Editor’s Note: The “V&V Q&A” is a monthly e-publication from The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. Each issue will present an interview with an intriguing thinker or opinion-maker that we hope will prove illuminating to readers everywhere.
This month’s “V&V Q&A” features an interview by Dr. Paul Kengor, executive director of The Center for Vision & Values, with Dr. Gary Scott Smith. Dr. Smith is a Fellow for Faith and the Presidency with The Center for Vision & Values, chairs the History Department, and coordinates the Humanities Core at Grove City College. His latest book is Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush (Oxford University Press, 2006). Dr. Smith will be speaking at the December 5 lecture of The American Founders Luncheon Series, sponsored by Grove City College.
Q: Why did you write this book? Americans are fascinated by the lives of presidents. Hundred of biographies of American presidents are available, but few of them examine their faith. Few studies discuss what presidents believed about God, Jesus, prayer, the Bible, and many other religious topics. Scholars have especially neglected the ways in which presidents’ faith influenced their policies.
Dr. Gary Scott Smith:
Q: Which presidents did you profile? The book includes chapters on George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush.
Q: Isn’t the common perception that the American founders were a bunch of deists, including Washington and Jefferson?: A small number of the founders were probably deists. Considerably more founders were Christians than most scholars or the general public recognizes. Washington and Jefferson were not deists according to the usual definition of this term. Deists believe that God created the world and then left it alone to run by natural laws. Thus, deists do not believe in prayer, providence, or divine intervention. Both Washington and Jefferson prayed and repeatedly emphasized God’s providential direction of American affairs.
Q: Were Washington and Jefferson Christians? It depends how one defines the term Christian. Both of them worshipped in Episcopal churches most of their lives. Although they both greatly valued Jesus’ moral teachings, neither explicitly professed faith in Christ as his savior. Jefferson claimed he never accepted “a specified creed” and referred to himself as “a sect by myself.” I think both presidents are best labeled theistic rationalists. This belief system mixes elements of natural religion, Christianity, and rationalism, with rationalism predominating. To theistic rationalists, God is active in human affairs, and prayer therefore is effectual. They see religion’s primary role as promoting morality, which is indispensable to society.
Q: What did Thomas Jefferson mean by a wall of separation between church and state? What are the origins of that phrase? The origin of the phrase is Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association. In this letter he strove to explain why, unlike the first two presidents and state governors, he refused to proclaim days for public prayer, fasting, and thanksgiving. Jefferson believed the First Amendment prohibited the president from issuing religious proclamations of any kind. Jefferson argued, however, that state and local governments, religious organizations, and private citizens could properly issue such proclamations, and he had earlier supported issuing religious proclamations in Virginia. Several factors indicate that Jefferson used the wall of separation metaphor in a limited, not absolute, sense.
Throughout his two terms Jefferson often attended religious services at the Hall of the House of Representatives. He allowed Washington congregations to hold services in the Treasury and War office buildings, and he signed a federal law that provided tax exemption for churches in the District of Columbia. As president, Jefferson approved the use of federal funds and land to support missionaries who worked to evangelize Indians in the West. Thus, using the words, “high,” “impregnable,” and “complete” to describe Jefferson’s wall, as many commentators do, is at odds with what he what he said and contradicts what he did.
Q: Tell us about some of FDR’s expressions of faith while he was president. Franklin Roosevelt repeatedly emphasized the importance of the Bible, prayer, and Christian morality. He frequently urged Americans to work for spiritual renewal, promote social justice, and strive to achieve a more abundant spiritual life. He frequently asserted that God directed history, considered himself to be God’s agent, and insisted that the United States would prosper only if its citizens sought divine guidance and followed biblical principles. The entire time he was president he served as the senior warden of the St. James Episcopal Church in Hyde Park, New York. The Democrat frequently urged Americans to pray, thanked others for praying for him, and included prayers in his addresses. During World War II, the president set aside three special days of prayer to “solemnly express our dependence on Almighty God.” Roosevelt’s most famous prayer was the one he composed and then read during the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944.
Q: We’re told that the current president is more outspokenly religious than previous presidents. Is that true? George W. Bush is among our most devout presidents, but his faith is not unusual. Many presidents attended church very regularly. Numerous chief executives testified that prayer was vital to them. Bush does not quote the Bible or refer to the importance of faith, prayer, morality, or providence any more than many of his predecessors.
Q: Perhaps American culture is simply more secular than ever, and more hostile to religious politicians than ever? The criticism Bush has received because of his faith is not new. Nevertheless, today’s American culture, especially its mainstream media, is more secular and hostile to religion. Both Franklin Roosevelt and Eisenhower talked more often and more blatantly about religious matters than Bush has and were generally applauded for doing so.
Q: Will there be a second volume of your book? The faith of numerous other presidents was very important to them…. If I were to write a second volume I would include John Adams, James Madison, Andrew Jackson, James Garfield, Rutherford Hayes, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Bill Clinton. Having said that, I’m currently working on a study of American views of heaven.
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- V&V Q&A: A History of Christianity in Pittsburgh - December 18, 2018
- A Point of Light: A Tribute to George H. W. Bush - December 3, 2018