Religious Life of Past Presidents 'Understudied,' Expert Says

WASHINGTON – A professor of public policy has recently argued that the significance of religion in the lives of former U.S. presidents has been largely "understudied" by scholars.

Professor Mark J. Rozell of George Mason University was part of a panel that met Monday at the National Press Club to discuss the role of religion in American politics.

"Many social scientists in particular dismissed the importance of religion as a variable in American politics and I think that was a mistake," said Rozell in an interview with CP.

"They had believed that religion was not all that important in the composition of the electorate in terms of how people vote and policies of presidential administrations."

Rozell believes that "a lot of the research" he and others have done on past presidents suggests "quite the opposite."

One reason Rozell believes these misconceptions about past presidents came about is because, according to him, up until recently presidents seldom talked publicly about their religious views.

"And perhaps as I suggested part of the reason was that many leaders of an earlier generation tended not to speak as openly as leaders do today about religion and faith," said the professor of public policy.

"Yet that did not mean they lacked religious commitment," said Rozell, who added that "overt displays of faith and belief" are more "common right now."

The panel discussion took place the same day as the release of Religion and The American Presidency, a book of essays focusing on the role of religion in American politics. Rozell edited the contents along with Gleaves Whitney, director of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at Grand Valley State University.

"Religion has been a major motivating influence on the decisions of certain presidents who were perceived by their contemporaries even as nonreligious," said Rozell during the event.

According to him and the writers that contributed to the book of essays, Dwight Eisenhower was "intensely religious" and Bill Clinton had "a faith deeply rooted in [his] childhood experiences."

Regarding the upcoming 2012 presidential election, Rozell told CP he believes that should Mitt Romney become the nominee, most evangelical Christians will vote for the Republican candidate.

"Evangelical voters largely will vote Republican as they have in the past several election cycles despite whatever differences they may have with Mitt Romney on some issues or whatever level of discomfort there is with his Mormon faith," said Rozell.

"Ultimately the dislike of Barack Obama's policies by conservative white evangelicals is going to drive those voters again to the Republican Party."

Other panelists included Dr. Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America; Barbara Bradley Hagerty, religion correspondent for National Public Radio; Dr. Robert Jones, CEO and founder of the Public Religion Research Institute; and Dr. Melissa Deckman, chair of the political science department at Washington College.

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