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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. IslandAtheist

    Faith is gullibility, so it should matter.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:26 am |
  2. Jason

    The largest religion on the planet is the Monetary Religion the belief in money. Every penny minted, every dollar printed is faith based in value. A idol of the world, people place it foremost in their lives. They place it before the health of others, and their own God, they even give offering to their god using this idol. The entire monetary system is a farce, a contrivance. Invented, and perpetuated by people out of pure ignorance of what money really is. Any Christian who is wealthy is a hypocrite, because they put implicit faith in something other then their own God. They worship it by crying about how much it costs to provide for another human when in fact the cost is nothing. For money has no value but through faith. It isn't backed by resources, or even reality, it is manifested from nothing. Of course it is a given in some peoples lives that this is how the world is, but of course it was a given at one point that the sun revolved around the world, and that the world was flat. That demons caused sickness, and witches really existed. I do not like money, I view it as a form of slavery. I view that currency as a limiting factor on all of humanity, that causes abject misery for billions, while elevating a few to a prosperity that is off the back of those billions. Capitalism, Communism, Fascism are all the same aspect of this faith, just like Protestants, Catholics, and Presbyterians are just different denominations of Christianity. The entire concept is flawed, and without being founded on basic physical laws of nature, immutable laws, it will fail. And billions of people will suffer needlessly for the sake of the few. If you want to talk about religion then this is the one that really matters, because no religion pervades humanity as much as the Monetary Religion.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • rand

      yes..... those rich Christians who have faith are such hypocrites............like Bill Gate and his foundation he and his wife started. They go to church EVERY SUNDAY................just like the wealthy Kennedys did and still do................

      July 1, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • vulpecula

      @rand
      for the people that don't recognize your sarcasm.

      Gates was interviewed November 1995 on PBS by David Frost. Below is the transcript with minor edits.

      Frost: Do you believe in the Sermon on the Mount?

      Gates: I don't. I'm not somebody who goes to church on a regular basis. The specific elements of Christianity are not something I'm a huge believer in. There's a lot of merit in the moral aspects of religion. I think it can have a very very positive impact.

      Frost: I sometimes say to people, do you believe there is a god, or do you know there is a god? And, you'd say you don't know?

      Gates: In terms of doing things I take a fairly scientific approach to why things happen and how they happen. I don't know if there's a god or not, but I think religious principles are quite valid.

      – As of 2007, Bill and Melinda Gates were the second most generous philanthropists in America, having given over $28 billion to charity.

      – In 1987 Gates was officially declared a billionaire in the pages of Forbes' 400 Richest People in America issue, just days before his 32nd birthday.

      – Time magazine named Gates one of the 100 people who most influenced the 20th century, as well as one of the 100 most influential people of 2004, 2005, and 2006.

      – Gates has made The Giving Pledge to donate over half of his wealth to charity.

      – Gates was number one on the "Forbes 400" list from 1993 through to 2007 and number one on Forbes list of "The World's Richest People" from 1995 to 2007 and 2009. In 1999, Gates's wealth briefly surpassed $101 billion, causing the media to call him a "centibillionaire"

      July 1, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • Jason

      You both completely missed the point of my comment. I do not care if you are Atheist, or Christian. The bottom line we both have a faith other then the one we either profess, or the one we ignore. Our faith is in Money. If you want to believe in God then so be it, but you don't need money to worship God, or even organized religion. Your faith is enough, your devotion is enough. If you don't wish to believe in anything then stop believing in money itself since it takes faith to provide it value since it has no value. You both are fighting each other when the real enemy is money. Money doesn't make the world work. People do. Money doesn't show compassion, people do. Nothing else matters but the living beings on this planet. From the trees, and plant life that sustain our lives, to the other animals that exist with us. These are things to value. Not a organized religion, or a monetary faith. Stop bashing each other and work together. We do not need money to do something, or God because neither do anything without a human being involved. If you profess a faith then live with in its precepts for those exist outside of faith as well. If you do not express a faith, then stop believing in the monetary system because you are just as blind as you claim other religions to be. Believe in each other, and help each other, because no matter the amount of wealth, or how much you pray, nothing happens until a person makes it happen.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • Doobie Wah

      The "ALL SEEING EYE" at the top of the pyramid.
      Its on your money.
      But you never question it.
      It was put there by a freemason.
      There is your first clue.
      The rest is up to you.

      July 1, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
  3. str8vision

    Mankind's continuing need to believe in invisible magic sky fairies has caused more death, suffering and oppression than greed, lust and jealousy combined. We truly are a doomed species.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:24 am |
  4. Obama Breaks Down Why We Need Separation of Church & State

    At least the President understands:

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kdB1_KFOhnU&w=640&h=390]

    July 1, 2012 at 11:23 am |
    • Doobie Wah

      What a great speach by Obama.
      He nailed it on the head !!!
      He is not only smart, but he understands.

      I "D A R E" any Obama hater to listen to this
      and disagree with it.

      July 1, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
  5. nolimits3333

    Science flies you to the moon.

    Religion flies you into buildings.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:23 am |
    • Weapons Of Mass Distortion

      NEOCONS fly planes into buildings and blames religion.

      July 1, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
  6. vinobianco

    i can't wait until it is publically acceptable to have a secular or atheist president who does things because it's the right, logical, thing to do, and will never claim to be influenced by santa clause in the sky. i like me leaders to be strong, intelligent, good people. not religious.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • Donna

      Why be so insulting? Seems like the atheists are always on the attack and have a chip on their shoulder screaming that everyone else is attacking them. Since the President represents the citizens and the MAJORITY of citizens believe in God, why would we elect someone that didn't believe in God? What would that prove? Why do you think that logical decisions can't be made by people who are not arrogant enough to believe that they have all the answers and that nothing exists that their pea brained mind can't comprehend?

      July 1, 2012 at 11:31 am |
  7. Rick

    The religion doesn't matter.
    What matters is if you voluntarily attend sermons by a race-baiting, America-hating socialist for 20 years....then plead that you didn't hear any of it.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • Dan

      And Mitt belonged to a religion that refused to accept black people into the 70s. What's the difference?

      July 1, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • Not All Docs Play Golf

      Rick....you sound very angry and a little unstable. Is everything OK at home?

      July 1, 2012 at 11:30 am |
    • Weapons Of Mass Distortion

      You believe what you want to believe.
      Nobody can change your mind.
      So why are you wasting time here.
      Shouldnt you be out stalking a hoodie ?

      July 1, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
  8. fastball

    Give me a president who can rebound the economy, return pride and prosperty to the nation, return credibility and respect back to America internationally, and help solve issues and suffering overseas – I want THAT before I actually give a rat's rear about what his religious beliefs are . All that hooey and blarney just to cater to religious-minded voters who think what he does on Sunday is more important than what he does the other six days of the week.
    How many "men of faith" have been caught with their pants down (literally and figuratively) and their hands in the cookie jar?

    July 1, 2012 at 11:21 am |
    • Weapons Of Mass Distortion

      help solve issues and suffering overseas ..............

      You lost it on that curve ball.

      July 1, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
  9. BOB (burnt out bad)

    I am open to a president of any faith, as long as it's not Mormon

    July 1, 2012 at 11:20 am |
    • Aces Full Mike

      So you are OK with the Black Liberation Theology of Obama?

      July 1, 2012 at 11:23 am |
    • Omg

      Mike, BLT stands for Bacon Lettuce Tomato. FYI.

      July 1, 2012 at 11:32 am |
    • Weapons Of Mass Distortion

      Aces Full Mike

      So you are OK with the Black Liberation Theology of Obama?
      -----------------------------
      Its pretty clear what your agenda is.

      July 1, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  10. Mary

    Years ago when Bush was in hot waters wth the war, CNN portrayed him on its cover as a man with a halo around his head...was he godly? no, did he lie? yes, was he Christian? in his dreams, did he approve the killing of Osama Bin l;aden when he knew he was in a hospital in America? .... yes Bush also was in one of this famously infamous lie portraits...and most of you get fooled ... one was religious the ohter one is an aide to the Dominicans and Jesuits....

    July 1, 2012 at 11:19 am |
  11. Cami

    This world would never elect a person who is a true Christian. That in itself would b radical. Just because someone calls themselves a Christian does not mean they have a relationship with Christ. Just to elect apresident with good character would b a nice change.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • vinobianco

      well if your idea of a "good christian" is someone who takes the bible literally and is generally a fundamentalist nut, you're right, we better not elect anyone who is a "true christian."

      July 1, 2012 at 11:26 am |
  12. lordsir

    another brilliant debate on CNN – religion is a personal choice – no one has any right to dictate to anyone which belief is better – I believe that its the actions of a person that are more important – there is immorality in the Church as much as there is in government – ideally we might want to see a world where morality and ethics play a greater role for the good of mankind and not only those of priviledge. In the US a person carries a bible in one hand and a gun in the other with a cell phone on his belt with his lawyer's number on speed dial. There is nothing in the US history that shows anything remotely leaning towards any course with GOD – I believe Bush used the term Axis of Evil to describe his inner circle and Family.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • lordsir

      what does an oath mean to liars like – Reagan, Kennedy, Nixon, Clintons and both Bushes – putting your hand on the bible is as symbolic as putting your hand on a chinese dictionary. Malakas

      July 1, 2012 at 11:21 am |
  13. zoyster1

    Obama can kowtow as good as any other Muslim.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  14. zoyster1

    Obama's Marxist beliefs don't allow him to be a Christian. He's a Muslim if anything. Or he thinks he himself is God.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • palintwit

      Don't look now Cletus, but someone is trying to hotwire your tractor.

      July 1, 2012 at 11:21 am |
    • lordsir

      God save the Queen! She aint no human being.

      July 1, 2012 at 11:23 am |
    • wrong side of the bed

      How are things going out there on the lunatic fringe?

      July 1, 2012 at 11:28 am |
    • AntiqueRepublican

      Brother pass me some if what you are smoking ! Do you even know what Marxism is ? Haha

      July 1, 2012 at 11:29 am |
    • Fearless Freep

      Zoyster,
      I can smell your brain cells burning out.
      It stinks.

      July 1, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  15. ARP

    When will the myth of a god end ? When can we organize ourselves, families and governments according to natural truth?

    It is far better to grasp the universe as it really
    is than to persist in delusion, however
    satisfying and reassuring.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • Mary

      and delusional fools too! I don't now , Lord, how you can stand giving chances to all these corrupted people.

      July 1, 2012 at 11:21 am |
  16. rand

    I guess when you LIE to the American people it clearly shows you have zero FAITH> David Lew with Chris Wallace said today "This HC BILL only effects 1% of the population" yet he FORGOT TO MENTION that there are TWENTY NEW NEW TAXES on the American people and SEVEN that hit the MIDDLE CLASS. Disability claims have gone up 110 PERCENT and if YOU are one of the hard working MAKERS ........you are now paying for the TAKERS.Good luck with THAT!

    July 1, 2012 at 11:15 am |
  17. MikeB

    Geee....
    An article rationalizing and justifying the absence of ethics in Government service.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • Dan

      I think the point is that ethics are always absent to some degree, whether the president is religious or not

      July 1, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • vinobianco

      absence of religion in NO WAY implies absence of ethics!

      July 1, 2012 at 11:21 am |
    • One one

      Hitler had faith, what were his ethics ?

      I believe today that my conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator.

      – Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, Vol. 1 Chapter 2

      "We are a people of different faiths, but we are one. ... the question is whether Christianity stands or falls.... We tolerate no one in our ranks who attacks the ideas of Christianity... in fact our movement is Christian."

      -Adolf Hitler, in a speech in Passau, 27 October 1928,

      July 1, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • CPS

      Ethical behavior does not require the belief in mystical beings.

      July 1, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • fastball

      Give me a president with ETHICS over one with faith.
      Ethics determine what you do...faith means you're just hoping for the best.

      July 1, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  18. pgangel

    A religious belief demonstrates a lack of scientific knowledge. Do we want a president who is ignorant of science?

    July 1, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • zoyster1

      Many, if not most, scientists believe science doesn't point away from the existence of God. The opposite is true. So, please stop already with your BS.

      July 1, 2012 at 11:14 am |
    • One one

      Worse yet do we want a leader who believes the devil is the root of all evil and is looking forward to the end of the world ?

      July 1, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • Aces Full Mike

      Quantum physics clearly proves a higher order intelligence behind everything, calling that God (or whatever version of the word God) shouldn't bother you so much kid.

      July 1, 2012 at 11:21 am |
    • CPS

      Zoyster the opposite is not necessarily true. You can not speak in facts only generalizations. You must "define" what you mean by "God"... IE magical beings parting seas, turning water to wine... no.... But a god of order, simplicity, etc... IE the universe could be chaotic but its not. Its beautiful, organized, etc.

      The traditional notion of an all powerful god is absurd, its on par with a man waking up and praying to a toaster. None of you would vote for that... But someone praying to an all powerful vengeful being? That is supposed to be acceptable?

      July 1, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      Aces Full Mike ... Quantum physics clearly proves a higer "order" of the universe but not of intellegence. Anthropomorphizing the unknown is purely a human psychological response to lack of understanding.

      July 1, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • gavin

      Scientology is also a religion. I guess you would be okay with a President who is a Scientologist? or maybe not?

      July 1, 2012 at 11:36 am |
  19. PantyRaid

    I bet that Dasani bottle in the picture is full of vodka...

    July 1, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  20. Linden Atrocity

    The whole reason I can't stand the Republican party. Because they think religion is government.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:11 am |
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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.