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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. shep

    Is Ann Romney the favorite wife? Do the younger, hotter wives move up in the rotation? How does it work in a Mormon harem?

    July 1, 2012 at 11:34 pm |
    • lily

      sigh... once again the ignorant show their stupidity....

      Mormons stopped practicing polygamy in the 1800's.... How many times do we have to tell you?!?!?

      July 2, 2012 at 12:53 am |
  2. his "faith" in christianity doesnt matter, his islamic faith does.

    The man is a closet muslim...deal with it already

    July 1, 2012 at 11:29 pm |
    • poopfinger

      why would it matter?

      July 1, 2012 at 11:30 pm |
    • shep

      Romney is a Muslim? I thought he was a Mormon?

      July 1, 2012 at 11:33 pm |
    • Smokey

      A Muslim is closer to a Christian than a Mormon is.

      July 2, 2012 at 5:50 am |
  3. A Reasoner

    A President's faith, that is belief in the absence of, or contrary to evidence, should disqualify him or her from holding any public office in this country. It certainly has no place in running, or intimidating our government, its schools or its courts. Not in the 21st century.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:26 pm |
  4. AdrianEPH

    This is the worst piece of writing I have seen in a while, even for CNN standards. The author gives no actual evidence that any of the godless presidents cited above were that. It is all taken from the point of view of some fanatical clergyman somewhere who was probably trying to trash the president at the time to gain popularity. If The author had spent any time looking at primary sources, he would have seen it differently. If you are going to go around saying that these Founding Fathers weren't religious, back it up with some actual research.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:22 pm |
    • Bob

      They have this thing called Google, and you can research it very quickly to find that many of the Founding Fathers were indeed not religious. Many have posted their quotes and views on these pages, but perhaps you did not see those.

      July 1, 2012 at 11:38 pm |
    • AdrianEPH

      If I taught my students to research like that I'd be out of a job. I'm sure it works for you though.

      July 1, 2012 at 11:43 pm |
    • Bob

      So you teach your students to do no research at all, then berate others for not doing enough of the research you did not do at all, then to claim to teach others to do better research than you bothered to do?

      July 1, 2012 at 11:48 pm |
  5. Sara

    What matters as much is our FAITH in the president. Romney 2012

    July 1, 2012 at 11:21 pm |
    • Sharon

      Hear! Hear!

      July 1, 2012 at 11:22 pm |
    • Madcow11

      Scary thought, Sara.

      July 1, 2012 at 11:30 pm |
    • shep

      How's the weather in Cult Lake City?

      July 1, 2012 at 11:36 pm |
    • H. L. Mencken

      "Democracy is also a form of worship. It is the worship of Jackals by Jackasses."

      July 1, 2012 at 11:41 pm |
  6. watash

    If we are dependent on Joesph Smith to open the golden gates for us we are in a world of hurt.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:12 pm |
  7. Gene

    Who are we to be declaring whether or not someone is a Christian? Based on a Biblical definition it would not be easy for anyone to know, especially a non-Christian. We cannot know what is in a person's heart (mind). When a politician states that they are a Christian we should take it with a grain of salt. They may think that they are but not actually be, or they may be carrying on a deception for the sake of political gain.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:05 pm |
  8. Liz the First

    In a secular country, the main things for a president to have are intelligence, compassion, and good judgement. Obama has all of these. I wonder how much intelligence and good judgement someone who buys into Mormonism has. if they will believe that nonsense, what else will they believe? most religions have outlandish stuff they expect their followers to believe, but Mormonism pins the needle on the 'seriously???' meter. i wonder if they ever engage rational thinking or do they 'just believe,' as the song from 'the Book of Mormon' says. i would be very afraid of a Romney presidency, between the denial of facts and reality that comes with republicanism, layer Mormonism on that and you have real questions about a person's sanity.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:04 pm |
    • AdrianEPH

      Obviously Romney is an irrational idiot. Look at all he's done: Ivy League grad with honors, become a multimillionaire respected throughout the world for his abilities, saved the Olympics, duped enough people to get the GOP nomination. Yeah sounds like someone who doesn't have his own brain to think with. Just because someone doesn't agree with your beliefs doesn't mean he is an incapable idiot.

      July 1, 2012 at 11:27 pm |
    • Madcow11

      Well said, Liz.

      July 1, 2012 at 11:28 pm |
    • lily

      Mormons are among some of the most intelligent and respectable people in this country.... Mormons have one of the highest college graduation rates. Mormons value education immensely and are often very successful!!

      I'm sure you wouldn't say the same thing about Harry Reid.....

      Just because they believe in a 1st century Christianity and not a 4th or 5th doesn't mean they are stupid. Everything 'weird' Mormons teach can be found in the Bible (note, I did NOT say 'book of mormon'). The rest of YOU are just too stupid to see it! In religious studies of the knowledge of Americans, Mormons are some of the most knowledgeable about the Bible.

      July 2, 2012 at 12:59 am |
  9. Jack

    Hello. Everyone is welcome to visit – thestarofkaduri.com

    July 1, 2012 at 11:04 pm |
  10. southernwonder

    i like a president who will tax talk radio.

    July 1, 2012 at 10:59 pm |
  11. ObamaUntil2016

    I wonder if the purpose of this article is to make right wingers feel better casting a ballot for a non-Christian in Romney?

    July 1, 2012 at 10:54 pm |
    • Sharon

      I think this article is nothing more than apologia for Obama's "faith".

      July 1, 2012 at 11:22 pm |
  12. liz48

    The faith of those who claim to follow the True G-d is what matters; when we get back to kicking all paganism that came out of organized religion, starting with the mother "church" in Rome born of the political advantage and conspiracy of the Roman empire; and truly seek the True G-d and His ways, situations will adjust where we will see the Blessings of G-d and not the curse.

    Whatever Obama is or is not and whatever any president has been claiming to mean – does not mean a thing...

    G-d says it is He Who raises kingdoms and makes them fall, and He says that if His People will humble themselves and talk to him (pray in the Bible), He will heal their land...

    For the present, we as individuals are wise to seek G-d in our personal lives and families, and tell people, who care to listen the Truth. I have seen divine healing and many miracles of protection and provision; something alien to the religious mind...

    G-d is not a religion. He is a Person Who has created us for an awesome and fulfilling relationship with Him...as His Sons and His Family. Religion has stolen the Best and keeps people blind and in oppression...Seek The Father as Jesus told us to. He told us not to call any man teacher (Rabbi) or father, except G-d. See Matthew 23:8-10.

    Religion imposes on people human beings who tell people what they can and cannot do – in G-d's System this is of the devil...because He told us that He would His laws in our hearts and minds. Let us flee from control and oppression and seek G-d's guidance. He tells us He will lead and guide us – see Psalm 23:1, Psalm 32:8.

    July 1, 2012 at 10:54 pm |
    • Madcow11

      Utter nonsense, Liz.

      July 1, 2012 at 11:10 pm |
    • Fact

      Actually He says: "If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways then will I hear from heaven and forgive their sins and heal their land."
      I agree with you, though, and we need a revival if we want this nation to recover.

      July 1, 2012 at 11:16 pm |
    • Cosmopolitan

      You know, if you used the same thinking and beliefs about anything else, you would be institutionalized in a psych ward. But talk about "god", and psychosis is acceptable.

      July 1, 2012 at 11:16 pm |
    • Fact

      Madcow – your reply is "udder" nonsense.
      No, really, liz48 knows what she is talking about. You reject truth.

      July 1, 2012 at 11:18 pm |
    • Fact

      Cosmo- I believe some of the people thought Christ was crazy, also, but one day you will bow before Him and liz48 will be rewarded for her faith.

      July 1, 2012 at 11:21 pm |
    • Madcow11

      Poor Fact, you just don't get it do you? Check out the Bill Maher video posted below. Maybe then a few neurons will start to connect in your little mind.

      July 1, 2012 at 11:23 pm |
    • Fact

      Madcow – I could care less what Maher says; I'm interested in what God says.

      July 2, 2012 at 7:44 am |
    • sam stone

      fact; you do not know what god says. you know translated, edited iron age hearsay, and you attribute it to god

      July 2, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  13. Obama Breaks Down Why We Need Separation of Church & State

    Obama explains it well:

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kdB1_KFOhnU&w=640&h=390]

    July 1, 2012 at 10:53 pm |
  14. peter

    Scientology like Mormonism is a mental illness

    July 1, 2012 at 10:52 pm |
    • Madcow11

      Excellent video.

      July 1, 2012 at 11:24 pm |
  15. America is not Number One

    Good commentary from Bill Maher:

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T8UqdPKbpWM&w=640&h=390]

    July 1, 2012 at 10:47 pm |
    • GodFreeNow

      Great one... I posted it on another Belief page on "American Exceptionalism"

      July 1, 2012 at 11:00 pm |
  16. Fact

    Really, the only thing that will help this country is God Himself but that will take the nation turning back to Him and His ways first. Now, do you think that will happen when we've tossed Him out of everything and break all His Commandments without batting an eyelash? We're ontheroad to doom by our own doing with more than half the nation believing the Bible is full of fairy tales when in actuality it's the inspired Word of God. Yeah, say what you will but eventually Truth will prevail.

    July 1, 2012 at 10:46 pm |
    • poopfinger

      why do you believe it is real?

      July 1, 2012 at 10:47 pm |
    • Fact

      Pf – do you really want to know or are you just looking for an argument?

      July 1, 2012 at 10:49 pm |
    • poopfinger

      I am always up for a good argument. However I would love for someone to be able to convert me. Try

      July 1, 2012 at 10:53 pm |
    • Fact

      Only God can enable you to come to Himself through Christ and only God knows if you are ready to be converted. If you really want to know the Truth you have to be ready to receive it. Read the gospel of John. If you are really seeking the Truth, God will reveal it to you and you will be converted. I didn't come on here to argue; I came to point others to Christ.

      July 1, 2012 at 11:05 pm |
    • poopfinger

      you are not providing a reason. You are only telling me to pray to someone.

      July 1, 2012 at 11:33 pm |
    • sam stone

      his ways, fact? like knocking up a virgin, and leave the rest of the world to deal with the babblings of the illegimate progeny?

      July 2, 2012 at 9:52 am |
  17. poopfinger

    Doesn't it seem stupid in this day and age that we still talk about the boogey man (god)? We allow atrocities to be committed in the name of said "loving" god that contiously murdered the people he created? We have Ipods, spaceships, and an ability to calculate vast distances across the universe yet we still hold on to Bronze age beliefs that cause us to imprison and murder? Havent we had just about enough of this BS? Is anyone else getting sick of people talking about religion like it should have any bearing?

    July 1, 2012 at 10:41 pm |
    • fritz

      Why debate with these people? You fall right into their trap by carrying on any discourse with them. Once you realize that the debate itself is all they have left, then they will eventually become nothing more than a cacaphony of backround noise. The best weapon we humanists have against these christian fanatics is to render them irrelevant by ignoring them. The only thing you should worry about is their constant attempt to legislate their morality onto the rest of us. In that regard, we must NOT ignore them. We must attack them at every turn until they have no more power to influence laws that would force the rest of us to conform to their beliefs and their particular morality. Only then can we figure out what we are doing wrong and solve our long term social, economic and environmental problems. And yes, we will have an openly agnostic president someday.

      July 2, 2012 at 12:00 am |
  18. MaryM

    Thanks CNN – slowly exposing us to the absence of religion. Well done... perhaps someone somewhere will buy that America should be Christian-less... but not all of us. May you burn in Hell for all eternity.

    July 1, 2012 at 10:41 pm |
    • KyleGlobal

      If that's what you got out of that article, you need to go see a medical professional to get some medication or at least pick up a 3rd grade civics book.

      July 1, 2012 at 10:57 pm |
  19. barbraS

    Mormonism is more of a cult than a religion. Anyone that believes Joseph Smith's line of malarkey shouldn't be president. It shows a serious lack of intellect.

    July 1, 2012 at 10:40 pm |
    • poopfinger

      lol. Yeah Christianity is way more believable that Mormonism...................................

      July 1, 2012 at 10:43 pm |
    • GodFreeNow

      @poopfinger, I was just thinking the same thing... :)

      July 1, 2012 at 10:46 pm |
  20. MaryM

    Romney And the charlatan that is the head of the Mormon faith, Joseph Smith.
    Integrity? I think not.

    July 1, 2012 at 10:37 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.