Cara Lea Burnidge on Religion and Woodrow Wilson
Date: May 7th, 2017

Woodrow Wilson served as the 28th president of the United States from 1913-21 and was deeply influenced by two important streams of American Christian faith — southern Calvinist Presbyterianism and the social gospel movement.  In this fascinating interview, Prof. Cara Lea Burnidge, assistant professor of philosophy & world religions at the University of Northern Iowa, explains how this spiritual upbringing shaped Wilson’s vision that ultimately led to his promotion of the League of Nations.  Our discussion starts, as is often the case, examining how Prof. Burnidge became interested in this topic and she reveals how she came to admire Alice Paul, an important figure in the social Christianity movement for much of the 20th century.  We also take a brief tangent into discussing why Washburn University’s mascot is named the Fighting Ichabod, an interesting story that connects to Dr. Burnidge’s own intellectual interest in the history of religion and politics in the early 20th century.  Cara then provides a brief biography of Woodrow Wilson, emphasizing his upbringing in a strict southern Presbyterian home that emphasized patriarchy and saw slavery as part of God’s mission for America.  Interestingly, his family also emphasized the role of play and leisure.  We follow Woodrow’s intellectual trajectory to Princeton University where he is influenced by the growing social gospel movement in the United States, softening many of his family’s previous views on slavery and race.  His brief stint as Princeton University’s president shows his evolving views of Christian mission and after stepping down from that position he eventually moves into politics, serving as governor of New Jersey and then tossing his hat into the ring of the 1912 presidential election.  With a divided field of contenders, Wilson emerges victorious in that contest and begins an agenda of domestic social change based upon his Christian views.  The death of his first wife and World War I alters his presidency in important ways, and Cara discusses how Wilson begins to see America’s role in the world through his Christian vision.  We discuss Wilson’s view of the “equality of nations,” that has a paternalistic flavor to it in that wealthier nations are charged with caring for the less-developed nations of the world.  His advocacy of the League of Nations also has a strongly Christian vision to it, and Prof. Burnidge points out that the treaty establishing it was called The Covenant of the League of Nations, emphasizing the importance of voluntary acquiescence to it based upon a shared vision.  Although the League of Nations eventually failed, Dr. Burnidge points out a number of legacies that Wilson left for America’s foreign policy as the country becomes a major player in world affairs.  We end our discussion with Cara’s reflections on what she has learned over the course of her studies on this important historical figure and the times he inhabited. She remarks that it is important to understand historical events through the eyes of the historical subjects themselves.  Recorded: May 3, 2017.



Prof. Cara Lea Burnidge’s personal website and bio at the Dept. of Philosophy & World Religions at  University of Northern Iowa.

A Peaceful Conquest: Woodrow Wilson, Religion, and the New World Order, by Cara Lea Burnidge.

Religious Influences on US Foreign Policy,” by Cara Lea Burnidge (free access via Oxford).

Princeton for the Nation’s Service,” speech given by Woodrow Wilson in 1902 (mentioned in podcast).

The Fourteen Points, by Woodrow Wilson.

The Wilsonian Moment, by Erez Manela (mentioned in podcast).

Department of History at Washburn University  and a Fighting Ichabod (mentioned affectionately in the podcast).


Thomas Farr on Religion, Religious Liberty, and US Diplomacy.

John Wilsey on American Exceptionalism & Foreign Policy.

Gary Scott Smith on Presidential Faith.

Philip Jenkins on Religion & World War I.

Paul Harvey on Religion in the American South.

Phoenix Moomaw on Ronald Reagan’s Faith.

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