Miller Center

Riding The Tiger

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

Highlight from the Recasting Presidential History Conference: Darren Dochuk on Religious Ecologies

Darren Dochuck, “There Will Be Oil: Presidential Politics, Wildcat Religion, and the Culture Wars of Pipeline Politics.”

Darren Dochuk’s paper and presentation at the Miller Center’s Recasting Presidential History conference in October is another terrific example of cutting edge work that points to the rich opportunities for conservation between political history, social and cultural history and the presidency. Dochuk, an Associate Professor in the Humanities at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis, asserts that there are relatively few historians who have foregrounded religion in their studies of the presidency and that those who have, have generally done so in ways that resonate with the old presidential synthesis of history that deemed the supreme commander the supreme force in American politics. There is a familiar narrative among historians who write of faith and presidency in which presidents, “humbled by sin, budding politician encounters God, dedicates life to civil service, appeals to his people with piety, then as the anointed governs with a firm imposition of will.” Faith in this popular storyline is an isolated impulse or a catalogued theology of the president that doesn’t track to the day-to-day muddles of real politics. The measurement of belief and action is usually done within the context of culture war issues like abortion and gay marriage. According to Dochuk, what remains is a rather superficial literature “in which priestly presidents still act as free-floating agents who dictate, not simply embody, the spirit of their age.”

Dochuk invites us to instead consider a new, more exciting dimension in our rendering of presidential history by examining how presidents have grappled with the sacred environments they have inherited. We need to look beyond spiritual biographies and “examine the religious ecologies that shape the politics of a place, and define the presidents and presidencies that emerge from them.” Recent innovations, for example, have shown how religious interests, especially Protestant ones, have influenced presidential politics and policy. Scholarly progress can be made by moving away from conventional renderings of the priestly president towards more textured political histories that embed presidencies and presidents in their deepest social contexts. Dochuk makes that case that a new generation of scholars should pay attention to the “moral geographies that presidencies and presidents inhabit and engage,” and in so doing, “we will also be compensated with histories that make it harder to differentiate between the social and political, the political and religious.”