According to Thomas Carlyle, "it has been well said, in every sense, that a man's religion is the chief fact with regard to him", by which he meant not "the church creed which he professes" but "the thing a man does practically lay to heart, and know for certain, concerning his vital relations to this mysterious Universe, and his duty and destiny there". Gary Scott Smith undertakes to test this proposition by analysing 11 US presidents in action and reflection to assess the what and how of their faith and its impact on their policies and performance: in fact, on their presidencies. Smith is interested in church creed and convictions; in the production and consumption of belief; in the murky politics of moral character and its evil twin, the character flaw. Like Carlyle, he is much concerned with heroes, hero worship and the heroic in history. Unlike Carlyle, he sounds neither ringing nor convincing.
In the age of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, Faith and the Presidency is certainly timely. It has a grand design. Smith seeks to embrace the whole history of the republic. He has chosen for his case studies George Washington (President 1789-97), Thomas Jefferson (1801-09), Abraham Lincoln (1861-65), Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09), Woodrow Wilson (1913-21), Franklin Roosevelt (1933-45), John F.
Kennedy (1961-63), Jimmy Carter (1977-81), Ronald Reagan (1981-89) and George W. Bush (2001-09). A mixed bag, one might think, from secular saint to stumblebum saved. They were selected (or pre-selected) for the strength of their convictions, the novelty of their creed or the religious controversies in which they became embroiled.
A different line-up is quite conceivable. As the author himself points out, the US is not short of presidents for whom religion had significance or who professed as much. His list extends to John Adams, John Quincy Adams, James Garfield, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and George Bush the father - "the wrong father", as the son famously said, apropos the War on Terror. ("You know, he is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength. There is a higher Father that I appeal to.") These latter are omitted, Smith explains, either because they made a sharp distinction between private faith and public duties - an explanation that seems to beg the question - or because they were somehow trumped in significance by the commitments, circumstances or policies of their near neighbours on the A list. This appears a little arbitrary, or a little circular. Many readers will surely regret the absence of Trick E. Dixon in particular, with his own special brand of foul-mouthed piety and lachrymose hypocrisy, mercilessly satirised by Philip Roth in Our Gang (1971).
Humour is not Smith's strong suit. Determined to take religious beliefs seriously, he is apt to take them overseriously or at any rate oversolemnly. His general conclusions have as strong an element of predestiny as the doctrines on which he reports. Faith is vitally important; religion is a key ingredient. His case studies are less analyses than surveys of the public papers and the published texts. They are desperately thorough and almost unbelievably even-handed; but the rather Procrustean procedure followed for each one has the curious effect of levelling and standardising, thereby reducing them (or, as it may be, elevating them) to more or less the same status - worthy men in a fallen world - a kind of generic George.
As each president passes in review, Smith's procedure is to address himself to five elements: what he calls their world-view (sometimes their scriptural world-view); the separation of Church and state (friendly or otherwise); American civil religion in its various forms ("God Bless America"); America as God's chosen nation (and Americans as God's chosen people); and the question of character - "intimate character" - in a word, morals. In each case, this treatment is followed by "A Final Assessment". Judgment calls.
The final assessments are at once anodyne and upbeat. A notable exception is JFK, clearly a puzzle and a disappointment to the author, especially on account of his sexual infidelity, not to mention his vulgarity, his jiggery-pokery and skulduggery. Smith is understandably stern about all this depravity. And yet, unbeknown to him, cheerfulness keeps breaking in. He quotes one account of the President's venial sins: slipping secret documents to reporters in return for favours, getting drunk and - gasp! - denigrating liberals. His own rather perfunctory account of Kennedy's voracious sexual appetite (akin to a morbid desire to seduce or at least to satisfy himself) is chiefly based on the testimony of one Traphes Bryant, gloriously titled Dog Days at the White House: The Outrageous Memoirs of the Presidential Kennel Keeper .
Several of Smith's assessments are expressed in terms calculated to invite the charge of naivety. "Individual wickedness and national self-interest kept Wilson's grand designs for world brotherhood, justice and peace from being attained." Some strain credulity. After acknowledging Franklin Roosevelt's sphinx-like inscrutability and eel-like slipperiness, he appears to endorse Kenneth Davis's verdict that FDR's "plain, simple, matter-of-fact Christianity" is the best clue for understanding how his mind worked. Smith himself seems determined to extract something morally improving from his investigations, however tarnished the record. His benign view of George W. Bush smacks of special pleading and extenuating circumstances. "Considered in the larger context of all the occupants of the Oval Office, Bush's faith is neither unusual nor threatening to the republic. Instead, it has sustained him during crises, strengthened his resolve, increased his courage, confidence and compassion and shaped his policies in many different ways."
In the end, perhaps the most difficult question is that of character. Smith's analysis of character is rather mechanistic. "The most important sources in shaping Washington's highly lauded character were Seneca's Morals ; Joseph Addison's 1713 play Cato ; the (Jesuits') Rules of Civility; various handbooks on civility, courtesy and politeness he read as an adult; and Christianity." This sort of spiritual input-output model becomes a kind of authorial ritual. The subtlety, the fluidity, the complexity, the sheer poetry of character escapes him. Without it, Faith and the Presidency is a padded and pallid work, a competent survey but a hollow shell.
The large sweet soul that was Lincoln epitomises what is missing. His irreducible compassion never truly emerges here, neither in Walt Whitman's Memories of President Lincoln nor in the magnificent words of his Second Inaugural Address, in 1865, at the end of the American Civil War: "Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not, that we be not judged... With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan - to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."
Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Nottingham University.
Faith and the Presidency
Author - Gary Scott Smith
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 665
Price - £19.99
ISBN - 9780195300604