The Faith of Woodrow Wilson: An Interview with Barry Hankins

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Today’s post is an interview with my Baylor colleague and sometime co-author Barry Hankins. His most recent book is Woodrow Wilson: Ruling Elder, Spiritual President (Oxford University Press).

Kidd: What difference did it make that Woodrow Wilson was a Presbyterian? Did that tradition contribute anything unique to his religious and vocational understanding?

Hankins: It made a big difference when he was growing up. But I argue that as a scholar, university president, governor, then president of the United States, Wilson jettisoned the doctrines of his youth but not the spirituality. This was because he was typical of the Progressive Era. Leading progressives like Wilson believed they had moved into a new era in which progress was possible on all fronts. Using modern science and thought forms associated with it they believed this new era was different in kind and superior to all that had come before. Theological doctrine was one of the things many progressives left behind.

Wilson believed doctrinal fights were useless, even detrimental to the cause of “true” religion. The real essence of Christianity was to do good in the world publicly and have a warm, personal, sort of romantic experience of God privately. Wilson even spoke of “new coat of doctrine,” which was essentially working for justice in the world while leaving behind the old doctrines. This is why he secularized Princeton, making Bible and theology courses elective, eliminating the confessional requirement for faculty, and relegating spiritual formation off to the chapel and campus YMCA. The new “Christian” mission of Princeton Wilson articulated in his Sesquicentennial Address (1896), and reprised at his presidential installation in 1902, “Princeton in the Nation’s Service.” Service to the nation replaced service to the church.

You note that Wilson was influenced by theological liberalism, but also that he grew generally uninterested in doctrinal matters. Was he basically unreflective about theology, or was his practical temperament a product of his theological liberalism?

He was remarkably unreflective about his faith, while devout at the same time. He read his Bible and prayed regularly, including with his daughters. He gave chapel talks often while at Princeton. Still, what surprised me most in writing the book is how little Wilson thought or wrote about religion except when he discussed religion itself. In other words, when discussing political reform, war, or educational matters in his private letters, there was a marked absence of theological reflection. Even in his love letters to his first wife, Ellen, while they courted, neither said much about seeking God’s will for their lives, something that would have been rather routine in 19th-century evangelicalism.

One would expect that a committed Christian, reared in the rich southern Presbyterian tradition, and a scholar himself, would think deeply about the theological implications of nearly everything. Wilson didn’t. For him, to be a Christian was to cultivate private piety and public justice—a sort of two spheres approach. He didn’t believe doctrine helped much in these matters. One specific and surprising example: there is no evidence he worked out the relationship of biological evolution and the Christian faith, the way so many of his era did. Evolution was science, science was good for humanity, therefore science was God’s work. Scientific endeavor was a Christian endeavor.

I think Wilson was profoundly wrong about the importance of theology and that his career and place in history suffered accordingly. The doctrine that might have helped him most as a public official was the Westminster Confession’s passage on total depravity. This was especially true when WWI came. Wilson flipped from total condemnation of both sides in the war, to the view that the Germans were singularly evil and had to be utterly defeated and humiliated so that justice could be done.

After U.S. entry, he was unable to see the complexity of the war and that there was plenty of evil on all sides. Rather, the war itself became for him, not a tragic necessity in a fallen world, but a cause in which soldiers shed “sacred blood” so the world could be made safe for democracy. He believed WWI was the war to end all wars. Or, as he said himself, “The moral climax of this the culminating and final war for human liberty has come.” Instead, as we know now, it was a prelude to a much bigger war.

The Germans were utterly defeated, but not in the war. There was hardly any fighting on German soil. Rather, they were humiliated and emasculated at the Peace of Versailles. Here again, Wilson’s boyhood theological training in the Westminster Confession might have made him more realistic about the leaders of Britain and France—David Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau. Over Wilson’s protests, the final treaty punished Germany, which left the German people looking for a national savior to restore their greatness. And we all know who that “savior” was.

Wilson was totally unequipped to deal with the wily European statesmen, in part because he had lost sight of the fact that everything humans do is tainted by sin. “All the motions thereof, are truly and properly sin,” as the Westminster Confession says. The absence of this sense that we’re all cut from the same cloth, so to speak, rendered him overly idealistic, unrealistic, and naïve about the limited prospects for real historic change. Then, when America rejected not only the treaty but his cherished League of Nations, he became resentful and disillusioned. And he died a bitter old man. His life ended as a tragedy just five years after he was the most highly acclaimed and dearly loved hero in the world.

Modern presidents like George W. Bush have been criticized for spiritualizing too many political issues (in his case, the spread of democracy and the “War on Terror”). Do you think that Wilson ever tended to confuse his political opinions with God’s?

Yes. Wilson was a very smart person who accomplished more than most mortals. His intellect and his deep sense of righteousness and justice were positive attributes. But, at times, especially at the end of his life, he became intransigent, and I have to believe it was partly because deep down he believed he knew better than lesser mortals. (There may also have been medical issues, as he suffered from hardening of the arteries, which can lead to this sort of intransigence.) Finally, as was so typical of his era, he equated the advance of American-styled democracy with the advance of the kingdom.

What was the best, most admirable thing about the role of faith in Wilson’s political career? What was the worst, or most cautionary aspect?

The most admirable thing was that he wanted to advance justice. Even here, however, he had a huge blind spot on the issue of race. Again, this was quite typical of his time.

As for the worst, I have to mention Wilson’s long-running emotional affair with Mary Allen Hulbert Peck—known to her friends as “The Widow Peck.” They met in Bermuda in 1907 while Wilson vacationed there alone, and the relationship lasted until Wilson’s second marriage in 1915. I believe the affair was made possible in part by his tendency to spiritualize everything. It got to the point where he confused his spiritual experience with God with nearly anything that stirred his heart.

His second wife, Edith, helped him realize that what he had done while married to Ellen (who died in 1914) was wrong, even if the relationship never became sexual. He was deeply ashamed. I know it sounds far-fetched to connect a statesman’s mistress with his religious faith, but I think I’ve got the evidence to do it.

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