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Why a president’s faith may not matter
We’re accustomed to presidential displays of piety but historians say a president’s faith is no sure guide to how he will govern.
June 30th, 2012
10:00 PM ET

Why a president’s faith may not matter

By John Blake, CNN

He called himself a “life-long Quaker and a church-going Christian,” and at first there was no reason to doubt him.

He played piano in the church, taught Sunday school, and praised Jesus at revivals. His mother thought he was going to be a missionary. His friends said he would be a preacher.

We now know this former Sunday school teacher as “Tricky Dick” or, more formally, President Richard Nixon. He was one of the most corrupt and paranoid men to occupy the Oval Office. Nixon gave us Watergate, but he also gave presidential historians like Darrin Grinder a question to ponder:

Does a president’s religious faith make any difference in how he governs?

“I don’t think so,” says Grinder, author of “The Presidents and Their Faith,” which examines the faith of all American presidents.

“If I asked George W. Bush what he thought about torture, I think outside the presidency he would say he hates it,” Grinder says. “But he’d do it for the country if he thinks it’s right in terms of American security.”

We elect a president every four years, but perhaps we also elect a high priest.  Ever since George Washington spontaneously added “so help me God” to his inaugural oath, Americans have expected their presidents to believe in, worship and publicly invoke God.

A presidential candidate who doesn’t meet these religious expectations won’t go far, Grinder says.

“It’s going to be a long time before anyone who openly admits that he or she is an agnostic or an atheist is elected,” Grinder says. “We tie character and religious beliefs together.”

Piety and presidential greatness don’t always mix

 History suggests, however, that piety and presidential performance don’t always match. Some of America’s most religious presidents have been its most brutal. And two of its greatest presidents wouldn’t even be considered Christians today, scholars say.

Consider Abraham Lincoln, who is widely acknowledged as one of the nation’s three greatest presidents, along with Washington and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But Lincoln, who never joined a church, was not a Christian, says Niels C. Nielsen, author of “God in the Obama Era.”

“Lincoln believed in an active God, he believed in providence. But if you asked Lincoln if he believed in the deity of Jesus, he would have said no,” Nielsen says.

Or look at Roosevelt, who is virtually a national saint. With his perpetual grin and a cigarette holder perched jauntily in his mouth, he guided the nation through the Great Depression and World War II. His legacy is built on his New Deal, an array of programs that protected the poor and elderly from the abuses of unrestrained capitalism.

But Roosevelt was no saint in his personal life. He rarely talked publicly about his Episcopalian faith, preferred golf over church (before he was stricken by polio), and likely cheated on his wife, scholars say.

Yet few presidents embodied the biblical concept of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable” as much as Roosevelt, who once called the heartless business tycoons of his day “the money changers” in the temple.

Nielsen, the historian, suggests that it was Roosevelt’s suffering that drove him to look out for the most vulnerable, not his faith. According to his wife, Eleanor, polio taught her husband “infinite patience and never-ending persistence.”

“I think it made him more sensitive to the feelings of people,” Eleanor said, according to Nielsen.

Another contemporary president’s concern for others seemed to be driven more by his exposure to suffering than his faith.

Lyndon Johnson plunged America deeper into Vietnam. Yet his “Great Society” programs displayed a concern for “the least of these” in America. Under Johnson, the government launched programs to protect the civil rights of minorities, improve the educational chances of needy children and protect the environment.

Johnson saw poverty as a sin, something that should be attacked and defeated.

But Johnson never seemed to have any problem with a little personal sin. He grew up in Texas, where he affiliated with Disciples of Christ and Baptist churches. But he is widely believed to have stolen one of his earliest elections. He was a womanizer, historians say, and his speech was filled with such vulgarity that reporters had a difficult time quoting him on the record.

“He didn’t have any morality,” says Nielsen.

But he did have the experience of teaching in a poor, rural, immigrant school in Texas, Grinder says, where Johnson once said he learned “what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child.”

One of Johnson’s domestic advisers says in Grinder’s book that Johnson’s commitment to racial justice and eliminating poverty came from his teaching days in Texas.

“Equal opportunity became for him a constitutional obligation, and he pursued it with messianic conviction,” said Joseph Califano Jr.

Our first ‘infidel’ president

Some American presidents didn’t just seem indifferent to religion.  They were accused of being hostile to organized religion and dismissive of Jesus.

Washington, the nation’s first president, was not a Christian but most likely a Deist, someone who believed in a divine, beneficent being who ordered the world. Clergy would often try to goad him into publicly stating that he was a Christian, but he refused to do so, Grinder says.

Thomas Jefferson, though, aroused the hostility of more religious leaders than any other president, except perhaps for President Obama.

The nation’s third president once said that he didn’t care if his neighbor worshiped one God or 20, and argued for the separation of church and state. His opponents called him a pagan and an infidel. New England farm wives buried their family Bibles in gardens because they heard Jefferson would confiscate them, Grinder says.

Grinder wrote that one pastor who campaigned against Jefferson’s election warned:

“If Jefferson is elected, the Bible will be burned, the French Marseillaise will be sung in Christian churches, and we may see our wives and daughters become the victims of legal prostitution.”

Most presidents, however, didn't speak out against organized religion like Jefferson. Some took on the high priest role of the office, and few did it as eagerly as our nation’s seventh president, Andrew Jackson.

Jackson was a devout Presbyterian who read three to five chapters of the Bible daily, built a chapel in his Tennessee home and publicly attended two Washington churches while in the White House. He is known as one of the most devout presidents.

Yet he was also known for his violent temper (he killed a man in a duel) and for being a rich slaveholder. Jackson’s claim to infamy, though, comes primarily from his treatment of Native Americans. Some historians describe it as genocidal. He slaughtered Seminole Indians and their families in Florida, and he is responsible for the deaths of thousands of Cherokees, who he forced from their homeland in Georgia.

How could Jackson reconcile his fervent religious beliefs with the mass killings of Native Americans? Grinder thinks he knows:

“He was brutal because he did not believe the persons he was being brutal to were human.”

 Obama and his faith

Anyone who doubts that a president’s faith remains important to the American people has only to look at the experiences of Obama.

Obama has declared his Christianity in his biography, and in many speeches. He evoked it recently when he came out in support of same-sex marriages. But arguably no president has had his faith so aggressively questioned. Many Americans still believe he is a Muslim.

Stephen Mansfield, author of “The Faith of Barack Obama,” is a political conservative who has written about the evangelical faith of President George W. Bush. He became curious about Obama and spent time talking to Obama’s spiritual cabinet, a collection of ministers who counsel Obama.

Mansfield says he has no doubt that Obama is a devout Christian. His belief has angered some fellow conservatives so much that he says he has had speeches canceled and received angry e-mails.

“I take him seriously as a Christian,” Mansfield says. “He’s a politically liberal Christian man who is making a deeper journey of faith all the time.”

Mansfield says Obama’s health care law is an expression of faith: his belief that Christians are obligated to look out for the most vulnerable.

“Barack Obama believes that the mechanism of the state ought to be used in service of the biblical idea of saving the needy and the poor and the oppressed,” says Mansfield.

For some, though, Obama’s faith will always be associated with the angry sermons of Jeremiah Wright, his former pastor. Yet Mansfield says Obama has embraced a more traditional form of Christianity since becoming president.

In his book, Mansfield tells a story about Obama ministering to a pastor who had experienced a death in the family. Mansfield says he was stunned that Obama could draw so easily from a deep well of scripture to minister to a minister.

“He is serious about his faith,” says Mansfield, also author of  “The Mormonizing of America.”   “He’s absolutely not a Muslim.”

Nielsen, author of “God in the Obama Era,” has a theory why some Americans believe Obama is a Muslim.

“They hate him so much,” Nielsen says. “He’s polarized the country.”

Nielsen says Obama’s unconventional religious background may arouse suspicion, but it’s an asset. Obama was raised in Hawaii and Indonesia, where he was exposed to Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism and other religions. When he lived in Chicago, his Christianity was shaped by the black church’s emphasis on social justice.

“He knows more about world religions than anybody that’s been in the White House,” Nielsen says.

The persistent scrutiny of Obama’s faith, though, has helped his presidential opponent more than the president, says Grinder, author of “The Presidents and Their Faith.”

“If [Mitt] Romney had almost any other opponent than Obama, I think we’d be hearing a lot more about Mormonism,” Grinder says. “He would be in the same place that Obama has been in the last five years.”

Once Obama leaves the Oval Office, don’t expect the religious scrutiny of presidents to fade, Grinder says. We still want our presidents to act like a politician and a priest.

“The religious rhetoric gets louder each year,” he says. “That’s not going to change anytime soon.”

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Books • Christianity • Church • Church and state • Culture wars • History • Poverty • Uncategorized

soundoff (2,727 Responses)
  1. MCR

    What someone believes obviously influences what they will do, but where it becomes irrelevant is when we can't really know what someone believes. It's impossible to make it in politics without learning to lie (if you can't accept this, go back to your dream world), and religion, precisely because voters know it matters, will always be at the top of the lie list.

    October 23, 2012 at 11:48 am |
  2. DWN

    Its the President's job to do things like balance the budget and conduct foreign policy. I can read the Bible on my own thank you.

    October 18, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
  3. Kindness

    For you.
    My personal testamony
    I Follow Christ . I never wanted proof. I just had faith.

    HE WHO follows Me, walks not in darkness,” says the Lord (John 8:12). By these words
    of Christ we are advised to imitate His life and habits, if we wish to be truly enlightened and
    free from all blindness of heart. Let our chief effort, therefore, be to study the life of Jesus
    Christ.
    The teaching of Christ is more excellent than all the advice of the saints, and he who
    has His spirit will find in it a hidden manna. Now, there are many who hear the Gospel often
    but care little for it because they have not the spirit of Christ. Yet whoever wishes to understand
    fully the words of Christ must try to pattern his whole life on that of Christ.

    What good does it do to speak learnedly about the Trinity if, lacking humility, you
    displease the Trinity? Indeed it is not learning that makes a man holy and just, but a virtuous
    life makes him pleasing to God. I would rather feel contrition than know how to define it.
    For what would it profit us to know the whole Bible by heart and the principles of all the
    philosophers if we live without grace and the love of God? Vanity of vanities and all is vanity,
    except to love God and serve Him alone.

    This is the greatest wisdom—to seek the kingdom of heaven through contempt of the
    world. It is vanity, therefore, to seek and trust in riches that perish. It is vanity also to court
    honor and to be puffed up with pride. It is vanity to follow the lusts of the body and to desire
    things for which severe punishment later must come. It is vanity to wish for long life and
    to care little about a well-spent life. It is vanity to be concerned with the present only and
    not to make provision for things to come. It is vanity to love what passes quickly and not
    to look ahead where eternal joy abides.
    Often recall the proverb: “The eye is not satisfied with seeing nor the ear filled with
    hearing.”1 Try, moreover, to turn your heart from the love of things visible and bring
    yourself to things invisible. For they who follow their own evil passions stain their consciences
    and lose the grace of God.

    October 14, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  4. Kindness

    Kindness
    kindness
    This is my experience... Thank you.

    MY personal testimony.
    A thought to consider without an ego response

    I Accepted Jesus christ as my lord and saviour. You never know how soon is too late. Transcend the worldly illusion of enslavement.
    The world denounces truth....

    Accepting Jesus Christ (for me) resulted in something like seeng a new colour. You will see it .....but will not be able to clearly explain it to anyone else..... Its meant to be that way to transend any selfism within you.

    Also... much the world arranges "surrounding dark matter into something to be debated" in such a way that protects/inflates the ego.

    The key is be present and transcend our own desire to physically see evidence. We don't know anyways by defending our own perception of dark matter.

    Currently.... most of us are constructing our own path that suits our sin lifestyle. Were all sinners. Knowing that we are is often an issue. But both christians and non are sinners. Even once we are saved by christs merciful grace we will still experience adversity to mold us to adhering to the truth.
    We will slip... But not fall of the ship ...carrying us onward to perfection in christs grace.

    We don't like to Let go and let god. We want control to some degree. This is what Jesus asks us to do. "Follow me".
    It's the hardest thing to do... but is done by letting the truth of scripture lead you (redemptive revelation)... as I said .

    Try reading corinthians and see if it makes sense to you. Try it without a pre conceived notion of it being a fairy tale.
    See the truth...
    do we do what it says in todays society... is it relevant... so many have not recently read and only hinge their philosophy on what they have heard from some other person...which may have been full of arogance pride or vanity..

    Look closely at the economy ponzi, look at how society idolizes Lust , greed , envy, sloth, pride of life, desire for knowledge, desire for power, desire for revencge,gluttony with food etc .

    Trancsend the temporal world.

    Just think if you can find any truth you can take with you ....in any of these things. When you die your riches go to someone who will spend away your life..... You will be forgotten.... history will repeat iteslf.... the greatest minds knowledge fade or are eventually plagerzed..... your good deeds will be forgotten and only give you a fleeting temporary reward . your learned teachings are forgotten or mutated..... your gold is transfered back to the rullers that rule you through deception. Your grave will grow over . This is truth .

    Trancsend your egoism and free yourself from this dominion of satan. Understand you are a sinner and part of the collective problem of this worldly matrix... Repent.... Repent means knowing (to change) The Holy spirit (within) will convict you beyond what you think you can do by yourself. Grace is given to those who renounce the world. That are" in" the world but not "of " the world.

    Evidence follows faith. Faith does not follow evidence..... Faith ....above reason in Jesus Christ.

    Faith comes by Reading or Hearing the word of god from the bible . Ask Jesus in faith for dicernment and start reading the new testament... You will be shocked when you lay down your preconceived notions and ....see and hear truth ... see how christ sets an example ... feel the truth....

    Read Ecclesiastes. Read romans or corinthians.

    You cant trancend your own egoism by adapting a world philosophy to suit your needs. Seek the truth in Christ.

    Sell all your cleverness and purchase true bewilderment. You don't get what you want ....you get what you are by faith above reason in christ.

    I promise this has been the truth for me. In Jesus christ .

    Think of what you really have to lose. ...your ego?

    Break the Matrix of illusion that holds your senses captive.

    once you do . you too will have the wisdom of God that comes only through the Holy Spirit. Saved By grace through Faith. Just like seeing a new colour.... can't explain it to a transient caught in the matrix of worldly deception.
    You will also see how the world suppresses this information and distorts it

    You're all smart people . I tell the truth. Its hard to think out of the box when earthly thinking is the box.
    I'ts a personal free experience you can do it free anytime . Don't wait till you are about to die.. START PUTTING YOUR TREASURES WHERE THEY REALLY MATTER >
    Its awsome and It's just between you and Jesus

    my testimony

    Romans 10:9

    "If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved
    Last eve I passed beside a blacksmith’s door,
    And heard the anvil ring the vesper chime;
    The, looking in, I saw upon the floor
    Old hammers, worn with beating years of time.
    “How many anvils have you had,” said I,
    “To wear and batter all these hammers so?”
    “Just one,” said he, and then with twinkling eye,
    “The anvil wears the hammers out, you know.”
    And so, thought I, the anvil of God’s Word,
    For ages skeptic blows have beat upon;
    Yet, though the noise of falling blows was heard,
    The anvil is unharmed – the hammers gone.

    Truth is..exclusive

    October 14, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  5. Kirk

    all governments are corrupt......(Matthew 4:8, 9) . . .Again the Devil took him along to an unusually high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, 9 and he said to him: “All these things I will give you if you fall down and do an act of worship to me.”

    October 11, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.