Stephen Mansfield | 2011 Distinguished Alumni Citation
Stephen Mansfield's road to top-selling literary accomplishments didn't have a particularly auspicious start.
As a 30-year-old graduate student at ACU in the late 1980s, Mansfield was kicked out of Brown Library for wearing shorts.
That incident notwithstanding, the ACU alumnus and former senior pastor at Belmont Church in Nashville has created a new career as an author whose books on the faith of national figures, including the past two presidents, have placed him at or near the top of best-seller lists across the world.
Mansfield, a 2011 ACU Distinguished Alumni Citation recipient, earned his Master's degree from ACU in 1988, combining classes from history, political science and biblical studies to fit his interest in faith as a civic institution.
Under the tutelage of professors such as Drs. Bill Humble, James Burrow, Ian Fair and Mel Hailey, Mansfield said he had "the perfect faculty" with which to pursue "the perfect degree."
"Every day I lecture or write, I'm drawing from that well," he said. "It really was a marvelous experience."
First, however, he went into ministry and spent 20 years as a pastor, culminating with his role as senior minister at Belmont Church, the Nashville congregation that has become known as the home of Christian music artist Michael W. Smith, among others.
Mansfield began writing on the side, completing first a book about Winston Churchill and then volumes on Booker T. Washington and George Whitfield. He later fulfilled a request from Tennessee's governor to write the state's religious history for its bicentennial.
"I'd put the kids to bed," he said, "and at 10 p.m. I'd start writing, for about three hours every night."
In 2002, Mansfield said he felt it was time to write and lecture full-time and, in a lunch meeting soon after he resigned from Belmont, an agent asked him if he was interested in writing a book about President Bush's Christian beliefs.
"I was one of those guys who knew he wasn't going to pastor forever," he said. "Almost immediately, I had the chance to write The Faith of George W. Bush."
"I had been paying attention to his faith," Mansfield said of the 43rd president. "I said I’d like to do that book. By the end of the day, the deal was on its way to being signed."
Released a year before Bush's 2004 re-election, The Faith of George W. Bush shot into the Top 30 of the New York Times' weekly bestseller list for hardcover nonfiction, and later into the Top 15 on the paperback list, selling a total of roughly 1.5 million copies.
"When we put the deal together, we knew the book had some promise," Mansfield said, "but we didn't expect it would do as well as it did. A lot of it had to do with the times: the right timing, a president who wasn't clear (about his specific beliefs), and a looming election."
Although Mansfield said he tended to agree with Bush politically and theologically, he strove for objectivity. Mansfield said he knew he'd "made it" when evangelical Christian leader James Dobson and the Arabic news channel Al Jazeera both cited the book on the same day.
"I criticized the president a little bit, questioned some of his theological depth," he said. "The book is just a good, hard look at his faith."
Four years later, Mansfield shopped around a sequel of sorts, a similar book about presidential candidate Barack Obama. To his surprise, Christian publishers and booksellers were cool to the idea.
"Most Christian publishers didn't want to touch it," he said. "I think they didn't want to be seen as endorsing Obama. There were some major Christian bookstores that wouldn't even carry the book."
Mansfield made clear he doesn't consider either book an endorsement of its presidential subject, but rather a look at how faith has formed the person and policies of the chief executive.
With rumors about Obama's faith continuing to circulate as he wrote the book, Mansfield said he took on directly the myth of Obama-as-Muslim.
"I believed at the time, and I believe now, that Barack Obama has a strong but non-traditional Christian faith," Mansfield said. "I made it very, very clear, but people who hate him just hate him and refused to believe the president had any faith at all."
Bush and Obama both came to faith later in life and believe their Christianity undergirds and supports the policies they advocate, Mansfield said.
But, given the differences in those policies, it's clear they view their faith in much different ways, he added.
"The main difference is that George W. Bush is a theologically conservative evangelical who has been shaped by the leading lights of the religious right," Mansfield said, citing names such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. "Barack Obama reads the same Bible and sees something completely different."
Whereas Bush would focus on passages such as 2 Thessalonians 3:10 - "If a man will not work, he shall not eat" - Obama focuses on the prophets railing against mistreatment of the poor, Mansfield said.
Although it didn't sell as well in the United States, Mansfield said The Faith of Barack Obama has topped bestseller lists internationally and been translated into more than 20 languages.
The success of those books has led to others along the same lines.
Mansfield is writing about the faith of Abraham Lincoln and recently released Where Has Oprah Taken Us?, analyzing the religious impact of Oprah Winfrey on American culture.
He also speaks around the world and leads Chartwell Literary Group, a firm that creates and manages literary projects, and he sometimes appears as a contributor on Fox News Channel and CNN.
And often he thinks back to his time as a 30-year-old graduate student, though perhaps not as often to his grave library-fashion error.
"There's not a day that goes by," Mansfield said, "that I don’t draw on something I was inspired to pursue at ACU."