smith’s Faith and the Presidency. I always keep my eye open for books dealing with the history of religion in America, especially the religious views of the Founding Fathers. I’ve heard and read that they were all orthodox Christians. I’ve heard and read that they were all deists. I know that for most of the prominent names, the truth lies somewhere in between. But finding historians interested in scrounging up the evidence for the truth and presenting it in a fair way isn’t easy. To others who share my goal, I can highly recommend The Search for Christian America by Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden. Now I can add Faith and the Presidency to that recommendation.

One reason for the scarcity of the type of book I look for is that it requires that the author have religious beliefs and interests enough like mine to prompt the questions that intrigue me, but that he feel no urgent need to find Washington or Jefferson answering the questions in the same way. Smith appears to be such an author. For each of just eleven United States Presidents (with tantalizing mentions of a few others), Smith offers hundreds of bits of evidence: the endnotes take up more pages than the already substantial text. Through this documentary search, he examines upbringing, preference of worship style, knowledge of the Bible, theology, relations with various religious groups, effect of religion on policy decisions, and more. What did this President believe about Jesus? Did he believe the Bible had in any way a divine origin? Did he believe God was active in the world? Did he believe in the efficacy of prayer? Did he believe in an afterlife? Did he believe in divine judgment? What is the place of religion in government? What is the place of morality in government? Smith answers all these questions honestly but refrains from answering the question, Was he a Christian? In fact, in the case of George Washington, he explicitly leaves the question open:
If belonging to a Christian church, fairly regularly attending services, believing that God directed human affairs, and emphasizing the social benefits of religion is enough to be a Christian, then Washington was one. If, on the other hand, to be a Christian, one must publicly affirm the divinity and resurrection of Christ and his atonement for humanity’s sin and participate in the Lord’s Supper, then Washington cannot be considered a Christian.
The most interesting chapter to me so far is that on Woodrow Wilson. A professing Christian (of the Presbyterian stripe), Wilson believed the country had a divine mission to become a Christian nation and then to christianize the world. He believed the Great War would end all wars because it would put away the last bad political system in Europe and leave the continent in the hands of democracy amd faith. His League of Nations would settle international issues in the way of the Prince of Peace rather than by war. He wanted to base it in Geneva because in that city, Calvin also had tried to found a European Christian commonwealth. I can’t buy into any of this Christian agenda, but I’m so very glad to know about it. These are things they didn’t teach me in my college history classes.

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