Book Review: The Faith of America’s Presidents

Book Review

When Daniel Mount, a historian, asked if I would be interested in reviewing his book, The Faith of America’s Presidents, I surprised myself by saying yes.

The reason for the surprise is that I have never been much of a history buff, having been educated in engineering and the physical sciences, and paying little attention to the social sciences.

But, as I thought about it, I realized the following:

At 59 years of age, it is important for me to learn some new things … it is important for the health of my brain. Learning in new/unfamiliar areas is important for the health of all brains, and gets more important the older one gets.

I had read [via various web sites] that many of the early Presidents were Deist or agnostic, and decided it’s about time I learned whether that was really true.

I had an interest in seeing how the concept of separation of church and state has been applied in various Presidencies.

I am glad I decided to do the review: I found the book to be very interesting. There is so much that I had forgotten about our Presidents, and much more that I never knew. While Mr.

Mount’s book is about the faith of the Presidents, he reviews that within the context of their actions, which of course gets into several interesting historical items.

Before I get into a few specifics from the book, I want to add that I gained a great deal of respect for historians from reading this book. The job of a historian is difficult.

One has to sort through a tremendous amount of information, much of it irrelevant, much of it conflicting, some of it true, some of it false, and try to discern the truths of the past.

And, on top of that, one has to attempt to keep one’s personal views and beliefs from interfering with the presentation of facts. The author did a very good job in this respect.

I could not find any indication that he let his Christian beliefs interfere with the facts. There were a couple of chapters where his beliefs were voiced, perhaps a little too strongly, but this only showed up in the conclusion section of the chapters.

For example, in his concluding remarks on Teddy Roosevelt, the author remarked that Roosevelt probably went to hell unless he changed his beliefs from his publicly-stated views.

While I was annoyed by this remark, with its contrariness to my pluralistic leanings, it was stated as an opinion, and we all have opinions.

All in all, I think the author did a remarkably good job in keeping his opinions out of the way of the facts. Indeed I am convinced he did a much better job of this than I would have done in his shoes.

Some of the things that I found fascinating were:

Several Presidents were not particularly religious until they took office. When they did become more religious, it appears that they did so because of the weight of the office, and not because of politics. That is, the weight of the office created within them a sense of need for guidance from a Higher Power.

When Harry Truman made reference to the fact that the US Constitution refers to everyone being created equal and being born with inalienable rights, this reminded me of something I learned in reading What’s So Great About Christianity.

It amazed me in reading that book that the concept of our being created equal and having inalienable rights is a Christian concept.

I would have thought we are born knowing this obvious truth, but it is not accepted as a truth worldwide. Christianity introduced the concept to the world. Hence, the US Constitution is based on some Christian principles.

The author notes that Woodrow Wilson was “one of our more theological Presidents,” and he was very well educated, having been on the faculty of Wesleyan University and Princeton.

I also found it interesting that Wilson was vigorously opposed to preachers who did not accept Darwin’s theory of evolution.

It fascinates me that this was close to a century ago, and we still see opposition to Darwin’s theory today, despite the abundance of evidence for evolution (including genetic evidence that was not available in Wilson’s time).

It fascinated me that it is not 100% clear that President Lincoln ever abandoned his philosophy of agnosticism.

In the author’s quotes of Lincoln, one gets the impression that Lincoln converted to Christian principles after becoming President, at least Theistic principles, but there is still some dispute about that in academic circles.

I got mixed signals in reading some of George Washington’s quoted material regarding his views on the separation of church and state.

On one hand, he seemed a strong supporter of the separation, yet a couple of his actions seemed in opposition to it. Also regarding Washington, there is some debate as to whether he became a Christian or remained a Deist. In reading the quoted material, I am inclined to think he became Christian.

Prior to his Presidency, Taft was offered the position of the President of Yale University, but he turned it down because he did not accept several of the doctrines of Christianity.

This was a reminder to me that many of the US universities (indeed the world’s universities) had a religious foundation, which now seems odd give that they are now among the more secular of institutions.

Several Presidents lost a child or wife to death.

You can turn to just about any page in the book and find a Presidential quote that can inspire you. It was good for me to be reminded of the following excerpt from President Kennedy’s inaugural address, as this inspired me early in life and for many years thereafter:

“With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”

Inspired by this, because it seemed to be such a statement of truth, I developed my own wording that served as my philosophy for much of my life: “God will not do for us what we can do for ourselves.” I also had a saying that “God gave us brains to use, not to waste.”

I could go on with additional examples, but clearly I found the book to be very interesting and a good learning vehicle for me.

If you have any interest at all in history, I think you would enjoy this book. And, even if you don’t have an interest in history, you might want to consider it: it really is important for the health of your brain that you learn something in new areas throughout your life.

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