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.”
The mainstream media is gone, socialism is being installed by liberal media outlets like CNN, this country was founded on Christian values, your article is sickening. O,Bama is a disaster as a president. 2012 elections will be a reminder of what this country really stands for. May God Bless
Given that George Bush invented Medicare Part D – the BIGGEST socialist program since the 1906s, and given that you most likely vored for Bush TWICE – YOU are the one that installed socialism.
What are these "exclusive to Christianity values" you speak of?
Floyd- Yes, Bush did and it ticked off alot of Republicans. We voted out those in Congress that helped pass it and run up our debt. For voting out Socialists in Republican clothes we were called tea baggas, racist, anything -phobe and other nasty things. Seeing as Bush did so much Dems should have liked i dont see why they are complaining.
Your full of it Jim. This nation was founded by nonchristians. Almost every one of the founding fathers were Diests (believed in a god, but not the christian version). Educate yourself, and read up on the American Enlightenment Age.
Thomas Paige – Deist
Thomas Jefferson – Diest
Benjamin Franklin – Diest
George Washington Deist
John Adams – Unitarian
These people reject jesus as a savior and saw him as a good moral human being only. They rejected all the supernatural beliefs of religions. Know your facts.
I agree with you on this. Hey Floyd, did you not forget the other big socialist programs like the following:
1880s–1890s: Attempts were made to move poor people from work yards to poor houses if they were in search of relief funds.
1893–1894: Attempts were made at the first unemployment payments, but were unsuccessful due to the 1893–1894 recession.
1932: The Great Depression had gotten worse and the first attempts to fund relief failed. The "Emergency Relief Act", which gave local governments $300 million, was passed into law.
1933: In March 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed Congress to establish the Civilian Conservation Corps.
1935: The Social Security Act was passed on June 17, 1935. The bill included direct relief (cash, food stamps, etc.) and changes for unemployment insurance.
1940: Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC) was established.
1964: Johnson’s War on Poverty is underway, and the Economic Opportunity Act was passed. Commonly known as "the Great Society"
1996: Passed under Clinton, the "Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996" becomes law.
Forgot those little history facts...typical liberal and will only point out what you want to bash on instead of presenting actual facts.
These spins on past presidents to fit the motive of the article are quite disgusting. "Yet he was also known for his violent temper (he killed a man in a duel) and for being a rich slaveholder." Yes, in today's times those would be bad thing, but the author is bypassing the era when Jackson lived. I also find it interesting that the article completely leaves out Kennedy, whose faith was a major concern to people before his election. Then again, the author would have to categorize Kennedy alongside Nixon as one of the most corrupt presidents we've ever had.
If you thing slavery was ok just because of the time it happened, your not very moral.
I'm not saying that slavery is okay. I'm saying that judging a person's character that lived in the 1800's by today's standards isn't fair to that person. We have 200 more years of knowledge than they did. A lot has changed morally between then and now.
Kennedy was not corrupt.
Having or showing a willingness to act dishonestly in return for money or personal gain.
Kennedy may have been a bad husband, but he was a good president.
even in the 1800s there were people with the guts to stand up and say slavery was wrong.
So synopsis of this article is: if you were a president who claims to be Christian you were corrupt and brutal, If you really didn't care too much about God you were the pinnacle of leadership. Look, I don't believe that a President's religious affiliation or for that matter their personal life within reason should matter. Obviously you can't commit something criminal but for instance i really don't care if you cheat on your spouse or are just generally a jerk. But this article is more slanted than my peoples' eyes.
Lord help us if we have a Hindu elected POTUS. Or worse yet a Jew. Dems would have a stroke.
Lord help us if we have a Hindu elected POTUS. Or worse yet a Jew. Dems would have a stroke.
I am a liberal Dem, wouldnt bother me.
He sat in Wrights church for 20 years. He understands Islam well too. Now that he is POTUS he wont cast a shadow on a church. I guess Wrights church was the only place that could feed his soul. Since its election time i am sure we will see him going to church more and have plenty of family photos too.
Obama (and family) have been going to a church in DC.
They just dont use it as a photo-op.
Christen means (Trying) to be more like Christ which none of us including presidents Will ever be perfect and without sin. There was only one without sin. Even Jefferson said he would trust a man with god in the’ life for it brings morals fare play and conches in he’s decision making. We are all not perfect but does it hurt to try to be a better person. To believe in something good, a better way to live, And to believe that’s It believe that you are forgiven Thru He’s blood. Thank You and GOD BLESS AMERICA..
Atheist here. Well said.
GOD BLESS AMERICA? Are you telling or asking?
Atheist here too. Jefferson wasn't a christian so about half of what you said, he wouldn't have agreed with. specifically the blood part as he and others did not believe christ died for their sins. Deists are not christians.
conches in he’s decision making ????????????????
Isnt that a shellfish ?
[“They hate him so much,” Nielsen says. “He’s polarized the country.”]
Bull! I'm sick of hearing these lies!President Obama hasn't tried to plarize the country.
I agree. It's the republicans that refused to do their job in an effort to make the President look bad. But people are much more informed about whats going on in Washington D.C. now than even 20 years ago. They are not pulling the wool over our eyes.
Plarize the country??? lol you're the type that votes for this loser
He may not have tried, but he did.
"Plarize the country??? lol you're the type that votes for this loser"
You didn't use quotation marks, captal letters, a comma or period. Aren't you the pot calling the kettle black.
this article has a great liberal slant......FDR one of the greatest presidents in the top 3? "an array of programs that protected the poor and elderly from the abuses of unrestrained capitalism." goodness gracious give me a break of course faith doesn't matter anymore for the president, faith doesn't even matter anymore in the US.
Their trying to make FDR more socialist than he was and he was some. He stated he didnt want these programs to be used as a public dole. Now they are and are used to make ever more promises we cant keep in order to assure reelection of politicians.
another anti-religion article by
CNN on a Sunday – what a shock
I bet half of them dont even buy health insurance yet. Guess what come 2014 you have to lay out $75 a week from your paycheck (thats $300 a month you now owe) all thanks to Obama. You might not have a prayer but I hope you have extra cash.
You would be required to purchase health insurance. There is no set cost of that insurance. Failure to do so will result in a penalty towards your income tax returns, not your monthly income. Failure to pay the penalty, will result in... nothing. Try looking to more than Fox news for information.
If i's not painting religion as daisies and sunshine, you think it's anti-religion. Truth hurts, doesn't it.
The sabbath is on Saturday, whats your point.
A news site like CNN cant put out a news story about religion
without you thinking that its a personal attack ?
Until we start feeding you to the lions again, STFU>
This is the tip of the iceberg! (I hope.) More and more people under 30 in the U.S. doubt the existence of a "higher power", god, etc. Church attendance is declining. Imaginary friends are okay if you are 3 years old, but most people mature, get educated and leave childish ideas and habits behind. Church is finally being widely accepted as the out-dated social club that it really is.
When your elected President's policy is "the hell with what you want" its time to rethink everything.
Of course faith should not matter but for some on the extreme right it seems to be one of the ONLY things that matter. The POTUS must be a fundamentalist, evangelist or some other extreme form of Chirstianity. Wonder how they will vote for Mitt?
What're you gonna do when your employer cancels your health care insurance and elects to pay the "fine" because it's cheaper and totally throws you under the gubmint healthcare bus?
Oh, I forgot. It's the Obamanation. You probably don't have a job.
And for Dems being anti-christian and Socialist is their religion. If Christians went around cutting off heads Dems wouldnt say such horrid things about them.
Evangelical Christians they will have a hard time supporting Romney. Romney's Church (the LDS Church) believes that all religions other than theirs is an abomination. I just can't see Evangelical Christians supporting a LDS candidate whose church calls their religion an abomination.
Top Ten Signs You're a Christian
10 – You vigorously deny the existence of thousands of gods claimed by other religions, but feel outraged when someone denies the existence of yours.
9 – You feel insulted and "dehumanized" when scientists say that people evolved from other life forms, but you have no problem with the Biblical claim that we were created from dirt.
8 – You laugh at polytheists, but you have no problem believing in a Triune God.
7 – Your face turns purple when you hear of the "atrocities" attributed to Allah, but you don't even flinch when hearing about how God/Jehovah slaughtered all the babies of Egypt in "Exodus" and ordered the elimination of entire ethnic groups in "Joshua" including women, children, and trees!
6 – You laugh at Hindu beliefs that deify humans, and Greek claims about gods sleeping with women, but you have no problem believing that the Holy Spirit impregnated Mary, who then gave birth to a man-god who got killed, came back to life and then ascended into the sky.
5 – You are willing to spend your life looking for little loopholes in the scientifically established age of Earth (few billion years), but you find nothing wrong with believing dates recorded by Bronze Age tribesmen sitting in their tents and guessing that Earth is a few generations old.
4 – You believe that the entire population of this planet with the exception of those who share your beliefs – though excluding those in all rival sects – will spend Eternity in an infinite Hell of Suffering. And yet consider your religion the most "tolerant" and "loving."
3 – While modern science, history, geology, biology, and physics have failed to convince you otherwise, some idiot rolling around on the floor speaking in "tongues" may be all the evidence you need to "prove" Christianity.
2 – You define 0.01% as a "high success rate" when it comes to answered prayers. You consider that to be evidence that prayer works. And you think that the remaining 99.99% FAILURE was simply the will of God.
1 – You actually know a lot less than many atheists and agnostics do about the Bible, Christianity, and church history – but still call yourself a Christian.
You are the same person who when confronted with a life threatneing event will scream....."Oh God.....please no....."
Bravo! Dear sir. Bravo!
This is a most distasteful picture of Christians. But it is a straw man argument. I am a Christian and an ordained pastor. This certainly doesn't describe me or the many loving people I have served in various churches for nearly 3 decades.
Dont let the enemy use you..youre only hurting yourself. Why try to bash Christians than any other religion? because u feel shame..and the darkness hates the light..dont let your heart be hardened..with false pride. and actually listen instead of try to contradict.
You spent all that time writing that smart -ss comment only to vent your own bigoted spleen against christians?
I'm not ashamed. ALL religions are useless, and ALL "gods" are false, even yours. That goes for demons, ghosts, angels, anything in the realm of the "super-natural". It's all one big lie that's been going on and spo'on-fed to humans for untold thousands of years.
@a dose of faith.
believe what you want to believe, but it's not true. I'm an atheist, been close to death and never came close to finding "faith". There are athests in foxholes.
To the writer of "Top Ten Signs You're A Christian" ... kudos to you, sir. As a recovered fundamentalist Christian (I am now a happy agnostic/atheist) I speak from direct experience when I say that your Top Ten list is amazingly accurate and true.
Obama's faith is socialism. And if you libs think you took a beating in the 2010 mid term, wait'll you see what happens in the November elections.
We're taking our country back - from YOU.
Boy, are you going to be in for a big suprise.
You....I guess 'you' is anyone a little different from....'you'?!?!? Now there is some bogtry, and most likely from a 'good christian' eh?!?!
Libs have run the country since the 2006 mid term.
Where are the jobs?
Jobs? No. But we do have CFL's and gay celebrations on the Pentagon.
The Bush Tax Cuts were supposed to create a billions jobs. Why didn't they work?
They did work, Floyd.... then all the bogus mortgages handed out by libs to people who couldn't afford them all came due and the economy crashed.
Now we're stuck with the Obamanation.
But not for long.
Again, we're taking our country back - from YOU.
Jesus healed the sick free of charge (socialist)
Jesus fed the poor free of charge (socialist)
Jesus said love your neighbor as yourself (liberal)
But being a socialist liberal Democrat is bad ?
You have a very twisted version of christianity you practice.
Its the Republicans that want to do away with programs that help the less fortunate,
yet you defend them to no end.
If you truly believed that god is in control or that god will provide for you, you'd cancel your health insurance. Faith is such a juvenile thing.
According to the bible god (Jesus) killed everyone in the world, even unborn babies, except one family.
Anyone who doesn't believe in him gets tossed into a lake of fire.
Do we want leaders who believe such actions are acceptable?
Can you afford to lose $75 a week from your paycheck? Get used to it.
And wait till you meet your new gubmint health care claims adjuster. Remember the rude chick who used to answer the phone when you called the cable company?
Many of our 'forefathers' did not believe in God, much to the chagrin of those who say we should have prayer & God in schools. Those folks only want to push their religion on others. Thank goodness for the Supreme Court who rules against these religious zealots. We don't care if you do believe in God. But, we believe you shouldn't push your beliefs on others.
You are incorrect. Most of the founding fathers DID believe in a god, But thay were Deists of the American Enlightenment Age. They beleaved a god created the universe, but did not believe in the bible or any other holy book, did not belive in the holy trinity or that Jesus was anything but a mortal man. I'm an Atheist myself and don't know of any atheists of that era. Keep it real and know the facts. We don't need to make stuff up like they theists do.
i think even the most devout realize there's no such thing as a supreme being watching over them. but that they hope others will share the same belief system. and that's because humans have an innate distrust of anything that looks, speaks, or thinks different from themselves. mankind is intelligent enough to transcend bigotry and ignorance, but it's difficult to shake genetic predisposition.
Before going into that voting booth it is necessary to look closely at the political beliefs of Mormonism. Rather frightening. Right next to Scientology.
All religion is frightening. EVer read the bible front to back?!?!?!?!
How do you feel about the religion of 'God Damn America????
I cant see how the pro gay agenda is no different than mormonism..its all disgusting...but the choice would have to be whoevers been proven to show progress..ans Obamas stats are up there compared to Romneys fire to hire approach
@ A dose. The bible is frightening..nope thats just life...u see worse things in the news..judgement day/death..yes that will be frightening to all unbelievers..
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.