Gary Smith is Chair and Professor of History at Grove City College. This interview is based on his new book, Religion in the Oval Office: The Religious Lives of American Presidents (Oxford University Press, March 2015).
JF: What led you to write Religion in the Oval Office: The Religious Lives of American Presidents?
GS: My book is a sequel to Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush (Oxford, 2006). Both volumes, which analyze the religious convictions of eleven different presidents, were written because biographers and other scholars have paid scant attention to this important subject.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Religion in the Oval Office?
JF: Why do we need to read Religion in the Oval Office?
GS: A complete understanding of their lives, actions, and administrations of these eleven interesting and influential chief executives is impossible without considering their personal religious convictions. For example, their religious commitments strongly affected John Quincy Adams’s efforts to fund roads, canals, and educational institutions and promote diplomacy; William McKinley’s decisions to declare war against Spain and take control of the Philippines; Herbert Hoover’s quests to reform prisons and defend civil liberties; Harry Truman’s approach to the Cold War and decision to recognize Israel; Bill Clinton’s promotion of religious liberty; Barack Obama’s policies on poverty and gay civil rights; and the crusades of several presidents to advance world peace. Moreover, their presidencies cannot be fully comprehended without analyzing the role religious factors and issues played in their elections to office or the relationship these chief executives had with religious leaders and constituencies. Many presidents have asserted that their faith in God helped them cope with immense challenges and gave them courage and equanimity in the midst of the storms that swirled around them. Several insisted that their faith grew stronger during their years in office. No other books explore these matters in depth.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
GS: Although I became very interested in American history in junior high school, I did not decide to become an American historian until I was working on a M. Div. degree at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in my mid-twenties. At that point, I felt a call from God to pursue a Ph.D. in American religious history. That call was confirmed by an offer to work with Timothy L. Smith, one of the most respected scholars in this field, at Johns Hopkins University.
JF: What is your next project?