SINCE GEORGE W. BUSH ASSUMED THE PRESIDENCY five years ago, arguments about the proper role of religious faith in politics have been at the center of American political debate. To many members of the intellectual and media establishments, and to others in the wider world, Bush seems a disturbing historical aberration. Not only does the president talk openly about God, but his political beliefs are plainly informed by his religious faith. He regularly incorporates Bible scriptures into his political speeches, asserts that he heard God's call to run for the presidency, and has said that he has prayed for God's help since taking office, including when he decided to lead the United States into war in Iraq. In the minds of his critics, Bush represents a radical departure from established precedent. That religious faith should play any part in decisions made in the Oval Office seems an alarming possibility.
A moment's thought, however, should be sufficient to put these fears in perspective. From the Founding era to the 19th century (in which Abraham Lincoln is only the most obvious example) to the modern era, presidents have all spoken about God and looked to their respective faiths for guidance. During the 20th century, the spirit of the Social Gospel was a prevailing political wind in American politics, helping to shape the civil rights movement and protests against the Vietnam War. Yet it wasn't thought at all remarkable that this religious idea, which used the language of traditional morality to advance progressive political reform, was embodied in the person of the nation's twenty-eighth president, Woodrow Wilson.
But some persist in misreading history. Wilson's progressivism is usually divorced from his faith, and the religion of other presidents--except for Jimmy Carter--is considered quaint. Harry S. Truman, for example, is now remembered as a colorfully plainspoken and profane man who brought the bourbon and cigar smoke of Missouri politics into the White House. But Truman also brought a deep religious faith, and it played no small part in inspiring him to confront communism and lead America into the Cold War.
The real question about the role of religion in the White House is not "whether" but "what kind" Indeed, by broadening the discussion beyond Wilson to include Truman as a model for understanding Bush, we gain a better understanding of how presidential faith can and does shape America's view of the world.
As the president who led the United States while it was becoming a world power, Wilson casts an especially long shadow. He learned from his father, a prominent Presbyterian minister, and his mother, whose father was also a Presbyterian minister, that he was one of God's special people. This Presbyterian elect was predestined to achieve salvation in the next world and to show signs of that saved state in this world. Its responsibilities were apparent to Wilson. The Bible, he wrote, "reveals every man to himself as a distinct moral agent, responsible not to men, not even to those men whom he has put over him in authority, but responsible through his own con science to his Lord and Maker." Wilson believed that he was called to carry his private, saved state into his public, political life. His understanding of Christianity gave him a strong sense of selection, even a destiny he perceived as prophetic.
Imbibing the Social Gospel of the late 19th century, Wilson came to trust in the promise of redemption in politics, especially foreign policy. In 1911, a year before he won the White House, he declared that America was born a Christian nation "to exemplify that devotion to the elements of righteousness which are derived from the revelations of Holy Scripture." The administrative hand of modern social science would bring about needed political reform at home and, eventually, abroad. In Wilson's eyes, World War I was a crusade in which the New World would redeem the Old World, first in battle and then in the Covenant--a biblical word Wilson quite deliberately chose--of the League of Nations. …