This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal

Religion in the Oval Office by Gary Scott Smith Oxford University Press, April 2015

"Religion in the Oval Office: The Religious Lives of American Presidents" by Gary Scott Smith (Oxford University Press)WHAT IT'S ABOUT

Religion in the Oval Office looks at the religious lives of 11 presidents, from John Adams to Barack Obama. In this follow-up to his 2006 tome,Faith and the Presidency, Smith argues that a commander in chief's spirituality is crucial to understanding some of the executive decisions that have changed the course of history. "A president's religion matters," he writes, "because it often affects his policy choices."

In some of the cases Smith cites, the relationship between the two is strikingly direct. Harry Truman's decision to recognize Israel within minutes of its founding in 1948, for example, was born of his biblical belief that the Jews needed to have a Promised Land, Smith says. He relates that Truman was "deeply moved" by the declaration of Israel's chief rabbi, Isaac Herzog: "God put you in your mother's womb so you could be the instrument to bring the rebirth of Israel after 2,000 years."

 

TARGET D.C. AUDIENCE

Potential presidential contenders; campaign staffers; speechwriters; communications types; faith-advocacy groups; religious leaders; anyone with strong religious convictions who works in politics.

 

BEST LINE

"While such claims are impossible to prove, the evidence suggests that more than most other presidents, Clinton, while having a meaningful personal faith, used religion to win votes, justify his policies, and try to create a positive image."

 

TO BE SURE

Smith argues that most Americans want their chief executive to profess strong religious beliefs, so the influence of a president's faith on political decisions is likely to remain strong for years to come. But the number of Americans who don't identify with a religion has been steadily growing—making it perhaps less certain that voters will continue to place such a high value on a presidential prospect's religiosity in coming decades.

 

ONE LEVEL DEEPER

Politicians, speechwriters, and anyone else interested in how to employ religious rhetoric successfully in the political arena might want to take a look at the book's last chapter—on President Obama. The sections on the 2008 and 2012 elections, in particular, are case studies on navigating the politics of talking about God and faith in the 21st century.

 

THE BIG TAKEAWAY

Religion has had a far greater influence on the occupants of the Oval Office—and their policies—than most people realize.

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.