Religion and American Public Life: Presidential Expressions of Christianity: Editors' Note

Church History, September 2013 | Go to article overview

Religion and American Public Life: Presidential Expressions of Christianity: Editors' Note


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This forum examines the faith of four U.S. presidents, all of whom expressed conceptions of civic life derived from reformed protestant Christianity. The essays together reveal a reformed protestant orientation to government in all four men--John Quincy Adams, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Barack Obama--in which individual faith is exercised, tested, and tried in the arena of public life.

The essays also reveal important differences in the four presidents' attitudes toward religion. Facing different situations and political forces, each of the four presidents found his own way of conceptualizing and managing religion's role in politics and government. These personal approaches to religion had significant public impact. By exercising their individual understandings of faith through the presidential office, Adams, Wilson, and Roosevelt helped set forces in motion that others, including Wilson, Roosevelt, and Obama, had to negotiate.

Marking four significant moments in a religious history of the U.S. presidency, this forum begins to outline a larger arc of historical change. Adams's openness to the larger world and pride in America's new beginning as a protestant nation helped lay the groundwork for Wilson's assiduous commitment to Christian policy making. FDR's effort to commandeer Christian rhetoric for political and military ends built on some of the precedents of Wilson's religious idealism. And today, Obama's strategic use of Christian realism as a matrix for policy formation reflects his effort to manage the legacies of Wilson and FDR as well as the hostility toward those legacies expressed by his opponents.

Surveying the beliefs of four presidents together positions us to glimpse the ways in which the respective visions of civic life that they framed in Christian terms both advanced and retarded their larger agendas. …

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