“You can’t truly understand a president without understanding his religious convictions.”
Dr. Gary Scott Smith ’72 delivers that declaration deadpan, but two scholarly books on the religious faith of American presidents demonstrate his passion for the subject matter. The latest, Religion in the Oval Office, was published by Oxford University Press in 2015, just in time for this presidential election year.
The book covers 11 presidents, from John Adams to Obama. Smith’s 2006 volume, Faith and the Presidency, explored the faith of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Reagan and five others.
Smith started working on the subject in 2001 as an outcropping of his interest in the presidency, his role as an American religious historian and the fact that scholars had largely ignored the subject. There were only a few “incredibly superficial” volumes and nothing based on primary sources, archives or even the presidents’ own words and speeches, he said.
Smith wanted to be a part of the public discourse around the intersection of religion and politics. Despite the taboo on discussing either in polite company, they’ve been part of the discussion since the nation’s founding. In more recent years, the emphasis appears to have grown exponentially. That’s driven interest in the subject of what presidents really believe and what influence it may have on their administrations and the future of the nation.
“People are more cognizant of religion and politics,” Smith said. He cited George W. Bush, an unabashed Christian, as “not as much of an exception as a lot of people might think.” Since born-again Christian Jimmy Carter won in 1976, Smith said every president has been strongly influenced by his religious background. “We don’t always recognize that in the public sector, but if you probe a little more deeply into their speeches and their backgrounds and the policies they’re promoting, and look at the right sources, it is clear,” he said.
Supported by an Earhart Foundation grant, Smith traveled around the country to presidential archives where he was able to “get into primary sources in a way no one else had done.” His research confirmed his argument that faith is a key influence on American leaders.
In his profiles, Smith looks at how the presidents handled selected policy questions and tries to deduce how their faith impacted their decisions. They aren’t always the major challenges of an administration, but they involve policies with a strong moral component – justification for war, civil rights, religious liberties and the like.
“Never do I argue that religion was the only factor, but I do argue it was an important factor in many of the decisions made, policies adopted and positions advocated,” he said.
Smith tried to provide a partisan balance in each book and his research doesn’t point to one party having an advantage when it comes to belief: “Throughout American history you have people of all different kinds of political persuasions and backgrounds that have had a strong faith. It hasn’t just been limited to one party or one era. It’s been across all times and all parties.”
In the latest book, Smith writes about Nixon and Clinton, who he says present conundrums considering their very public ethical lapses; however, both used the language of faith – Nixon vague, Clinton overtly Christian – and had complicated religious histories that impacted their policy choices. Throughout his work, Smith lets the record speak for itself.
“There are some judgments we can’t make. We can’t know people’s hearts. We can’t ultimately know what they believe. We can only know what they say and do and it’s only between them and God where they are, spiritually speaking,” he said.
“There’s no president who was an out-and-out charlatan, who clearly just used religion for political purposes. Although I would say they all did, on occasions and to some extent, use religion for political purposes, even the ones who had the most genuine and deepest faith.”
Smith’s work has received favorable reviews and attracted the attention of the national media. He has been cited by The Washington Post and other leading publications, interviewed on public radio and his columns dissecting the relationship between GOP nominee Donald Trump and evangelical voters have been distributed widely on a national basis.
Smith has been teaching at Grove City College since 1978, just six years after he himself was a student. He earned a B.A. in psychology, earned a master of divinity degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in American History from Johns Hopkins University. He’s also an ordained minister. Next year, his 39th as a professor, will be his last at Grove City. Smith is retiring after what he calls “a great experience” at the College as both a student and teacher.
This story originally ran in the Summer 2016 GēDUNK magazine. Read more HERE.