Barry Hankins is Professor of History at Baylor University. This interview is based on his new book, Woodrow Wilson: Ruling Elder, Spiritual President (Oxford University Press, 2016).
JF: What led you to write Woodrow Wilson: Ruling Elder, Spiritual President?
BH: In 2012 I was writing Baptists in America: A History (New York: Oxford, 2015) with my colleague Thomas Kidd. In May, Tim Larsen at Wheaton contacted me to say he was pitching a series called Spiritual Lives to Oxford University Press. The criteria of the series is that the subjects NOT be principally religious figures, but nevertheless have religious or spiritual lives of significance. Tim asked if I might be interested in writing a book on Woodrow Wilson for the series. He caught me at a good time as I had begun to think about what my next project might be but had not committed to anything. The prospect of writing on Wilson intrigued me.
I’ve always presented Wilson in American history courses as probably America’s most Christian president prior to Jimmy Carter. Carter’s candidacy in 1976, then the rise of the Christian Right during Reagan’s run for office in 1980, touched off what I would call the evangelical era in American politics. But before Carter, Wilson stood out in his effort to apply Christian principles to the office of the presidency. It was also appealing to write about someone who was a historian before he was president. Wilson remains the only president in history to have a Ph.D.
I immediately thought of several questions I’ve always had about him. Did he retain as president any of the evangelicalism and Reformed theology of his youth in the southern Presbyterian Church? Or, did he turn more toward the progressive theological liberalism of his era? How did he appropriate Christian principles in leading the war effort in WWI? And, what was his civil religion like? So, I accepted Tim’s kind offer to write the book and over the next couple of weeks drafted a proposal that accompanied Tim’s series proposal that he submitted to OUP.
BTW, writing a book suggested by someone else is not unusual for me. This is the third book I’ve written that began as an idea in someone else’s mind. Darryl Hart, for example, is the one who suggested I write a biography of Francis Schaeffer.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Woodrow Wilson: Ruling Elder, Spiritual President
BH: The argument is in the title—“Spiritual President.” In what I call a soft thesis running through the book, I argue that having been reared in the theologically rich world of southern Presbyterianism, Wilson spiritualized away all the doctrines of his youth. What remained was the progressive, liberal theology of his era. For public purposes, “Christianity” for Wilson came to mean the forward march of democratic justice, while privately Christianity meant spiritual devotion of a warm and romantic sort.
JF: Why do we need to read Woodrow Wilson: Ruling Elder, Spiritual President?
BH: It’s a good read (at least I think so) about an important person in religious history whose life tells us quite a bit about the era in which he was a major figure. Because Wilson was president of Princeton, the book touches on the history of higher education and the irony of how a personally religious person secularized that university. Of course, with WWI, the Peace of Versailles, and the League of Nations the book deals with some of the 20th century’s most important events and the tragedy, irony, and unintended consequences that accompanied them. It also has a chapter on how a national moral leader engaged in and justified a long-running emotional marital affair he eventually became ashamed of. Finally, the book addresses the question of whether there is a place for explicitly Christian doctrine in public affairs.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
BH: I became a historian because I wasn’t tall enough to play in the NBA. Seriously, while in college I was not a great student, largely because basketball came first. Thankfully, I had a really good church history professor named Bill Pitts who I’ve now been colleagues with for over 20 years (although not in the same department). I was fascinated by church history, majored in religion, and thought I was studying for the ministry. After college I began to think I really wanted to be a college professor, in part because I’d get to do more preaching (i.e. lecturing) and less administration than as a pastor. After a year at Fuller Seminary, I went back to Baylor and got an M.A. in church-state studies, then to Kansas State where I studied with Bob Linder, who is still teaching full-time and doing his scholarship. I arrived at KSU wanting a Ph.D. almost exclusively so I could teach at a Christian college. I left with an awareness that I’d never be satisfied if I didn’t write history as well as teach it. I thank Bob for instilling in me that sort of scholar’s ethic.
JF: What is your next project?
BH: I’ve sketched out a book proposal called Religion and the Reagan Revolution (1964-2008). We’ve had some really good scholarship the past 15 years or so on religion and culture since the 1950s, particularly evangelicalism—Turner, Dochuk, Bowler, Coffman, Kruse, Eskridge, and the like. I’d like to synthesize some of that scholarship, supplement it with some of my own original research, and show how central religion was to the rise of Ronald Reagan, the development of Republican conservatism, and the advent of what we might call “evangelical America,” or the “evangelical moment in American history” (1980-2008). This seems particularly pertinent given that we could be past that era and moving into one where evangelicals will again be like they were before 1980—i.e. flying below the radar as a subculture on the margins—which actually might be a good thing for evangelicalism.
Having said all that, I do want to get back to the earlier 20th century at some point. I really enjoyed writing Jesus and Gin about religion and the Roaring Twenties and then the Wilson book. I’m at the point in my life (I turn 60 this year) where I don’t feel I have to rush into anything. I’m primarily interested in writing stuff people will find interesting and that will help them think about American religious history in constructive ways.
JF: Thanks, Barry!