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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. Salitos

    I think Obama will surpas the three best presidents America ever had due to his genuinenes and his consideration to reality rather than politics. He does what the bible says we should do on how to treat each other, how to help the poor and the needy. So he is a true christian and America need a preisdent like him. God bless Obama and may God give him the knowledge and wisdom to run our blessed country and to expose all the greedy rich politicians/corporations as he is been doing...

    July 1, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
    • jjacobson

      You get to worship him a few more months.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • vernon

      Amen!

      July 1, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
    • Thomas' Pain

      November will be quite sad for jj

      July 1, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
  2. Sarah Adams

    It's interesting to see that when everything is going allright, we are awsome... we know it all! But, when things go wrong... it's God's fault. We don't invite and ignore God to make important decisions in life but, we blame him when things go wrong. I don't think that Obama is a Christian. I think it's a political strategy to expose him as a Christian against a Mormon in US, a country on which 80% of it's population is Christian and a nation under God since its begginings. And if Obama is a Christian, he is executing orders AGAINST the Christian beliefs and community like abortions, the LGBT community, among others. Nice try... but, you wouldn't get my vote on this one.

    July 1, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
    • shep

      How's the weather in Cult Lake City today? Mormons aren't christians, and you know it. And soon, so will all of America. Time to invade Utah and restore democracy.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • Sarah Adams

      @shep... first of all, I'm not a Mormon. Second of all, even though I don't agree with Obama's policies I pray for him and his family because he is our president. BUT, that doesn't make me blind! I believe that abortion is a SIN, its murder. I believe what the Bible says about the LGBT as a DEVIATION OF CONDUCT and NOT a gender. It would be against my principles to vote for a president that has ignored such things and has tried Christian, traditional families in every way. Thank God, every 4 years we vote for a president. If Romney doen't do the job, he will be out of the Office... as Obama will be! As simple as that! But, my principles ARE NOT FOR SALE, and will never be!

      July 1, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • Donna

      I see just the opposite pattern. When people are successful or someone survives something horrific, it's all about god and jesus. But they don't blame god when things go wrong.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
    • viaquest

      @ Shep .. you seem to be missing an E in your name there bub!!!

      July 1, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • Sarah Adams

      @Donna... it's sad to live like that. Read the Bible and live in peace and completeness. The one that the world can't give you. One thing I can tell you. If I am wrong because of my Christian beliefs, I have nothing to loose. My soul is in peace but, if I am an atheist and I am wrong... then I will loose everything!

      July 1, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I wonder what you'll do, Sarah, if one of your children is gay or has an abortion.

      July 1, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
    • Donna

      Sarah Adams, I don't live like that. I don't blame or credit magical beliefs for anything that happens in my life. I don't live in fear of a vengeful god like you do.

      July 1, 2012 at 7:40 pm |
  3. shep

    A women voting for Romney is like a black voting for Robert E. Lee. Because nothing says women's rights like a religion based on polygamy.

    July 1, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • Haemisch

      Shep...nonsense. Romeny's branch of Mormonism abandonned polygamy over a century ago. You're just being inflammatory.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
    • Willie Stark

      Robert E. Lee actually thought slavery was an evil institution, and he never ran for office. Jefferson Davis would have been a better example.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
  4. Robear in Ojai

    oh and in the photo that accompanies the article, I much doubt that any of the four gentlemen depicted were remotely thinking about God at that moment, though they pretended to be. It's all for show, power and money.

    July 1, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
  5. Your pep pep's bones

    Jesus is watching you poop. Remember that.

    July 1, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
  6. jjacobson

    The fact that I am a republican has nothing at all to do with religion, in fact I am a atheist. Come november we will remove this dictator from office. The democratic party suffered heavy losses the last election cycle and we aim to finish the job this November.

    July 1, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • shep

      America will never elect a diaper wearing cult member

      July 1, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
    • Lenny Bruce

      Okay, good luck with that. Seems like you have a strong candidate (snicker) and a good strong slate of policies and ideas (GIGGLE!) and a commitment to putting aside divisive politics to get things done . . . HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA!

      I knew I couldn't say that with a straight face.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
  7. Robear in Ojai

    John Kennedy in the 60s was just as disliked as Obama is now. People feared his Irish Catholic faith would make him a puppet of the pope.

    July 1, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
  8. josh rogen

    all politicians embrace religion to appeal to the simple minded sheep that follow it.

    July 1, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  9. Doc Magnus

    T-Jeff and SOCAS – that's my guy, that's my way.

    July 1, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  10. Robert

    Nixon was a Saint compared to this administration. This is total brainwash!

    July 1, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
  11. josh rogen

    Democrats, like Republicans embrace religion for the sake of votes.

    July 1, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
  12. Kirk Cameron

    Any single guys out there? Let's get on our knees and "pray" together.

    July 1, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
  13. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    I like poop poop.

    July 1, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • Jesus

      I like it in my poop shute

      July 1, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • just sayin

      It does not take long for atheists to degenerate into filth. Beware the atheist type they are liars thieves and murderers at heart. God bless

      July 1, 2012 at 6:39 pm |
  14. maryla

    Can you just please keep religion away from politics and President. Just reading all comments makes me think more and more , that every religion sounds like cult . You do what they tell you and follow it,or you are a sinner and will go to hell.Oh you have to pay so they can more brainwash you.

    July 1, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  15. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    July 1, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  16. Jerry Sandusky

    I should have been a priest.

    July 1, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • Tim Tebow

      You can pray with me anyday, stud.

      July 1, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • Joe Paterno

      Thank Heaven for little boys!

      July 1, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • Mikey Jackson

      I wanna get in on some of that action, anyone want to visit neverland?

      July 1, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
    • Haemisch

      What are you, 14? One pimply kid posting under four differet names. Wow.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
  17. southernwonder

    the politicians are the most opportunistic breed ever known to the mankind. little wonder that most poltiicans have been lawyers in their past careers. of course, there are a few exceptions like lbj. but the high priests of religion are no less opportunistic or brutal. just look at the fact how many billions the church has killed in its history over the centuries. the worst is the combination of the two in one person. so, for this article to sound amazed that a devout president like andrew jackson behaved cruelly is what is most amazing to me. chances are that a devout president would be less tolerant of "non-believers".
    as to obama being devout christian, he is pretending because he knows that is politically inevitable. his being knowledgible in religions of the world is netiher here nor there.
    my take is the president is extremely well watched, and has little leeway on matters of personal belief. about the only thing that worries me about obama's 2nd term is increase in islamic immigration that surely will mess up our nation. this is really the unaddressed issue with obama's reelection that needs to be cleared up. as to the rest, i really think obama is doing as good a job anybody can do after devout bush invaded iraq after jesus whispered in his ear to do so in order to clear the way for his landing on earth after 2000 years of tiresome orbitting around the earth.

    July 1, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • Celeste

      America import from China all this cheap stuff that has made the Chinese people supersedes Americans and killed our jobs. Your worry about President Obama is a joke! You need to worry about Mitt Romney becoming President. George Bush, Mitt Romney and his greedy friends who put on the financial map and gave us; Chinese communism first class in America, Chinese muslims in your house, your jobs, on your kitchen tables, in your bathroom, in your board room, in your cell phone, in your mouth, on your feet, hands and your back! Tainted milk and toys from China to America! No accident! Tainted Drywall materials! No Accident! China owns American notes and mortgages! No accidents! China people ripping America’s technology off! No accident! China sending bad computer chips to shut down our airports and government systems!
      What Americans don’t know!
      Muslims are found in every province in China. Of China's 55 officially recognized minorities, ten groups are predominately Muslim. Statistics are hard to find, and the number of Muslims in China today is somewhere between 20 to 100 million by one source. But most estimates figures that there are 20 to 30 million Muslims (1.5% to 2% of the population). While according to government figures, there are 20 million Muslims (1.4%) with 35,000 Islamic places of worship, and more than 45,000 imams. In 2006 a record number of Chinese traveled to Mecca for the hajj, up 40 percent from the previous year.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
  18. Jt_flyer

    I named my imaginary friend Larry.

    July 1, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • don

      we all have faith in obama, he is our god

      July 1, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • Larry

      IMAGINARY!?!?!?!?!?!?! Oh you are going to burn in the Lake of Alpo for that blasphemy, buddy!!!!

      July 1, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  19. mig

    We should ONLY vote for Non-religious politicians! Look what voting for religious one got us, war, poverty, we are Fu cked because of them. If we continue to vote for crazy ones, America is DOOMED.

    July 1, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • Donna

      We can't do that when the only viable candidates are religious.

      July 1, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • mig

      I know, but I can dream right?

      July 1, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • One one

      @donna. They say they are religious to keep the believers happy. Who knows what they really believe.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • If horses had Gods ... their Gods would be horses

      Only viable candidates "USE" religion to gain votes. I'm looking forward to the day that candidates no longer need to lie about their beliefs in order to gain the religious vote ... because the religious vote is of no consequence.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • Donna

      One one, It doesn't matter what they believe if they are using religious beliefs to make decisions. Bush might not have believed that god really told him to invade Iraq, but he gained public support for mass murder by using religion.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
    • Donna

      Mig, I think it will happen in our lifetime. Give it a few more decades.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
    • Donna

      Mig, I think it will happen in my lifetime. Give it a few more decades. : )

      July 1, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • Donna

      Ha ha, I changed it from "our lifetime" to "my lifetime" while the page was loading, didn't think they'd both post!

      July 1, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • Haemisch

      MIG...Europeans only vote for non-religious politicians; they are deeply distrustful of the religious and they produce candidates that are just as corrupt, foolish, etc. What, really, is the difference between someone who pretends to be a Christian to get votes or the pretends to be an atheist to get votes?

      July 1, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • mig

      Haemisch can you prove this?

      July 1, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
    • mig

      Donna sorry but that will not happen for a least two hundred years

      July 1, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
  20. eroteme

    Nowadays, when Democrat leaders use the expression, God Bless America it is not really what they mean, they are only imitating Republican useage of the phrase, it seems to sell well.

    July 1, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • mig

      the phrase god bless America makes us look weak. It looks like we can not do anything on our own and must ask for help from a make believe all knowing being.

      July 1, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • eroteme

      What I'm trying to say, is that I'm a Muslim and a commie and I wish everyone believed the way I do. Hail Allah!

      July 1, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • Donna

      I think you're rationalizing. Democrats are religious, too.

      July 1, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • Just Claims, No Truth

      Republicans embraced religion in the late 70's and early 80's for the sake of votes.

      July 1, 2012 at 4:49 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.