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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 • Evangelical • History • Poverty • Uncategorized

soundoff (2,727 Responses)
  1. hippypoet

    morons run the country and that is the only reason why such meaninglessness matters at all...beyond sickening.

    July 1, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
  2. NutsJustNuts

    Testing

    July 1, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
  3. abel1

    It's funny how people are so quick to dismiss Christ when they don't have the answers to anything themselves.....people of this world are being deceived by media, government and whatever else Satan can use to drag people to hell with him. You can't deny the determination by the world to undermine Christianity....why aren't any other religions attacked like Christianity?? Open you eyes people....it's everywhere..down to music artists wearing satanic attire to masonic hand symbols being thrown up by everyone in power and as time goes on..the satanism just gets more blatant and tv just gets more perverse and the perverse continues to become more acceptable in society. The funny thing is for everyone that discounts the bible..nobody pays attention to all the prophecies that are being fulfilled on a regular basis. Here's one..Syria is going to be completely annihilated...seems plausible with whats going on now. Isaiah 17:1-3
    1“See, Damascus will no longer be a city
    but will become a heap of ruins.
    2 The cities of Aroer will be deserted
    and left to flocks, which will lie down,
    with no one to make them afraid.
    3 The fortified city will disappear from Ephraim,
    and royal power from Damascus;
    the remnant of Aram will be
    like the glory of the Israelites,”
    declares the Lord Almighty. (Syria better watch out)

    July 1, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Oh, brother.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
    • If horses had Gods ... their Gods would be horses

      Not having the answers (to your satisfaction) does not mean the answer is popular folklore.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • Nope

      Tom is a mad troll.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
    • John the guy not the baptist

      Nostradamus and the Mayans say you are going to be toast Dec 21, 2012, I bet you are all ready making plans or were you just kidding?

      July 1, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Poor captain america.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • Cq

      abel1
      Religion offers many answers to the things we still do not know because there are many religions, and each has it's own myths. Not all of them could possibly be correct, assuming even that the answer does lie in religion. What you're offering then is the acceptance of an answer, not the correct one, right? So, isn't it more wise to admit when we don't know the actual answer to something than just to pick the most popular one, regardless of it's actually being proven correct?

      July 1, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • LiberaLIowan

      Oh, my lord.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • Illegal Muslim

      You are stupid and I hate you. Read the article next time you post.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  4. Lilith

    I don't care if a president believes in Gods, Aliens or Garden fairies or if he/she cheats on a spouse, been divorced, cusses or beats a dog, as long as the decisions they make for this country are the best decisions for the people of the US as a whole. In the office of President the only thing that really matters is what they do as President.

    July 1, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  5. kate

    He shows it. Not she..(typo)

    July 1, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  6. SciGuy

    The US is a nation of hypocrites. They virtually worship Lincoln, who directed the wholesale slaughter of hundreds of thousands for the purpose of subjugating 11 states forcing them into his "union." Today they support those candidates who are warmongers, while rejecting the peace candidate who would restore the Consti.tution.

    July 1, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  7. wes

    Anyone who thinks for even a passing moment that a leaders faith does not have a direct influence on their descisions is just plain ignorant. Peoples beliefs structures directly affect the decisions we make. This should be plain to anyone with half an education. Here's an idea, lets elect an agonostic – someone whos' belief system is based off of logic instead of some text written by man thousands of years ago instead of these people who claim to be religious, but their religion doesnt affect their judgement or decisions ; which is complete nonsense – the entire purpose of a religion is to guide your decision making throughout life.

    July 1, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  8. kate

    I have never doubted Obama's Christianity. She shows it! He is one good President!

    July 1, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  9. Orlando

    lol faith doesn't matter....do you think anything would be different if our president kept the old greek gods rather than modern american Christianity....no not a damn thing...religion is folly stop putting stock in it!

    July 1, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  10. One one

    Religion makes people feel good to think they have a personal relationship with THE all powerful creator of the universe who takes a personal interest in them, loves them, and will protect them.

    They believe THEY have all the answers to all the big questions

    Their beliefs and values are aligned with god, therefore they must be 100% right 100% of the time.

    When they die, they get to go to heaven for eternal bliss.

    Finally, they have the satisfaction of knowing all those who doubted them will suffer god's eternal wrath.

    In the end, religious belief is really all about ME, ME, and, ME.

    July 1, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      Very true. There is nothing ultruistic in religion ... it's all about scoring brownie points for God(s) for their own benefit.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • Nope

      In the end,atheism screams "ME ME ME ME ME ME ME ME ME"

      July 1, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
    • Cq

      Nope
      Most atheists see themselves as tiny specks on a tiny speck of a galaxy which is another tiny speck of the universe. There is no heaven we step over people to get at, abandon our brothers just to get a better chance at getting in. How big must your ego be to see yourselves as the most important things in the universe?

      July 1, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  11. Luvvy Duvvy

    He's no more a true Christian than Bill Clinton claimed to be. He is an atheist, like the majority of far left people. He knows he needs Christian moderates to win elections, so he plays the little game of going to churches and invoking Christ now and then. No way this man believes in God. Like most lefties.

    July 1, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      He's not a "lefty". Obama is closer to the center than Clinton was, by a mile.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • Dan

      Then why are lefties so much more compassionate than conservatives? Isnt that what Jesus would want?

      July 1, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • LiberaLIowan

      If President Obama is an atheist, it just makes me want to vote for him that much more. Just one more bit of proof that he isn't an i d i o t.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • Cq

      Another way of looking at it is, if the Pharisees that Jesus argued with were around today, would they be in the liberal camp or the conservative one?

      July 1, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • John P

      I've always felt that Obama's relationship with Reverend Wright had little or nothing to do with his faith and mostly to do with his need to seek and cultivate his blackness. As a young white agnostic, he found Wright's fiery sermons humorous, lively and entertaining. He would one day regret his indulgence of attending this white-bashing, Christian carnival, but at least he created a history of religious observance which is essential for political success. We almost certainly have an agnostic or atheist currently serving as president of the United States of America and for that I am thankful.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  12. DocsWife

    Cleary, religion doesn't matter as evidenced by the sitting president.

    July 1, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • MaryM

      So you would vote for someone that believes that God lives on or near the planet Kolob and wears magic underwear

      July 1, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • DocsWife

      Yes Mary I would if the alternative is someone I believe to be running the economy into the ground. I'm not electing the guy to be my minister, my spiritual guide, or even my friend – I want someone to get the country back on track. Heck, I'd vote for YOU if you had the background and "balls" to do the job.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • Cq

      MaryM
      You forgot believes that God, the Father almighty, was once human like the rest of us, and that we could be elevated to the level of gods as well. That's way off the usual Christian theology.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • NutsJustNuts

      Cq and Mary, nope I don't care what his religious thoughts are. If he can run the business (our nation), I'll back him. Do you really care if the CEO of IBM wears ladies' undergarments? (He probably doesn't, but if he does, so what?!)

      July 1, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • Cq

      NutsJustNuts
      Depends on whether that CEO wants the rest of the workers at IBM to wear ladies' undergarments as well. :-)

      July 2, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • Really-O?

      @NutsJustNuts – "If he can run the business (our nation)"

      If you believe that, it's no wonder you could support a candidate that has stated, "Corporations are people". Regardless of your political affiliation, get some education son.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  13. BGko

    The only people more corrupt than politicians are preachers... I say the two go hand in hand...

    July 1, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  14. DKinimod

    While Lincoln never actually confesses in his writings that he believe in Christ, it would be a real stretch to say that he did not understand or believe in Jesus. He quoted Bible at all time and all that he stood for showed he mimic Jesus. When Lincoln was warned that his life might be in danger, he did not increase his security but said:"I see no other safeguard against these murderers, but to always be ready to die, as Christ advises it." ("Walking with Lincoln" by Thomas Freiling). Now, if you want to know how Christ advises folks to die, it is as clearly spelled in the Bible as anything in numerous places... to die in this world to have eternal life with God. These indirect quotes are hard to ignore and to say he was not believer in Christ Jesus.

    July 1, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
    • Dan

      One can easily read and quote the bible without literally believing it

      July 1, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  15. palintwit

    I'm relaxing in my Barca lounger, sipping warm Blatz and watching nascar. The picture is much better now since I stuck some aluminum foil on the rabbit ears.

    July 1, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
  16. MaryM

    He is serious about his faith,” says Mansfield, also author of “The Mormonizing of America

    July 1, 2012 at 11:58 am |
  17. Obama on Separation of Church and State

    July 1, 2012 at 11:58 am |
  18. edsr of Dallas

    I believe that a President's faith DOES matter and that faith must be the faith our country is based on and that is CHRISTIAN! We must never change the standards of faith our country adopted from birth of the nation. We are a successful nation because of our chosen faith!

    July 1, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      "Our chosen faith"? Which is what, exactly?

      July 1, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • Dan

      The founding fathers were mostly deists, mor0n. Not Christians. As for your second claim, I didn't know Jesus approved of genocide or imperialism

      July 1, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      This standard of faith as you put it also changes .. it evolves to meet the needs of society as it too evolves. To remain stagnant, married to an ideology and not change as necessary is a death sentence to this or any country. It is obvious that change is needed and that change is to move away from religion and run our country with reason and the best interest of ALL it's citizens.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • One one

      "our chosen faith" ?

      If you were born in Iran, you would choose Islam.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • JP0

      I don't think you chose the same faith that I did.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
  19. zoyster1 Jr

    My dad's math might be a little off here. In the meantime he's looking for the sources to support his findings. Isn't that right dad?

    July 1, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I think it's your dad who's a little "off".

      July 1, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  20. MaryM

    Who is going to vote for Romney who believes in magical underwear and that God lives on or near the Planet Kolob.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • Dan

      I don't think we should hold this against Mitt unless Obama stops purporting to believe in a Bronze Age mythology

      July 1, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • Colin

      Indeed, Mary. The belief that an infinitely old, all-knowing sky-god, powerful enough to create the entire Universe and its billions of galaxies, will cause people to survive their own physical deaths and live happily ever after in heaven, if they follow some regional laws laid down in Bronze Age Palestine = Judaism.

      Judaism + a belief that the same god impregnated a virgin with himself to give birth to himself, so he could sacrifice himself to himself to negate a rule he himself made = Christianity.

      Christianity + a belief that aliens from other planets mated with humans who will one day be gods, that we all get our own planet, that the Israelis colonized America and that magic underwear will protect you = Mormonism.

      I guess that, in the race for being the most absurd, the Mormons take the gold. One can imagine Joseph Smith standing triumphantly upon a podium, humbly proclaiming, "If I have been more absurd than others, it is because I have stood upon the shoulders of gaints".

      July 1, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • edsr of Dallas

      Romney and his faith are CHRISTIAN and you, according to your comment, are an unbeliever and in my way of thinking, not an American of value. I am Catholic and I believe in God....I don't believe in NOTHING as do so many Atheists in our country who are nothing because they believe in nothing.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
    • MaryM

      He is serious about his faith,” says Mansfield, also author of “The Mormonizing of America

      July 1, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      edsr of Dallas ... love the part where you say, ".. my way of thinking." That sums it up for me right there. BTW, Athiests don't "believe in nothing", we just don't believe in God(s) or religion as reality.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • Ancient Curse

      edsr - Atheists, unlike the thousands of gods people have believed in over the years, actually do exist. We believe in something (our responsibilities to one another, for example), but we do not believe in a sky-being that showers us with gifts or punishments.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • DocsWife

      Mary, sorry to jump in here, I wanted to respond to edsr of Dallas.

      Dude, Mormons are NOT CHRISTIANS. The core of their faith is works. If you are any kind of Catholic and know your New Testament, that is NOT how you get into heaven – You are saved by GRACE and NOT by works. You are created to do works to show a changed life, but the works don't get you there. (Ephesians 2:8-10.)

      (Sorry Mr. Romney, I'm sure you are very good man and do lots of good things but please stop passing yourself off as a Christian.)

      July 1, 2012 at 12:16 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.