As he started work on his book about President Abraham Lincoln and Christian faith, Stephen Mansfield saw two dominant narratives and didn't accept either.
"My goal was not to establish him as a raging atheist, as some have made him out to be, or a shining example of Christian faith or some other faith," Mansfield says. "My goal was to say that he was on a search, on a journey that got interrupted by an assassin's bullet."
He says that in his new book, Lincoln's Battle with God (Thomas Nelson, 241 pages, $22.99), which was published to coincide with the release of Stephen Spielberg's biopic, Lincoln, which opened in Lexington Friday.
Faith and the presidency is familiar ground for Mansfield, right, as his previous efforts include The Faith of George W. Bush (2003) and The Faith of Barack Obama (2008). But he traces his interest in faith and politics back to Ronald Reagan, who was in office from 1981 to 1989.
"I came of age politically when Reagan was first elected, and once he got in office, he was contemplating religious themes that might have had a direct impact on what he was doing in the Oval Office," Mansfield says. "I began to realize that faith can impact leadership and can shape what a president does, and we ought to pay attention to it.
"But it was Reagan sitting in the Oval Office reading about Armageddon and wondering what his role was in it as president that made me realize faith is an important part of all leadership really, if a man is sincere about it, but certainly presidents."
Writing about presidents from the past is a different sort of task from writing about living chief executives.
"If I can interview Obama, if I can interview Obama's sister, if I can interview four or five other people, you're pretty close to getting the story of his faith," says Mansfield, who also wrote Never Give In: The Extraordinary Character of Winston Churchill (1995). "That's not true with Lincoln. You've got to consult 120 books, and you've just started."
And not all of those books say the same thing. As Mansfield said, there are strongly conflicting concepts about Lincoln's faith.
"What is interesting is how much harder it was to drill down into the truth," Mansfield says. "When you're dealing with a man of Lincoln's stature and a man who lived a century and a half ago, there was so much myth. Much of what is believed about Lincoln was reported by some elderly man who heard it for five minutes and was reported 40 years after his death."
In talking about faith, there is the added problem that he knew his conclusions would be challenged by people with agendas of their own.
It's a challenge he addresses in the introduction of the book, an account of Lincoln's last moments in which he told his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, that with the war over he wanted to, "visit the holy land and see those places hallowed by the footsteps of the savior."
He acknowledges in the next section that, "critics will say, to insist that these words are true or that they are any reflection of Lincoln's faith is part of a religious reworking of his life ..."
But he goes on to say that the words were reported by Mary Todd Lincoln and are included in numerous histories, and are even alluded to in Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals, which was the basis for the Lincoln movie.
"I certainly was careful with evidence and rejected a good deal of it, even on the page," says Mansfield, who notes he submitted the entire text of the book to the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill., which, "signed off" on it. But I wasn't making such an iron-clad case that I had to consider every little piece of testimony about his faith. Once I had established that as early as 1845, 1851 he's attending church, having serious conversations with clergymen and a few other things like that, you've established the fact that at least he's not a raging atheist."
But Lincoln certainly had a complicated faith life, colored by the death he had to deal with throughout his life, from his mother's painful death when he was 9, to two of sons dying, to the carnage of the Civil War. That was the context in which Mansfield said he made his most surprising discovery about Lincoln.
"I knew Lincoln rejected his parents' faith and was the village atheist early on," Mansfield says. "I did not know that he felt himself cursed and rejected by God because of his mother's illegitimate birth. So his friends said, he's going around as the village atheist, but what he's really doing is hiding his pain."
Mansfield has seen Lincoln, and while he says there are a few "Disney-esque" elements, he calls the film, "a gift to the nation," and says, "Daniel Day Lewis exudes more Lincoln just sitting there than most actors in entire performances."
He says the movie doesn't directly address Lincoln's faith, but then that wasn't really the point of the movie. He does say Spielberg has previously done a great job of addressing faith on film, particularly in the slave drama Amistad (1997).
Mansfield plans to next direct his attention to some novels set in Biblical cities of the first century.
"Sometimes, when you've been doing the same thing for a while, and it's always controversial to someone, you want to take a break," Mansfield says. "But I will always come back to faith and leadership."