Woodrow Wilson’s troubling faith

Wilson adopted a brand of social Christianity that justified white supremacy and more.

Wilson emerges as a formidable but deeply flawed man, who “lived out half his religious heritage, while betraying the other half.” The relevant heritage in this case was southern Presbyterianism, which exerted considerable sway over Wilson’s early thinking but was gradually overtaken, in Hankins’s view, by a generic and theologically deficient liberal Protestant faith.

 

A century ago there was a Pres­byterian in the White House who cut a dramatically different figure than the one we have today. Woodrow Wilson, the son of a southern preacher, was a serious academic not long removed from his tenure as president of Princeton University. In the rarefied halls of the Ivy League he had honed the idealistic vision for which his presidency of the United States is best remembered. Wilson launched the nation into World War I just over 100 years ago, not with jingoistic bombast but with the memorable declaration that “the world must be made safe for democracy.” In our present moment, a resurgence of idealism in Washington might sound almost too good to be true, but two new studies of Wilson leave no doubt that we should be careful what we wish for.

Barry Hankins’s book is the first entry in Oxford University Press’s Spiritual Lives series, which “features biographies of prominent men and women whose eminence is not primarily based on a specifically religious contribution.” In this slim and eminently readable volume, Hankins deftly narrates Wilson’s 67-year journey from Staunton, Virginia, where he was born in 1856, to Princeton, the White House, and beyond.

Wilson emerges as a formidable but deeply flawed man, who “lived out half his religious heritage, while betraying the other half.” The relevant heritage in this case was southern Presbyterianism, which exerted considerable sway over Wilson’s early thinking but was gradually overtaken, in Hankins’s view, by a generic and theologically deficient liberal Protestant faith. While a student at Princeton in the late 1870s, Wilson penned a series of essays that reflect a significant depth of engagement with the Reformed tradition, but he went on in the first decade of the 20th century to preside, as university president, over the institution’s rapid secularization. The latter seems puzzling given Wilson’s avowal that universities of every type were most likely to flourish if “informed with the spirit of religion . . . the religion of Christ.” Hankins squares the circle by arguing that when Wilson spoke of religion in the latter context he meant, above all, morality. The scandalous particulars of Christian doctrine were out of place in a university that understood its mission as being “in the nation’s service.”

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