Religion in the Oval Office: The Religious Lives of American Presidents. By Gary Scott Smith. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. 422 pp.
Faith matters. It influences the way that individuals act, the decisions they make, and how they structure their realities. This is as true for a president as it is for a preacher. Gary Scott Smith has compiled the religious biographies of 11 U.S. presidents in an effort to support this claim. "These presidents," he argues, "cannot be understood without taking into account their religious convictions. Their faith significantly affected how they viewed the world and particular stances they took on issues" (p. 9). To fail to take seriously the religious ideas of individual presidents, Smith contends, is to fail to take seriously the presidents. "Faith," he concludes, "had a greater impact on their worldviews, leadership, actions, policies, and decision making than is typically acknowledged" (p. 416).
To make this argument, Smith examines the lives of John Adams, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, William McKinley, Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. This book is a sequel to his 2006 Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), which covered the lives of 11 other presidents including Jefferson, Kennedy, and George W. Bush.
Religion in the Oval Office is a thorough and well-researched book that provides an excellent resource for scholars and general readers interested in religion and politics. Smith has assembled an impressive amount of data and draws heavily both on his own primary research and on the now extensive secondary literature on religion and the presidency. However, Smith's own presumptions, at times, cloud his analysis. He dedicates significant space to his subjects' "character," which he accesses by analyzing the often-private actions of the presidents. He rejects Clinton's claim that we can know a president's values by the policies he advocates and, instead, looks at their sexual relationships, language, drinking habits, Bible reading, church attendance, and prayer to determine their character. In this way, Andrew Jackson comes out rather well. Jackson, Smith explains, "strove valiantly to base his life and work as president on Christian principles, and in some ways he succeeded admirably" (p. 158). By the same measure,...