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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

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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