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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. Mormon

    Good idea. Don't want to show up at Heaven's gate wearing the wrong, non Jesus sanctioned underwear. We worship a god who judges people based on their underwear.

    July 1, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • Qwerty Elemeno

      When I consider all the people who claim they are going to be in heaven, then I consider that spending the rest of eternity with them would be about the worst punishment that anyone could inflict on me, I must come to either one of two conclusions:

      1. Jesus is actually Satan in a big sneaky turnaround. God's abominable behavior and demands in the Bible would seem to support this.

      2. It's all bullsh!t. Every aspect of nature and the universe strongly implies this.

      July 1, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
  2. Desertlady

    It shouldn't matter at all what the president's religion/non-religion is. The point is, can he/she do the job?

    July 1, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • Paulie

      ...and the answer is no.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
  3. Mitt Romney

    I wear magic underwear in order to appease god. Makes sense.

    July 1, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • Paulie

      About as much sense as any other religion.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
  4. Paulie

    The Presidents faith does not matter. Our faith in our President (or lack thereof) means everything.

    July 1, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
  5. hippypoet

    fools elect those on anything but what the job is and the requirements of said job are.

    just look at W. bush!

    everything in the U.S. is failing due to lack of intelligence of its people and a lack of wanting to learn to expand on whatever intelligence they may or may not really have!

    July 1, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
  6. hopeandcringe

    obama's religion is marxism

    July 1, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • haha

      Marxism is not a religion because it does not involve magic characters and brainwashing docile minds with chanting and song.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
  7. dyslexic dog

    the upcoming election will prove two points.
    (a) that christians are believers according to convenience, and
    (b) that republican christians are republicans first and christians second

    Romney is a mormon which is a religion that, as well as co-optingsome parts and characters from the bible word for word, also contradicts and makes a mockery of so many key christian religious beliefs that it should be a bigger issue to christians than gay marriage and abortion. But ... the same way as christians always pick and choose which parts of the bible to loudly proclaim and which parts of the bible to pretend don't exist ... they will ignore all these issues and vote for Romney anyway.

    What do you think God/Jesus will think of you if you give your vote to a man who truly believes that he will one day be a God? Or a man who truly believes that Joseph Smith, a 19th century reknowned con-man, is an equal of Jesus?

    Go on christans, pretend you never read this post. Find some obscure bible quote that will justify you supporting a cult. What a joke!

    July 1, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • dyslexic dog

      and if you don't agree about mormonism making a mockery of your christian religion, then you had better study mormonism more closely. And don't ask a mormon ... they are trained as missionaries to deliberately obscure and twist and omit facts that embarrass mormonism.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • One one

      Religion most likely will have little to do with it.

      It will more likely reflect how many people on either side of the income re-distribution equation show up to vote.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • Jeff

      Bulls eye!!! I couldn't agree more...

      July 1, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
  8. Reggi N

    Kiss my grits.

    July 1, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
  9. CBR

    Presidents not only need to be religious they must believe as people think they should. We expect them to be like us even though there are many, many different religions.

    Much more important is character. No doubt that a person states his beliefs and upholds them has much more to offer than a person who touts his religion but is not a good person. There is a difference and it is easy to detect.

    July 1, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
  10. notogop

    "They hate him so much," Neilsen says. "He's polarized the country." Now, does that make any sense? How does their hating him get to the point where he has caused a polarization of the country? Seems to me that outrageous political rhetoric has polarized the country and this began, in force, after Richard Nixon got caught being Richard Nixon and came to a head with George W. Bush and Rove manipulating the religious right to become the extreme religious right.

    July 1, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
  11. Yep

    So if atheists don't like religion because its man-made why do they follow man-made laws?

    Found yet another flaw to atheism.

    July 1, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • Hooligan

      You figured it out. Wow!! What a genius.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
    • One one

      Because people made them and people actually exist.

      BTW, you didn't answer my previous question. Are the gods of the OT and the NT the same or are they different gods ?

      July 1, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • notogop

      That thinking is soooo stupid. No one is going to punish an atheist , i.e., God, for not following theological teachings. It is possible that a right-wing religious zealot will take things into his own hands and do something stupid. However, if one fails to follow "man-made laws", there are certainly ramifications that will ensue.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • Yep

      gods? What gods?

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

      I truly can't believe someone who is literate actually wrote such an inane epiphany. YEP you are one very shortsighted individual.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • Yep

      The truth is hard to accept.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      It certainly is, Yep; I can see why you're having so much trouble with it.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • bridgepet

      False dichotomy.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
    • Yep

      Lol atheists don't like facts.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Yep doesn't know what a dichotomy is.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • JT

      Atheists do not dislike religions. Not officially. But those who do, don't dislike them because it's "man made" but because of what religion does to people and how it's affected the world.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
    • Yep

      You call yourselves logical but believe the lies of people.

      How "logical".

      July 1, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
    • hippypoet

      religion – 1.The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, esp. a personal God or gods.

      atheism – belief that God does not exist

      if religion is a man made system then that implies that god is not a real creation outside of the mind of men!
      that is not something we atheists would care about...as we deny the existence of god (gods).

      you sir a$$ert much but know very little.

      July 1, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
    • Yep

      The truth hurts.We know hippy.

      July 1, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • hippypoet

      my post was extremely logical... i do however understand that you wouldn't undestand it....god didn't say it! lol

      July 1, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
    • Yep

      lol stop lying.

      July 1, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
    • Troll Alert!

      Yep is "TheCapitalist" and ClownQuestion" by yet another name. Please not the short posts intended not to answer but inflame, and very long threads. Pure troll.

      July 1, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
    • hippypoet

      actually i'm sitting down while standing for truth over belief.

      which in your eyes is more admirable....having a belief based on nothing but a notion of its reality or seeking to know if something is true or not?

      a quote from me, the hippypoet:
      where knowledge is belief is unneeded.

      July 1, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
    • hippypoet

      lol...first time i misquoted myself..... anyway –

      where knowledge is required, belief is unneeded.

      July 1, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
  12. Snuddleflarn

    Jesus watches young children go the bathroom.

    July 1, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
  13. Voice of Reason

    Step outside of your body and look at yourself. What are you? You are a human, a species, one of the many that have adapted via evolution to thrive on this planet. It is called natural selection. Look at yourself again. You are made-up of physical "stuff", bones, flesh, blood, arteries, etc... What keeps this body going? A number of things but mainly your brain function. The brain keeps you alive naturally. You can be brain dead but kept alive via artificial life support but once the support is yanked, you die.
    So, what's my point? It is the grey matter in your skull that employs 86 billion neurons to skillfully run your physical body. It is also the source of intellect, thought, awareness and a zillion other psychological processes. That is where god was made-up, in the thought of a man or woman, nothing more, no deity, no magic delusions, no miracles, no afterlife, no sin, etc...

    Use the grey matter that you have, learn to exercise it, think for yourself, live in the reality of this natural world, read, educate yourself and encourage your children and everyone you touch to seek the truth, the truth with proof, empirical, ever changing and becoming clearer. Personally, I would feel empowered as a citizen of this country if our leaders would not have anything to do with the supernatural. Be real, get real and stay real. No gods or religions in our government or our schools thank you.

    July 1, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  14. Toms Mom

    I apologize to all those here that had to put up with Tom Tom the Pipers Son. I am afraid he got out of the closet we lock him in and used the computer to show the world just how dumb he is. I have corralled him, put his clothes back on, and have shackled him back in his closet. This is our fault that he is this way and we take full responsibility for his lack of intelligence and common sense. He so badly wants to be somebody, but sadly, it is too late.

    Love and Respect to you all,
    Toms Mom.

    July 1, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  15. This is the kind of "thinking" that faith gets you

    July 1, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
    • And here is another amazing Christian brane thunking miracle!

      July 1, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • fofo

      My oh my oh my. How backward!

      July 1, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
  16. Joe Clark

    There are two things that a man absolutely cannot talk about in public. One is politics, and the other is religion. They both draw the same measure of scrutiney and whatever you say about either one will be remembered long after you are six foot under. Years afterward some folks who disagreed with what you said will even venture out to locate your grave just to relieve themselves if your words were sufficiently egregious in their estimation!

    July 1, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
  17. Jesus Christos Dominos Domingos

    "Praise unto Him, and He shalleth poop unto thine face"
    Hot Carl (17, 18)

    July 1, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
  18. shep

    Does the average American know that the Romney family fled from Utah to Mexico because they would not give up polygamy? That Mitt Romney's father was born in Mexico? Do a wiki search on Parley P. Pratt, Mitt Romney's great grandfather. See why he was killed by a jealous husband. Oh yeah. He also had 12 wives.

    July 1, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
  19. haha

    I like to be sma rt.

    July 1, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
  20. Salitos

    Sara Adams,
    Obama will still win without your vote as he did in 2008. You are making a false comment without a fact to even give u tiny support. He is a true christan and if you don't like his policies then be it.......

    July 1, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • WDinDallas

      He won't get the Catholic vote this time.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:30 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.