Why I read presidential biographies, and you should too

February 19, 2018

One of the great pleasures of my life is to read biographies of U.S. presidents. These are not the only types of biographies I read. I try to read about figures in church history, world leaders, and other interesting people, such as musicians or people of influence. But a large percentage of my reading has to do with those rare people who have occupied 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

I realize that most people don’t have the same interests as I do, so I won’t judge you if you don’t consume as many presidential bios as me. Still, I think there is value in reading about the rare lives of our presidents. Here are three reasons I find value in them:

1. Reading presidential biographies gives you important snapshots of American history

This could be said for any kind of biographies: by reading about someone’s life, you read about the times in which they live. Reading presidential biographies gives a rare window into the era that person inhabited. Recently, I finished Ron Chernow’s excellent book on Ulysses S. Grant. When I put that book down, I came away with not only a portrait of one of the most important and heroic figures in American history, but a history of the Civil War,  glimpse of Abraham Lincoln through the eyes of someone who worked most closely with him, and a history of the difficult period of the period of reconstruction in the American South.

You can read and study history—and you should (see my next point)—but what better way to read it than through the eyes of its most important figures. Biographies personalize history, they put flesh and blood on these dates and places and events. The best biographers, like Chernow, add the cadence of good storytelling to their research and make the pages hum along.

2. Reading presidential biographies gives you a settled sense of history

Reading history settles the mind and reminds us that the challenges we might face today, the news stories and issues that dominate our news feeds, are no more vexing than the issues faced by previous generations of Americans. Our times may look and feel different, but every generation has faced temptation, challenge, tragedy, and triumph. I have found that reading presidential history has kept me from over-estimating current events. We are so tempted in our age of outrage to think every piece of legislation is “the best ever” or “the worst ever.” We are tempted to view our public figures today, in the heat of the moment, as either angels or monsters, when reading history reminds us that they probably are neither.

The passions of the moment keep us from evaluating presidents well when they are in office. We either praise everything they do, or we oppose everything they do. But once decades or centuries have passed, we can look at them with fresh eyes, letting historians do their work to give us the good and the bad and understand their times with new lenses.

Most importantly, reading these biographies has helped me understand the way that God directs history in ways we rarely see when history is actually happening. History is fragile, really. If a few things happened differently—if bullets don’t narrowly miss General Washington, if one House member votes differently in the election of 1876, if John F. Kennedy plans his Texas trip differently, if Gerald Ford doesn’t inexplicably forget about missiles in Europe, if a few voters in Florida vote differently—America might look different. I choose to believe that history—not simply American history, but all of human history—is not random, but that God is gathering it to himself for his glory.

3. Reading presidential biographies allows us to learn from the complicated lives of our leaders

Our human tendency is to either lionize or demonize our leaders. It’s especially acute in the present: the passions of the moment force us to one side or the other. But reading biographies of leaders in past eras allows us to let time and distance settle our opinions as good historians are able to chronicle their subjects fairly, without the sharp pen of a partisan critic or the glowing ink of hagiography. In fact, I choose not to read books that either excessively fawn over a president or that excessively criticize.

Presidents, like the rest of us, are and were complicated people. Our best heroes, who grace our currency and who boast monuments in their honor, are humans, people of their times, full of incredible and heroic feats and shameful and disturbing behaviors.

Take a man like Thomas Jefferson, whose brilliant mind helped conceived this new idea of a democratic republic. Without Jefferson, we don’t have this idea of religious liberty. And yet this same man owned slaves, with little remorse over the inhumanity of the institution. His own conception of liberty did not extend to people of color. He could not, sadly, conceive of a society where the races lived, side-by-side, in harmony. And while some of his ideas were borrowed from Scripture, Jefferson also chose to believe what he wanted about God’s revelation and chose to discard what he didn’t want to believe.

It is good to read biographies of presidents, not only to learn from their triumphs and failures, but also to recognize in them and, if we are humble enough, in us, the same complicated mix of good and evil the Bible tells us exists in every human soul. Most of us will not have biographies written about us, but if there were, they’d likely contain the same complicated portraits. We too, in this moment, have commendable traits and also have stunning, hideous blindspots. We tend to think we are the first generation to get it right, but we are not.

History reminds us of the narrative we see in Scripture—that even the best heroes fall short of the glory of God. Only one man—the God-man—lived a perfect life and satisfied the Father. And only one human can save us, from ourselves, from the curse of sin, and from the wiles of the devil. Jesus, who defeated sin and death and the grace, has inaugurated and will fully establish the world’s only truly righteous rule in his kingdom, long after America and every other nation recedes into the vapor of history.

Tips for reading biographies:

Daniel Darling

Daniel Darling is the Director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a columnist for World Magazine and a contributor to USA Today. Dan is a bestselling author of several books including, The Dignity Revolution, A Way With Words, and The Characters of … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24