Sunday, July 11, 2021

Benjamin J. Wetzel's "Theodore Roosevelt: Preaching from the Bully Pulpit"

Benjamin J. Wetzel is Assistant Professor of History at Taylor University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Theodore Roosevelt: Preaching from the Bully Pulpit, and reported the following:
A reader who opened to page 99 of my book would find himself or herself in the middle of Chapter Four, a chapter dealing with domestic issues during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency. In particular, the reader would find a discussion of the infamous “Brownsville Incident” of 1906, where Roosevelt dishonorably discharged a group of African American soldiers because they had allegedly engaged in a shooting spree in Brownsville, Texas. Page 99 goes over the basic facts of the case as well as its political aftermath. While Roosevelt always asserted that his actions were righteous, nearly all modern historians conclude that the soldiers’ dismissal was based on racial prejudice. The bottom of the page discusses how religious journals commented on the controversy. Some upheld the president’s actions but others criticized him for a rush to judgment.

The ”Page 99 Test” works fairly well for my book. Theodore Roosevelt: Preaching from the Bully Pulpit is a religious biography of the 26th president. As such, it covers all of the major events of Roosevelt’s life (such as the Brownsville incident) that one would expect in a standard biography. However, my book is different because it zeroes in on how Roosevelt’s religious beliefs and doubts factored into his more well-known accomplishments. The book also contextualizes Roosevelt in the American religious landscape of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. So there are quite a few examples of where the book discusses a “secular” incident like Brownsville but then seeks to understand how religious communities interpreted the incident.

The main themes of the book, however, center more on Roosevelt’s own beliefs and how they impacted his career. I argue that he was a spiritual pilgrim who, despite being a lifelong churchgoer, changed considerably in this theological beliefs. He was also a “bully pulpit preacher” who never tired of exhorting his fellow citizens to morality and who often quoted the King James Bible in doing so. Roosevelt was also a sharp defender of the separation of church and state, consistently opposing favoritism toward any religious sect. Finally, the famous president was also a religious ecumenist: that is, he urged tolerance for a wide variety of religious persuasions. While he himself remained a mainline Protestant, he supported marginalized groups like Jews, Catholics, Mormons, and Unitarians, helping move them a little closer toward the religious mainstream.
Learn more about Theodore Roosevelt: Preaching from the Bully Pulpit at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue