American Dream Series returns

August 10, 2006

American presidents shape the nation. But how do religious beliefs shape the presidents, particularly those who serve during times of war?

That question is the genesis of a fall lecture series and upcoming book by the Rev. Charles Brock, senior research associate in religious studies at Penn State Erie and director of the Institute on the American Dream. Brock will be the sole speaker in the institute's annual American Dream Series.

"I want to explore how religion affected presidents' governance," Brock said. "At its founding, America saw itself as a chosen 'redeemer nation' that used an Exodus model to explain the democratic American dream of liberty, equality and prosperity for the world. Up to Richard Nixon, this was almost a national civil religion with strong parallels to Judaism, Christian liberation theology and even Islam. There's since been a shift to a religious evangelicalism that borders on fundamentalism. It's very contentious stuff and not always nice, but that is democracy."

Brock examines the religious writings of 12 presidents loosely divided into four categories for the series "Presidential Religion and the American Dream: From Deism to Evangelicalism and the Mission of America." The first group, the Deists, will be discussed on Thursday, Sept. 7. Deism, a belief in God but not the divinity of Jesus, best describes George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. While none were outwardly religious men, all displayed a depth of spirituality in their writings that surprised Brock, Lincoln particularly. "Lincoln called himself a skeptic, but the Civil War, death of his son and his wife's emotional problems caused him to grow more profound. He got really deep at the end," Brock said, adding that he considers Lincoln's second inaugural address "the best theological writing in America."

Religious liberals -- Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt -- will be the topic of Brock's lecture on Thursday, Oct. 5. Liberals believe that mankind can redeem itself, and these presidents tried show the world how the American model could accomplish this.

A general tenet of religious conservatism is that human nature is deeply flawed and will find salvation only in God. Brock found that the presidencies of Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon can be defined by modified Calvinistic beliefs, particularly with Truman, Eisenhower and Nixon's efforts to end Communism. The conservative presidents will be discussed on Thursday, Nov. 2.

Finally, on Dec. 7, Brock will look at the evangelicals, who hold the most recent terms of the 12 presidents studied. Evangelicals, by definition, vigorously spread their convictions. The presidencies of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush reflect an approach that "answers a call from God to spread the American dream to all the world, a belief that this is the mission and purpose of America," Brock said.

All four lectures in the American Dream Series are free and open to the public, and will be held at 7:30 p.m. at Penn State Erie's Logan House.

Brock's lectures grow out of a book he has researched and written over the past three years, tentatively titled "Presidential Religion and the Mission of America: Deists, Liberals, Conservatives and Evangelicals as War Presidents."

Brock holds degrees from Carnegie Mellon, Harvard and Oxford universities, and taught at Oxford's Manchester University for 35 years. Following his retirement from Oxford, Brock founded the Institute on the American Dream at Penn State Erie. The institute seeks to examine the American Dream as an individual and national pursuit rooted in faith but sometimes interpreted in ways that are unhealthy for the nation and its citizenry. For more information about the Institute or the American Dream Series, call (814) 898-6032.

  • Charles Brock

    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated November 18, 2010