Monday, August 22, 2016

"Sort of romantic experience..."

Thomas Kidd interviews Barry Hankins, the author of a new book about the faith of Woodrow Wilson. It strikes me that Wilson's approach to the Christian faith was very similar to the approach of many Seventh Day Baptists of my grandfather's generation. From the interview:
...Wilson jettisoned the doctrines of his youth but not the spirituality. This was because he was very 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. ....

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. ....

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. ....

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. ....