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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. Paul

    One thing's for sure. The current president's faith means absolutely nothing. He might as well be an atheist.

    July 1, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      And you know this how? Based on what facts?

      July 1, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
  2. Volsocal

    Based on his passion for wealth redistribution and deficit spending, Obama must not believe the average American taxpayer is human.

    July 1, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • GOD

      I wish he could distribute some brains to you, serf.

      July 1, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      it's obvious you aren't human.

      July 1, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  3. Donna

    It matters a lot when the president uses religious beliefs to justify killing people. Bush said god told him to invade Iraq. We can't afford that kind of insane thinking in the person in charge of our military.

    July 1, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
    • GOD

      How dare you? I will smite thee!!

      July 1, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  4. mountainmama82

    The Republicons love Romney because he will give them their dreams. Polygamy will become the law of the land .Then all men in real time can have 72 virgins. Or was that muslems. Hard to tell the difference.

    July 1, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
  5. JackPumpkin

    I appreciate that this article presents facts we don't often hear about the actual religious beliefs of the Presidents. But it seems that some Presidents govern well and others don't, regardless of their religious beliefs. It's an argument for just dropping the obsession with faith-based mumbo-jumbo and focusing on real issues.

    July 1, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
  6. Bootyfunk

    it matters because a grown man with the power to blow the entire world up x3 shouldn't believe in fairy tales which promise everlasting life once the world ends. scary.

    July 1, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
  7. Tim Tebow

    I love Jesus' abs. So hot. I beat off/pray to him every day.

    July 1, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • Elliott Carlin

      Please post your physical address and say something disparaging about Mohammed. Thanks.

      July 1, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
  8. David

    Our muslim raised and muslim named president has showed what damage these people can inflet on a country.

    July 1, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      david, you can't really be that dumb, can you?

      July 1, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      "inflet"?

      What special kind of nut-case are you?

      July 1, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • Toots

      You are an amazing speller, not to mention an unprecedented genius!! I suggest you write down all of your priceless wisdom so that generations to come can marvel at your intellectual mastery!!

      July 1, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Toots, I'm far too busy.

      By the way, did you have something of substance to discuss?

      July 1, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • JackPumpkin

      If Obama is a Muslim, then we need more Muslims! I'd take one over the Christian who invaded Iraq for no good reason.

      July 1, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  9. Free Man in the Republic of Texas

    “ God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
    James 4:6

    You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world
    is hostility toward God?
    James 4:4

    It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
    Hebrews 10:31

    July 1, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • Hez316

      Romans 12:18 reminds us to live at peace with all men to the extent it is possible

      July 1, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
  10. maestra730

    Obama is utterly faithless in every regard. He is completely self-serving and cares nothing whatsoever for this country. He is in office to be famous and to be powerful. Nothing more. In fact, he took office with the sole intent of ruining the United States, which is pretty much what he's done.

    July 1, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • Coprophagian

      Leave the trailer much??????

      July 1, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      how do you live without a frontal lobe?

      July 1, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • JackPumpkin

      I think he's made the country somewhat stronger and wishes he could do more. To spend time as a community organizer, you have to care about your community. It's interesting how two people can be exposed to the same reality and draw such different conclusions.

      July 1, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • Hez316

      I am definitely not a BO flag waver but I do not believe he is in the position for himself. From his world view he believes he can accomplish good depending on your definition of good

      July 1, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • will

      I am assuming you are a christian and white?

      He don't care about us?, seriously, He got some of us health care, not everyone, because someone like you, he is not perfect, a mediocre preside, but definitly better than your faithful g w bush.

      I understand some people with limited brain cells can believe a 5000 year old earth, where jesus hugs dinosaurs, your unquestionable love for another man aka, jesus, never dies, but keep it to yourself!

      July 1, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
  11. Jesus the most powerful figure known to mankind (Fact)

    John 3 vs 16-"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
    John 8 vs 47-"He that is of God heareth God's words: ye therefore hear them not, because ye are not of God.
    Matthew 22 vs 37-40-"Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." Very simple for true followers of Christ but complicated for those who do not belong to Him.

    July 1, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Not facts.

      July 1, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."

      sick. a father proves his love for others by sending his son to be murdered? sick.

      July 1, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • Jesus the most powerful figure known to mankind (Fact)

      the wages for sin is death this is the eternal law. @ tom Romans 1:20-"For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse."

      July 1, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
  12. 71556

    The move from polytheism to monotheism was a great step for Western civilization. Now, there is only one move step to make.

    July 1, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • Alicia Townes

      On what you said about Obama makes me respect him more

      July 1, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
  13. gloria

    Yes, a president's faith (and PRAYERS) do indeed matter. Americans know this to be true. Most people living in America may object to every president ending a speech with the words "and may God bless America", but they all continue to profess the WORD over America..and faith comes by hearing (the words of God) God is truly blessing America.

    July 1, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • LT

      Agreed! Amen!!

      July 1, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
    • Frank

      Not if the Muslims and CAIR have their way with the ISLAMAMIFICATION OF AMERICA AND CANADA!

      July 1, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • Hez316

      I believe God has blessed our country that does not mean I hope he only blesses our country. To put it in perspective, there are arguably as many Christians in China as there are in the us

      July 1, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
  14. Aerin

    get your church out of my government. there is no god.

    July 1, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
  15. Cnn is a joke

    Cmon Cnn ,why do you allow such Articles ,its as if your trying to make America as g-dless as you possibly can

    July 1, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • Frank

      Except when it comes to them pandering to the butchers and murdering MUSLIMS. Who we read about hacking up Christians "DAILY" now all over the globe in the name of their LOVING GOD!!

      July 1, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • LT

      That's exactly what CNN is trying to do. They've been trying to for a long time. That's their REAL agenda. It's obvious.

      July 1, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • sam stone

      Gee, Frankie, you sure got a burr jammed way up there about Islam. Or, maybe it is a bible

      July 1, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
  16. PostAComment

    A president's belief's shouldn't matter but the airhead American public not only demand it, they will make it into one an issue that bears no importance to the real matters. I don't care if you believe in Cthulu, the question is are you objective enough to recognize the plights and concerns of the public?

    July 1, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  17. phk46

    We need more presidents like Jefferson.
    But mostly we need for the populace to me more tolerant and stop trying to make the country over like their favorite church.

    July 1, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • mathewsp

      Could'nt have said it any better.

      July 1, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Jefferson didn't believe that most of the citizens should have a vote. I doubt that would go over well these days.

      July 1, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • Elliott Carlin

      tomtom the poopers son: Have to bring up the slavery angle, eh? Let it rest. Most have gotten past it, except yourself and Al Sharpton.

      July 1, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
  18. I once was blind but now I see

    The ultimate war behind the scenes. Good vs evil, Light vs dark, Christians vs the world, mankind vs satan.

    July 1, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Oh, what hyperbole.

      July 1, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  19. Anonymous010

    It's really too bad that so many people continue to confuse piety with morality. History, as this article points out, has shown repeatedly that the two have absolutely no relationship.

    July 1, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
  20. MJ

    Oh, a President's belief in God certainly does matter...I would never vote for a President who does not attend Sunday services or have any respect for him or her...But, I know Obama thinks he is a god so it's okay for him.

    July 1, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
    • GOD

      You are a worthless human being.

      July 1, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • Pelle

      Hey, MJ, neither of the Bushes or dear Reagan belonged to a church during their presidencies – but both Clinton & Carter did! Carter even taught a Sunday school class! Bet you didn't vote for either of them...but I bet you voted for Ronnie & the Bushes!

      July 1, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • phk46

      MJ – Would you vote for somebody who attended Saturday services?

      Would an atheist be ok if he attended services with other atheists on Sunday?

      July 1, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • gloria

      MJ, I am glad that you know the difference between the God you serve and the god you think President Obama thinks he is. So, let God's light shine through you by doing one simple act...pray that President Obama " comes into the true knowledge of knowing and believing in the Almighty God that you serve (the one that blesses you daily with health and supplies your needs); this is the most powerful tool you have to reach those who do not believe; and I will be in agreement with you (2 or 3 gathered in His name...) and 1 more thing , a true faith-filled believer serves everyday, not just on Sundays.

      July 1, 2012 at 3:33 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.