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.”
It's whether a president has a sac or not that matters to me. And the one we currently have right now has been kicked so hard between the legs by so many people, it just proves my point. And, before any of you clowns start calling me a conservative, let me tell you this; Hillary Clinton has more balls than obama, but don't think for a moment I would vote for her.
Religion and the two party system we currently have are for the dumb masses.
The President's (doesn't matter which one) faith does not matter. What does matter is their ability and qualifications to do the job in which they elected(and this is also subject to person opinion).
Since the vast majority of voters don't have any idea what the President's job actually is, the qualifications they are going to look for will probably have no bearing on a candidate's ability to do that job anyway. So, why not use religion? If we're going to use traits that have nothing to do with the job, what does it matter which unrelated trait we use. How about, favorite flavor of jelly bean? It would be just as enlightening.
The left does not want a serious and fair analysis of Obama's religion vs. Romney's. Obama's radical Black Liberation Theology that he followed for 20 years ala Jeremiah Wright, if it were fully vetted and not swept under the rug like in 2008, would kill any chance he has of being re-elected.
Obama 2012! woohoo!
He was in that church for political reasons, not religious. I doubt he is a believer at all. But I have no doubt he is a politician.
FauxNews tells everyone that faith is very critical for a Democrat, but they don't really care that much if a person is a Republican.
Religion, although good at times, is mostly abused by its members.
"I like your Christ, but not your Christians, you're Christians are nothing like Christ" -Ghandi
you mean the shot dead hindu guy who drank his own p iss that guy?
Big Brother should not order me to buy insurance and run my life, Communism is a failure.
Big question; where's the jobs, this side show healthcare circus is just a smokescreen to the economic failure and broken promise of job creation. When the lib-clowns take off their phoney happy face we still have millions of people unemployed.
I think you may be in the wrong forum. Your comment is pretty far off topic.
Get back in your double-wide Pinhead. Your cousin is waiting for you to boink her.
Cool. I'll grant you that. But when you're sick and you can't pay then you get denied service. Is that enough freedom for you?
Prayer changes things .
You are ignorant, pull your head out of the sand and come into the 21st century, you and you're kind are holding back the human potential.
Generalize much? How exactly is it unhealthy? I know plenty of healthy atheists out there.
Stalin the atheist murdering 24 million seems unhealthy to me. God bless
That's because you're a moron who doesn't understand how to read, justadope. Stalin would have murdered people even if he'd been a Christian. His religious beliefs had nothing to do with it.
Fact is Stalin was an atheist and murdered because of it, no moral restraint when you are your own final authority. There is no historical what if, history shows us what is, Stalin = atheist = 24 million murdered. And he was not the only atheist to do so. They all did. God bless
More of the same old stupidity from the same old hag. You wouldn't know an historical fact if it walked up and bit you on the rump.
But keep on bloviating, dearie. It just reinforces what people think of you and undermines your God.
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,
When your only argument against atheism is a severly distorted misunderstanding of Stalin, then you clearly have no real point. Indeed, you fear the logic and growth of atheism so much that you invent boogie man stories like Stalin to combat it.
The dolt gets its news from WorldNutDaily; what do you expect? It's been pointed out to it over and over that Stalin did not commit murder in the name of atheism. He destroyed religion to gain power.
Why does it matter what Romney or Obama's religion is anyway CNN? I thought we have freedom of religion in this country or does the Obama administration plan on getting rid of that freedom as well?
It matters because faith will affect the voting behavior of a great many people in the United States. In other words, it matters to the electorate, who also happen to be the viewing audience of CNN. Trust me, CNN will stop reporting on the religion of presidential candidates just as soon as we stop caring about it.
Because a large number of people in the US get way too hung up on religion, that's why. They don't understand that people of all religions and no religion are perfectly able to run a country. They don't understand that non-Christians are perfectly capable of raising good, kind, honest people too.
Tell that to dopy Nope.
Romney is very, very religious. If he gets elected, he will have a problem with even the Republicans in Congress and the Senate. The American population will snap and be attacking him left and right. He will never be able to get anything done because he will have to spend all his time in a political and social battle. Obama is a lock in getting re-elected.
I seriously doubt that. He is the next Jim Florio only Obama raised taxes on 300 million people.
How has raising taxes ever hurt anyone in 90% of our population? It hasn't. It is only the 10 (or less) percent of the population who are very wealthy (and these are ones who contribute the most money to Rebublican candidates).
Although presidents are not religious functionaries, the religion that they were raised with is probably an important part of the culture that created their general world views.
Because Obama spent significant time in immersed in a culture that had norms that are different than those of mainstream America, that may influence actions and outcomes in subtle but significant ways, even if he does not consider himself to be a practicing Muslim.
IMO, if we examine the cultures of predominately Muslim countries, we find values that are in conflict with those of American democracy, and if we take a careful look at the Koran, it becomes evident that what is written there is not just an extension of Judaism and Christianity with added bells and whistles, yet many public figures seem to hold the position that that is what it is.
Islam is very different, and in my view, taken literally, in basic conflict with Western values. Growing up surrounded by a culture in which these differences are not noticed, or pointed out, and in which one is comfortable going along with the crowd, can lead to a complacency that I think is dangerous to the long and short term welfare of the country.
Saying that a thing was apparently not important in other cases, does not mean that it is not in this one, it only suggests that it might not be. What we may be experiencing is an exception to the overall trend.
Let me help you with your argument. You mean they were both indoctrinated into delusional wish thinking. Our species needs to grow up including our politicians
Fresno, "Because Obama spent significant time in immersed in a culture that had norms that are different than those of mainstream America,"
Would you care to tell us how long this "significant time" was, and how deep the "immersion" was?
Oh yes, Heaven forbid that we have a president who has been raised in and around several cultures and religions. Heaven forbid that this resulted in having a president who is not as narrow minded as the majority of people in this country... Everyone focuses on his name because it's "Muslim" sounding. The article said, "Obama was raised in Hawaii and Indonesia, where he was exposed to Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism and other religions." I would think that growing up around a variety of cultures and belief systems would compliment being a leader in this "melting pot" nation of ours, not hinder it.
You can compromise with God...you're either for him 100% or against him, but you can't manipulate Him to fit your needs. All of our presidents have done that...so you can't believe what they say.
Well let me see, hum...so Romney believes that Jesus returns as soon as mount olive is returned to Missouri – and Obama believes in a terrestrial dictatorship – his own. I vote for the deluded.
Hopefully in November Obama wont matter at all.
I need help with finding my spell check. I got a new computer. It's a Dell. Can anyone help me? Thanks
It's right next to the foot pedal (some people use it as a mouse). You can also find a secondary spell check when you slide out the cup holder (some people use it as a DVD player)
If you post here using the Firefox browser there is a spell-checker in force (it puts a red squiggly line under questionable words and makes suggestions for correction if you highlight the word and right click on it) ... I'm not sure about other browsers.
Jim Ryan – :)
I don't know, magic underwear sounds like it could be fun and help wit your hand malady, do you kno how it works?
Absolutely makes all the difference unless you are an atheist or a camouflaged one as the writer
To whom and in what ways?
Good video of Obama discussing this issue.
"Does a president’s religious faith make any difference in how he governs?" Of course not. That should be evident. From Washington (who could be compared to none other than Adolph Hitler for his actions against the Six Nations in New York) on, "faith" has been meaningless, and is only used as a door to keep Jews, freethinkers and those who are atheist out of the Oval Office.
Does the term "arab spring" come to mind? The Obama backed and supported overthrow of our old allies and the almost the entire northcoast of Africa and more to follow. The islam sharia law, the muslim brotherhood, al queda and all the other tribes all other terrorist now gaining more power. This was all cheered in the white house by our president...a closet muslim.
JP, I would LOVE to see some credible sources regarding your statements.
Atheism screams "It's all about me" while claiming religion does it..
Doctors Without Borders doesn't ring a bell?
lol lame comeback Tom or should I just call you by what you are-A angry troll?
How about Skeptics and Humanists Aid and Relief Effort, and Humanist Charities?
Lameness is all that's necessary to ridicule the lame. You are barely literate and have mad moronic pronouncements about atheism that are founded upon nothing but your own ignorance. Get an education, dear.
Really? Every post I see from an atheist literally shows the world,in atheism its all about you.Those "dumb religious humans" are nothing more than those words to them.They treat non-atheists like crap,forcing their delusions on them.
Even Tom Tom, the biggest hateful troll I've seen on here aids more proof to it.
So please save your "humanist efforts" to those who actually do those things not those who lie and hate.
It would be interesting to see just what your accomplishments are, Nope. How do you come to conclude that atheists and agnostics do nothing to improve the world around them? If you're basing your judgment on what's written on an anonymous blog, you're a fool. You have no idea what others actually do in their lives. You're just a ticked-off little kid.
If an atheist hates the religious the "humanist effort" to help is a total lie and scam.
just stop troll.
You asserted that an atheist president would have no difficulty in removing religion from the country, which pronouncement indicates a distinct lack of understanding of our system of government. Your rantings read like those of some teenaged kid who doesn't know the first thing about atheism or agnosticism and who probably knows even less about Christianity.
You are beyond laughable. That last post of yours doesn't even make sense. It doesn't require a belief in a deity to help others. Nor do atheists and agnostics "hate" believers, as you'd know if you had a clue. What they hate is the propensity of believers to indite anyone who isn't in agreement with THEIR interpretation of the Bible and who think that the government should be based on THEIR beliefs, regardless of others' rights and freedoms.
Really, go back to school.
Like you Tom?
Forcing atheism upon them.hahahah what a troll.
Get back to me when you're not stoned.
@nope, in one of your posts you mentioned that "[e]very post I see from an atheist," has been the basis of your opinion of atheists in general. I would just like to point out that internet comments, like cable news pundits, are poor representatives of the groups that they claim to be a part of. I would not recommend forming beliefs about any group of people based on what some of its members post online.
Lol Tom Tom afraid to confront the truth?
You troll others and force atheism upon them.
Get back to me when you finally admit that..
Oh, really? How am I forcing anything on others, Dope? Knock off your trolling and go mow mommy's lawn, now.
Hey edsr of Dallas.
You almost sound like you're proud to be a catholick. That can't possibly be true can it?
Mormonism is a crazy cult that is obsessed with taking over the governments of the world.
Haha, totally. that's my entire goal in life XD Really? are you that dumb? Have you ever even met a Mormon? haha, some people...
Biship, the Mormons are actually advertizing their religion on the sides of buses here in WA State. Mormons are very obsessed with converting others to their religion. But are very secret in where their local temples are located (check out Mormon (LDS) on the internet). You will find all the locations of their temples and it will freak you out because their is probably one near your house that you never knew about. The Mormans are very scary.
Kevin, honestly, most of the Mormons I've met are very nice people. They do enjoy talking about their faith and are always willing to share it with you in hopes that you will enjoy their faith too. Yes, they do actively try to spread their faith, but so do other Christian churches. How many billboards have I seen that say things like "Jesus Saves!" or "Do you know Jesus?" How many Christian churches send their kids on mission trips to 3rd world countries, not just to help the poor, but to convert the residents to Christianity too? We've got 2 mega-churches in my town that actively recruit. They throw overnight retreats at their churches for their teens, who bring all of their friends. then during the retreats the friends are all given contact info cards to fill out and forced to watch movies about the end of the world and how if you find Jesus, you'll be saved. They put ads on tv encouraging others to join their church. They even recruit at funerals! And these are NOT Mormons, these are "Christian" churches. I find them to be much scarier than the Mormons I know.
Jamie, nice try.
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.