A Conversation with Gary Scott Smith | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A Conversation with Gary Scott Smith

The historian discusses his new book, Religion in the Oval Office

A Conversation with Gary Scott Smith
Gary Scott Smith

While American society might be increasingly secular, you can’t understand the presidency without understanding the role of religion. So contends Gary Scott Smith, the Grove City College history professor whose latest book, Religion in the Oval Office (Oxford University Press), explores the part faith played in the lives and adminstrations of 11 U.S. presidents, from John Adams and Andrew Jackson to Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. The book is something of a sequel to Smith’s Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush (2006).

Scott, who’s also an ordained Presbyterian minister, recently spoke with CP by phone.

Are presidents like religious leaders?

Since we don’t have recognized national religious leaders in times of crisis … presidents really step up and play that role. Since I’ve written the book, we’ve had a classic example, with President Obama and the shootings in Charleston.

When he sang “Amazing Grace.”

What struck me was that his focus on grace is not limited to that eulogy that he gave in Charleston. He’s spoken about God’s grace in many presidential addresses. … I think it’s been part and parcel of his approach to the presidency — although again, a lot of it’s not on the radar screen. You basically find it when he speaks to the National Prayer Breakfast, and other breakfasts that he’s hosted at Easter time every year. … He probably 95 times has talked about the grace of God in various addresses he’s given.

But usually not in the State of the Union, etc.

There we just get the tagline “God bless America.”

When did presidents start saying that?

Ronald Reagan. There’s virtually no references to the phrase before Reagan — which is striking, because again we’ve had other presidents who were deeply religious, and who had a very strong faith. Since [Reagan], it seems every president feels compelled to use that phrase repeatedly.

Are public expectations about presidents and religion realistic, or even fair?

I think they’re both unrealistic and unfair because I think no president can possibly live up to the general expectations that Americans have because they’re humans, and they’re going to make mistakes. They’re going to sin just like everyone else. … I also think there’s an unfair expectation in terms of — we like them when their policies agree with our own understanding. We don’t like them when they take positions [that] clash with ours. 

While people want [a president] to be religious and spiritually minded, and pray about decisions that he makes, we don’t want him to be too religious — then he might neglect the counsel of the National Security Council, or his cabinet, or Congress, and he might simply go off on the deep end doing what God tells him to do.

Are expectations for presidential religiosity higher than in the past?

I think it’s ebbed and flowed, depending on the general religious climate and culture of the time. … People are saying we’re moving into a more post-Christian era. However, look at the Republican slate of [candidates] right now and how many of them have a deep religious conviction, and how many of them are talking about how their faith informs what they do. Certainly more than 50 percent of them.

Will we ever have an atheist president?

[LAUGHS] Probably not in the near future. … If you look at the polling data, more people say they wouldn’t vote for an atheist for president than virtually any other category that they’re asked. … Right now I still think it’s a major liability.

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