Theodore Roosevelt did not like Woodrow Wilson. The Rough Rider called the somewhat effete Wilson “a Byzantine logothete,” and believed he was “a very timid man when it comes to physical danger.” In essence, T.R. believed Wilson to be a coward – probably the worst thing America’s most robust president could say about anyone.
Wilson, on the other hand, was dismissive of the boisterous, phrase-making Roosevelt. He said of T.R. that he was “a great big boy,” and considered him a man of untempered enthusiasms and extreme judgments.
Yet the two of them had something in common much more subtle than their dramatic external differences: a strong heritage in Reformed Protestant theology.
Wilson, whose father was a prominent official in the Southern Presbyterian Church, and Roosevelt, whose Dutch Reformed faith was foundational to his early life, both had an extraordinary sense of predestination, the belief that God had foreordained certain ends for individuals and nations. They extended this faith in a direction the New Testament does not: Implementation of what they saw as the plan of God through the non-Christian state.
Their speeches and writings are full of references to America’s destiny and God’s plan. “This great people in the first flush of its mighty manhood is moving forward to meet its destiny,” wrote then-New York Governor Roosevelt about a year following the Spanish-American War (in which he played a leading role, as a policymaker and cavalryman). And like many of the Progressives of his era, Roosevelt was not hesitant to conflate Christianity’s Gospel mission with the possibility of constructing Christ’s kingdom here and now: “Our Christian missions have for their object not only the saving of souls, but the imparting of a life that makes possible the kingdom of God on earth."
In the words of his biographer Joshua David Hawley: “Roosevelt’s conversion of the kingdom of God into the body politic is especially noteworthy. Religion in his hands ceased to circumscribe state action and became instead its impetus” (Theodore Roosevelt: Preacher of Righteousness, p.263).
This kind of pseudo-theocratism was found often in the many writings and public declarations of Woodrow Wilson. Wilson said quite explicitly, “I am a Presbyterian and believe in predestination.” Historian Michael Streich speaks of Wilson’s “abiding Calvinism;” on Armistice Day in 1924, shortly before his death, Wilson exclaimed, “That we shall prevail” in the “triumph” of progressive principles was “as sure as God reigns.”
Wilson wanted his 14 Points for the resolution of the First World War to be embodied in a “covenant” and “wanted the League of Nations to be headquartered in Calvin’s Geneva.” Historian Paul Boller writes that for Wilson, “the League of Nations … was not simply a human contrivance for ordering international relations; it represented God’s will and, in rejecting it, the United States was trying futilely to resist its Providential destiny.”
Wilson was given to particularly grandiose statements about the union of his will with God’s. He said that “the hand of God” led America into World War I. God “ordained” him to serve as president; to one League of Nations official, Wilson reportedly said, with respect to America’s joining the League, “You can’t fight God!”
In his recent book What the World Should Be: Woodrow Wilson and the Crafting of a Faith-Based Foreign Policy, Michigan State University historian Malcom Magee argues that Wilson’s entire public philosophy and major political actions were guided by the Reformed faith in which he was steeped.
Put simply: What one believes will determine how he acts. This is true in every sphere of life. Those who deny that faith matters to politics are guilty of ill-defining faith itself: “Religion,” the formalistic assent given to a set of doctrines and practices, is immaterial if one’s real faith is informed by selfish desire and temporal aims. It was of this that Jesus referred when He asked, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36).
However, if one’s belief in God defines his deepest convictions and animates his actions, it will affect his politics no less than his private devotions. Roosevelt and Wilson prove it.
As 2013 begins, perhaps a review of how we actually spend our time and energy will reveal a bit about the nature of our true faith. What that examination would show might change the way you related to God, family, friends or even government. As T.R. might have said, go ahead – dare a mighty thing.
Rob Schwarzwalder is senior vice president for the Family Research Council.
Publication date: January 8, 2013