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Who Was the Most Christian American President?

2-20-12

On President’s Day this is a topic that has relevance, perhaps more so when “social issues” inhabit headlines. Lest we judge, lest we be judged, we should acknowledge that it is an open question with no definitive answer, yet a fit topic for discussion. In the end, addressing who might have been the most observant president would hew closer to historical evidence and verifiable records.

I addressed the topic last President’s Day, it proved to be the most popular – or at least the recipient of the most “hits” and reactions – in the three years I have been blogging and writing devotional essays. Are people hungry for intellectual “parlor games”… or wanting to connect the dots between political leaders and Christian faith?

First: Presidents’ Day is a holiday one of whose aspects I abhor: its mush-brained attempt at “inclusiveness.” Beyond a thank-you for the time certain presidents served, and sacrifices they probably made – already covered by various grade schools named for them, and the pensions they received – simply doing one’s job should not be justification for a federal holiday.

To honor all is a way of honoring none. For historical saps like James Buchanan, sharing a national holiday with Abraham Lincoln is to knock the latter off a pedestal. Historical accidents like John Tyler and Millard Fillmore should not be mentioned in the same hemisphere as George Washington. Some few presidents did great things in great ways.

The impetus for President’s Day was provided by unions and retailers, who desired another long weekend on the standard calendar. The result? Our civic saints live in the popular image, now, as Abe Lincoln impersonators hawking used cars on TV commercials; and George Washington (his talking portrait on animated dollar bills), not the Father of His Country, but the Father of the President’s Day Weekend of Unbelievable Bargains and Sales.

Americans used to reject, but now embrace, the Marxian mindset of mediocrity – every thing, and every one, must be leveled. In America today we pull down some of humankind’s greatest figures, like Washington and Lincoln, in order to – what? not hurt the feelings of Franklin Pierce and Chester Alan Arthur? There’s a lesson for our school children: grow up to become president, have a pulse, and you, too, will have post offices close a day in your honor.

Obviously I am eager to honor Washington and Lincoln, whose birthdays, this month, officially have been homogenized, as have their reputations. I do honor them, frequently, in my writing, and in discussions, and conversations with children, and in my reading and my studies. So should we all do with people and causes that we revere, even more urgently when the culture obscures them from our vision.

In my case I hold Theodore Roosevelt in particular regard. Last October my biography of him, BULLY! (Regnery History, 440 pages, illustrated entirely by vintage political cartoons), was published, and I devoted a chapter to TR’s faith. (Indeed, I am working on a full book on the theme.) One thing I have come to appreciate about TR is something that largely has been neglected by history books. That is, the aspect of his fervent Christian faith. In some ways, he might be seen as the most Christian and the most religious of all presidents; and by “religious” I mean most observant.

This is (admittedly) a subjective list, and a difficult one to compute and compile. TR’s name at the top of the list might surprise some people, yet that surprise would itself bear witness to the nature of his faith: privately held, but permeating countless speeches, writings, and acts. (A step out of character for this man who otherwise exhibited most of multi-faceted personality to the world!) His favorite verse was Micah 6:8 – “What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”

He was of the Dutch Reformed Church. He participated in missions work with his father, a noted philanthropist. He taught weekly Sunday School classes during his four years at Harvard. He wrote for Christian publications.

He called his bare-the-soul speech announcing his principles when running in 1912, “A Confession of Faith.” Later he closed perhaps the most important speech of his life, the clarion-call acceptance of the Progressive Party nomination that year, with the words, “We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord!” That convention featured evangelical hymns and closed with “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

He titled one his books Foes of Our Own Household (after Matthew 10:36) and another, Fear God and Take Your Own Part. He once wrote an article for The Ladies’ Home Journal, “Nine Reasons Why Men Should Go To Church.” After TR left the White House, he was offered university presidencies and many other prominent jobs. He chose instead to become Contributing Editor of The Outlook, a relatively small Christian weekly magazine.

He was invited to deliver the Earl Lectures at Pacific Theological Seminary in 1911, but declined due to a heavy schedule. Knowing he would be near Berkeley on a speaking tour, however, he offered to deliver the lectures if he might be permitted to speak extemporaneously, not having time to prepare written texts of the five lectures, as was the school’s customary requirement. It was agreed, and TR spoke for 90 minutes each evening – from the heart and without notes – on the Christian’s role in modern society.

… and so on. TR was not perfect, but he knew the One who is. Fond of saying that he would “speak softly and carry a big stick,” it truly can be said, also, that Theodore Roosevelt hid the Word in his heart, and acted boldly. He was a great American because he was thoroughgoing good man; and he was a good man because he was a humble believer.

Remember Theodore Roosevelt on President’s Day. Remember him on his own birthday, Oct 27. Remember him every day – we are not seeing his kind any more.

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Not a song or hymn this week, but a video clip. From the great movie The Wind and the Lion: “The world will never love the US; it might respect us; it might come to fear us; but it will never love us.” A wonderful portrayal of Theodore Roosevelt by Brian Keith in John Milius’s 1975 motion picture.

Click: The Affinity of America and the Grizzly Bear

Category: Government, Patriotism, Service

Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , ,

13 Responses

  1. Jo Lauter says:

    AMEN! and THANK YOU!
    I honor Washington and Lincoln and TR . . . and Ronald Reagan, and respect several others.
    I am TOTALLY disgusted by this nonsense known as presidents’ day . . . (note no capitalization) that, (as you said) honors none in a mush-brained nod to commercialism and mediocrity, thereby honoring none. Thank you for stating this with your signature wit and wisdom . . . May God have mercy, I fear that many of His children have run out of mercy, at least in circumstances such as this one.

  2. Donna Lechak says:

    Hi,

    Come to Gettysburg – we celebrate Lincoln often!

  3. Danno says:

    I never knew that Theodore Roosevelt was a Christian. I had recently looked into that and couldn’t find anything. That’s interesting though. Theodore Roosevelt is one of my favorite presidents. That’s due to his hilarious character. He was quite funny in a lot of things he did. I also like how he was an adventurer. Now, it’s also nice to see he was a Christian. Too bad we might not have a president like him again.

    I also can’t stand the commercialism about president’s day as well. I consistently heard about president’s day sales but have not heard anything about honoring our presidents. It’s really sad because it be great to honor president but all I get out of it is a day off from school. Oh well. I do honor several of the presidents and pray that we may have another honorable president.

  4. BH says:

    The idea that someone is a “thoroughgoing good man” is, itself, not “Christian”. Jesus said no one is good, but God. None of us are thoroughgoing-ly good. Even a president from the turn of the last century, when promoting Christianity was still a requirement for access to the office.

    T.R. was a brilliant politician, and a fascinating figure, but, from his writings and declarations, he seems to make utilitarian use of Christianity and the Bible, rather than, say, teaching Christ. Yes, he often invoked favorite scripture, in a culture then soaked in the language.

    Students of scripture, though, will remember anyone can do that.

    The idea of “most Christian” is awkward, as well. Not sure what that even means. (Garfield was a preacher, so where does that rank on the works scale…?)

    Truth is, we don’t know anyone’s heart, not even our own, and certainly not T.R.’s.

    If Jesus came to help us be “good”-seeming, educated, manly U.S. citizens, well, I suppose some of this would make sense.

  5. I admire TR a great deal (obviously), and perhaps it is the paucity of dictionary-goodness (as opposed to spiritual-”goodness”) today that makes me eager to encourage biblical values. But I realize I cannot judge Roosevelt’s standing as far as eternal salvation is concerned; and I don’t I didn’t attempt to. But since “by their fruits ye shall know them,” I am happy to volunteer as a fruit-inspector.

  6. Fred Swain says:

    I also had no idea that TR was such a man of faith. Thank you for highlighting the boldness of his faith in his era. In my lifetime, I think Jimmy Carter might be the best example of genuine presidential faith.

  7. Marilyn Hill says:

    I love President’s Day! (At least how they used to teach us to remember their day and they used to be honored. My vote would be for President George W. Bush. I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud of our President on 9/11 and days following, and his unabashed love for our Savior Jesus Christ.That’s patriotism and Christianity.

  8. Shirley Hackbart says:

    Thank you for this piece. I, too, am sick and tired of all this “inclusion” that makes every thing mushy. I didn’t know this about our President Roosevelt. Was his relative, Franklin, any thing at all like him? I doubt it. I think he (FDR) was marxist in his thinking.

  9. TR’s distant relative, Franklin, was unlike him in almost every way.

  10. David says:

    I honestly think that the question is the wrong question to ask because it invokes a judgement call of a person’s life as recorded by history and not an actual knowledge of the person from close proximity. We could ask which president exercised the most favorable policies to Christianity while in office.

  11. shalom says:

    Your point about Presidents Day is well put. Textbooks don’t even mention his faith, but President Washington was a very strong Christian. In fact, many miracles that involved him have been recorded. After one battle, in a letter to a friend he wrote that his coat had bullet holes in it, but he wasn’t hit. At a later time he met an Indian who had fought with the French in that battle. That Indian commented that he was the man that they couldn’t kill. When he and his troops needed to cross a river, I think it was the Potomac, he prayed and God provided a cover of fog until they all safely crossed the river right under the noses of the enemy. That is just two of the many miracles surrounding George Washington. If you want to read more http://wallbuilders.com/ has info about him, other founding fathers and black history. They have over 4,000 original documents backing up the info they put out.

    I have a problem with another holiday. What Martin Luther King did was very influential and good, but I feel it is wrong to honor a single person when there are many others who have done very great things for our country. For example, the outcome of the Revolutionary War was greatly impacted by a black slave who pretended to be against America, but was actually spying for America. I don’t recall his name, but he is pictured in a famous painting with George Washington. Instead of Martin Luther King Day, we should have American Patriot Day honoring all those who made great contributions to our country, including Mr. King.

  12. ross says:

    George W Bush was a fairly successful political leader, but we do not see the same spiritually. In an interview with EWTN, when asked what he sees when he looks into the pope’s soul, he remarked “God”. In another interview, he revealed that he believes in many paths to God. His reluctance to indentify with any specific denomination is also scary.

    Tony Blair started making positive comments about the Pope, said there are many paths to God, and never identified with one denom., and he converted to Catholicism.

  13. Phillip Woeckener says:

    Having a strong faith does not a good POTUS make. As was referenced by a previous commenter, James Earl Carter is a devout Evangelical Christian, but perhaps the worst POTUS of all time, if not at least of the 20th Century.

    I also think that using the Carter reference leads me into where I think TR fails the most, to which you even reference, with the Progressive Party. Progressivism is a cancer and scourge for conservatives like me. We see the remnants of this cancer in our current POTUS, BO (appropriate initials I’d say). Glen Beck speaks at length about how progressivism is a very negative thing in the history of America.

    I will not argue your detailed analysis of TR’s faith. For all I know he would have been the precursor to Billy Graham. But as I stated above, a great Christian doesn’t equate to a great POTUS.

    Thanks for the forum.

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About The Author

... Rick Marschall is the author of 74 books and hundreds of magazine articles in many fields, from popular culture (Bostonia magazine called him "perhaps America's foremost authority on popular culture") to history and criticism; country music; television history; biography; and children's books. He is a former political cartoonist, editor of Marvel Comics, and writer for Disney comics. For 10 years he has been active in the Christian field, writing devotionals and magazine articles; he was co-author of "The Secret Revealed" with Dr Jim Garlow. His biography of Johann Sebastian Bach for the “Christian Encounters” series (Thomas Nelson) was released in April, 2011. Read More