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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Religion in the White House


What is the relationship, if any, between a president’s religious beliefs and policies? On Thursday, March 14th, the Boisi Center welcomed Kenneth L. Woodward, former religion editor for Newsweek, to Boston College to address this question in the 2nd Annual Wolfe Lecture on Religion and American Politics on “Religion in the White House.” Woodward argued that a president’s personal religious convictions have little influence over foreign or domestic policies; rather, religion has often been used as a justification for political decisions.

Woodward opened by discussing prevalent misunderstandings embedded in the stories we tell ourselves regarding national and religious identities. While there is widespread belief that the thirteen original colonies were predominantly devout Christian communities, Woodward argued that, at best, the colonists practiced a “baptized heathenism,” with only small percent of institutionally religious. Woodward pressed that religion in the colonial and revolutionary periods served a primarily social function in that it molded the conscience of citizens and provided a framework for the social order. In other words, religion wasn’t practiced as a good in itself; it was instrumentalized as a useful foundation for the social order.

Woodward went on to tie this instrumentalization of religion to the U.S. presidency. Woodward pressed that the president’s personal religion has, primarily, been used as a tool of persuasion for already-calculated political decisions, having little causal impact on political policies themselves. Woodward offered a few examples, including President William McKinley and his dealings with the Philippines. After the Spanish were defeated and lost control of the Philippines, Mckinley had military, geographic, and political reasons to ensure the Philippines never came under the control of any other foreign entity. To justify his invasion of the Philippines, McKinley instrumentalized religion by claiming that it was essential to "christianize" the Filipino people, disregarding that the Philippines had been a Catholic country for over three hundred years.

Towards the end of his lecture, Woodward discussed the presidential election of 2016 and its ties to religion, especially evangelicals. Many have argued that since four out of five evangelical Christians voted for Trump, religion was a key factor in the last election. According to Woodward, this is a mistake, as exit polls only provide the profile of voters and their choices, not the reasons why they voted for that candidate. Woodward, instead, contends that evangelicals voted for Trump in the last election for two reasons, neither of which have to do directly with their religion. First, a deep dislike and a distrust in Hillary Clinton. Second, economic hardship and anxieties about the future; many Evangelicals have an income of less than $30,000 a year, and have seen little wage increase since the 1980’s. 

The Q&A session was dedicated to the future of the Republican party, the role of national religious figures, such as Billy Graham, and their relationships to the president, and the role of religion in the lives of young adults today.