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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. One one

    Good morning folks, God here.

    Worship me or I will tortoure you forever.

    Have a nice day.

    July 1, 2012 at 8:08 am |
    • Bootyfunk

      deaths in the bible

      satan: 10
      god: millions

      who's the monster again?

      July 1, 2012 at 8:09 am |
    • answer is cold

      Humans, BootyMan ...Humans are!

      July 1, 2012 at 8:12 am |
    • Bootyfunk

      well, since satan and yahweh are fictional characters, i'd have to agree.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:20 am |
  2. answer is cold

    "Thomas Jefferson, though, aroused the hostility of more religious leaders than any other president, except perhaps for President Obama."
    God Bless them! LOL

    July 1, 2012 at 8:07 am |
    • Bootyfunk

      pretty safe bet that if the religious leaders are against it - you're doing the right thing.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:10 am |
    • answer is cold

      What you said has been a good benchmark for me Booty.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:13 am |
  3. JUDA

    Nice article. Interesting and timely. Would like to see it get a better news spot on front page because it is an important article, I thinkl. There are many people who need to read this. If you looked at the comments as to Mrs. Obama's message she delivered in the AME church (on Yahoo News) –hopefully you would be shocked. Thank you.

    July 1, 2012 at 8:06 am |
    • Bootyfunk

      this article is worthless.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:08 am |
    • answer is cold

      Jesus said you would be "shocked" and "if" you wake up to your programming ...then indeed you will be.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:10 am |
  4. Whome

    Lets see Mitt's matters obama's does not, it matters believe me it matters.

    July 1, 2012 at 8:03 am |
  5. Bootyfunk

    if the US Pres didn't have the ability to blow the entire world up 3x over, i wouldn't worry. but christians just can't wait till the end of the world. christianity is a death cult. kind of scary to think of a crazy fundie president pushing the button because he knows it'll herald the end times.

    July 1, 2012 at 8:02 am |
    • Josh

      "kind of scary to think of a crazy fundie president pushing the button because he knows it'll herald the end times."

      Using this rationale, we have all been trembling with fear for centuries.
      Or have we yet had a president who didn't believe in a God?

      July 1, 2012 at 8:08 am |
    • Bootyfunk

      @Josh

      i think you would be surprised. george washington was a deist, not a christian. thomas jefferson didn't like christianity at all. lincoln was not a christian either. there are others. study up on your presidents.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:13 am |
    • Josh

      @Bootyfunk

      Perhaps you should try to read my post before commenting on it.
      If you had, you would notice I didn't mention Christianity anywhere in it.
      Study up on your comprehensive reading ability.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:22 am |
  6. answer is cold

    External Faith is a waste. If you believe in a perfect creator then you where endowed with everything you need, nothing missing as far as connection is concerned so Faith becomes counterproductive, hence a waste.

    July 1, 2012 at 8:01 am |
  7. Dana

    You are whatever faith your parents brain-washed you to be unless your brain fully form, you learn how to reason, and you realize it is all fiction.

    July 1, 2012 at 7:59 am |
    • Josh

      So scared, angry, and hurt. I feel for you @Dana.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:01 am |
    • Bootyfunk

      @Josh
      you're the one that sounds scared, angry and hurt - and ignorant. dana is exactly right. you're only the religion you are because of where you were born.

      christianity is a cult. leave the cult. think for yourself.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:04 am |
    • vernon

      My parents didn't "brainwash" me to believe in any feligion. We didn't go church. I chose my faith as an adult and I consider it a completely rational decision.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:12 am |
    • Bootyfunk

      @verson

      you are one of the exceptions to the rule. few people don't have a religion forced on them as children.

      what are your religious beliefs? what are your parents religious beliefs? curious.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:15 am |
    • Bootyfunk

      @verson

      you are one of the exceptions to the rule. few people don't have a religion forced on them as children.

      what kind of religious beliefs do you hold? what are your parents religious beliefs? curious.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:16 am |
    • answer is cold

      Josh -–> "Basic Self Knowledge" Harry Benjamin. -–> lifesaver, for REAL Ta' Eso Christians.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:18 am |
    • Josh

      @Vernon

      Bootyfunk assumes too much about people.
      In no way could Bootyfunk ever believe that rationale, educated, degreed people could choose to become a part of Christianity during their adult life, though many of us do everyday. If Bootyfunk ever to the time to sincerely study/investigate the evidences of the different faiths, he/she too might come to the same, sane, logical conclusions you and I have come to.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:19 am |
  8. Call me Crazy

    Anyone else notice the bottle of Dasani water at Billy Graham's feet? One would assume he insist on water as god intended; murky and full of parasites.

    July 1, 2012 at 7:57 am |
    • Bootyfunk

      murky and full of parasites - yeah, that's billy graham.

      July 1, 2012 at 7:58 am |
    • Josh

      Coca-Cola is a huge sponsor (donor) to the Billy Graham association. They also give tons of money away each year to numerous other Christian-based non-profits.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:03 am |
  9. Nathan Newman

    It shouldnt matter – is this America or the Taliban's Afghanistan?

    July 1, 2012 at 7:56 am |
    • Bootyfunk

      if the christian taliban had its way, it wouldn't be much different.

      July 1, 2012 at 7:57 am |
  10. greta518

    To Anonymous...you state employees will cancel their employee insurance plans because the fine for not having insurance is cheaper? So these employers would already be providing health insurance, even though there is currently NO fine! And if you want to make the argument insurance will be more costly under a mandate, then you don't understand the simple concept of supply and demand. More people purchasing anything drives the cost down, not up.

    July 1, 2012 at 7:55 am |
    • Dan

      Greta – Your efforts are futile. If the Obamacare opponents had the ability to deal with facts, we would even be having this discussion now. They keep drumming up that employers will drop coverage because paying fines is cheaper. But they cannot even think that today, even though there is not even a fine, they still cover employees. These people think that like with them, money-making is the driver for everything in this world. They cannot digest the fact that people can be kind and caring!

      July 1, 2012 at 8:01 am |
  11. fbcep

    I didn't even read the full story you posted about our Presidents faith (or what I would consider total lack of faith in God). I am just appalled, dismayed, and frankly a little saddened that CNN opts to print such garbage. As a news organization you could have focused on other Presidents faith (yes many had it and historical revisionists cannot take it away either). God bless you CNN and bring you back to restoring faith and reconciliation with God. Suggesting that a President's faith doesn't impact his performance is like suggesting a skilled heart surgeon doesn't need a sharp knife!

    July 1, 2012 at 7:51 am |
    • Bootyfunk

      CNN kisses christianity's @ss constantly. i am appalled that they suck up to religion so much. very bad journalism.

      July 1, 2012 at 7:53 am |
    • T-Max73

      You do realize that all gods are fictions, don't you? You are free to believe whatever you wish, but know that the belief in "God" is based entirely on wishful thinking and fear. It's very, very hard to find your way out of religious indoctrination, but it IS possible. It all starts with a willingness to follow the evidence wherever it may lead, even if it results in the realization that all gods are simply a figment of our imaginations. Peace.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:04 am |
    • SuckitUP

      What is wrong with a writing on something other than everyday topics about religion? Why does it hurt so bad to read or see this? It is a good article and argument about the paradox between a presidency and their "Christianity". It is not shoving anything down your throat. You see the word faith or God and you just bounce on your high horse. Just relax and learn something.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:07 am |
    • Bootyfunk

      @suckitup

      you kidding? christians knock on my door and try to spread their ignorance. christians lobby to change laws in this country to match their nutty religious dogma. the KKK is a christian organization.

      yeah, christians don't bother anyone. cry more.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:18 am |
  12. James Albis

    Faith is believing that the impossible is possible, without a moral compass grounded in faith a soul will wonder the earth like a ship without a rudder.

    July 1, 2012 at 7:51 am |
    • Bootyfunk

      wrong. long before christianity ever reared its ugly head, murder, thievery, etc. were illegal. show me even one example of a civilization before christianity that allowed murder. sorry, the bible doesn't get credit.

      the moral compass of the bible is laughable. the bible supports slavery. yeah, some moral compass there.

      Humanism offers a much more humane, logical and compassionate ethical system. much superior to christianity.

      July 1, 2012 at 7:56 am |
    • One one

      What morality does faith provide that cannot be had without it ?

      July 1, 2012 at 7:57 am |
    • Mirosal

      @ Bootyfunk .. I guess none of the christards have ever read the Code of Hammurabi, where it spelled out specific crimes and punishments, all without the use of "god" to do it.It also predates the buybull by more than 1000 years.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:06 am |
    • Jo Ann

      While I really want to believe that people use their faith as a moral compass, this article is full of examples in which presidents did not.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:17 am |
  13. One one

    Do you want to live in a country run by someone who worships a god who, according to his holy book, commits or condones murder, r-ap-e, torture, child abuse, and symbolic cannibalism? Someone who worships a god he believes tortures non-believers in hell forever, with HIS full approval? Someone whose idol of worship (the cross) is an instrument of torture and death? Someone whose god requires blood and human sacrifice of the innocent to atone for disobedience of the "guilty"? Someone who relishes being washed in the blood of his god? Someone who eagerly anticipates the end of the world?

    July 1, 2012 at 7:50 am |
    • Bootyfunk

      if jesus had died in the 1970s, christians would be walking around with a little electric chair hanging from a chain around their necks instead of a cross.

      July 1, 2012 at 7:51 am |
    • fbcep

      When the sun comes out, do you tell yourself on a great Summer day do you also tell yourself I am going to get skin cancer and die if I step outside. May the SON of God bless you and bring you closer to God the Father. His sacrifice on the cross is the only thing that can heal, redeem and cleanse us all, including you. Go into the light instead of embracing darkness and "stinking thinking".

      July 1, 2012 at 8:00 am |
    • fbcep

      When the sun comes out, do you tell yourself on a great Summer day I am going to get skin cancer and die if I step outside. May the SON of God bless you and bring you closer to God the Father. His sacrifice on the cross is the only thing that can heal, redeem and cleanse us all, including you. Go into the light instead of embracing darkness and "stinking thinking".

      July 1, 2012 at 8:01 am |
  14. Megamimi

    Perhaps the issue is not the faith, but the integrity to admit the faithfulness or lack there of. To mouth one thing, but believe another or nothing at all is an indication of character, I think.

    July 1, 2012 at 7:49 am |
  15. Reality

    Bottom line: Romney is Mormon because he was born Mormon. Should we hold this against him?

    After all, BO also believes in "pretty/ugly wingie thingies, bodily resurrections and atonement mumbo jumbo.

    One should be voting based on rational thinking. Believing in angels, satans, bodily resurrections, atonement, and heavens of all kinds is irrational.

    Apparently, BO and MR have been severely brainwashed in their theologically and historically flawed Christianity and they are too weak to escape its felonious grip.

    July 1, 2012 at 7:49 am |
    • kosh

      Well said and a very appropriate screen name. Just like reality around us, cold, stark and absolutely accurate.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:12 am |
  16. Dana

    It must be make-believe day again.

    July 1, 2012 at 7:48 am |
  17. Bootyfunk

    christians. you are in a religious cult. all religions are cults. cults are not healthy. leave the cult. think for yourself. be happy.

    July 1, 2012 at 7:47 am |
  18. Dan

    Of course faith has nothing to do with the outcome of anything.

    July 1, 2012 at 7:46 am |
  19. Saywhatyoumean

    A Presidents faith or non-faith has no bearing on whether he will be just ruler in my opinion. We humans try to beat each other up all the time for the things we believe or don't believe in. Some Christians want everyone in the world to be as they are. The same can be said with Muslims, Atheists or whatever a person identify with. It's as if we cannot comprehend someone being a good person unless they share our belief system. But doing good to your neighbor is a universal idea and we humans need to stop trying to control one another and learn to accept our different opinions instead of labeling and demonizing each other just because "we" like ketchup on our fries and "they" like mustard.

    July 1, 2012 at 7:44 am |
    • steve

      Very well put.

      July 1, 2012 at 7:50 am |
    • T-Max73

      That all sounds quite reasonable and practical, until you recognize and admit that the foundational texts for these religions (Christianity and Islam and Judaism) are intolerant, murderous, misogynist, and totalitarian. Further, the believers in these religious ideas read these texts as they are written-without resort to "parable" or analogy. This is why those fueled with religious fervor for their beliefs are willing to bomb innocents in a market square, or fly jets into buildings without regard to life-they believe firmly that they are doing to will of their deity. We MUST outgrow these silly, nonsensical, and divisive ideas before it destroys humanity. Not believing in these religions is no guarantee of being a peaceful person either-atheists can be just as intolerant. But you can be a non-believer and be a nihilist just as easily as you can be a non believer and be a humanist-but this is NOT the case with monotheisms. These religions are incompatible with freedom of thought and autonomy of the mind. In these religons you either believe without question or suffer an unimaginable fate after death-this is what is taught to young innocent children from birth in many Christian and Islamic homes. This is precisely you guarantee allegiance to an idea-teach the innocent and impressionable that death has no sting and you will live forever in another realm if you can kill for your idea. This is sickness and it is immoral. Peace.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:16 am |
    • oldesalt

      I disagree with your comment that some Christians want everyone to believe as they do. I believe humans have a tendency to look for a reason to place each other into a group that they can feel superior to. Just within Christianity you'll find that Roman Catholics look upon Protestants as pagans. And even within the Protestant groups they poo-hoo each others beliefs.

      July 1, 2012 at 9:09 am |
  20. John Smith

    It is said in many places of the Bible, that in the end times of our world, both our leaders in the church, and in our "elected" officials in politics, the nation will be deceived. It won't come JUST from sources like CNN (which we already see every day), but from someone right in front of you, using the pulpit and their position of "elected" power to destroy both yourself and this world. Trust nothing of this world but the WORD (Bible) of God........

    July 1, 2012 at 7:42 am |
    • Dan

      It is always amusing when people think that the bible is non-fiction.

      July 1, 2012 at 7:44 am |
    • Sane Person

      The "End of times" has been "near" since day 1.

      July 1, 2012 at 7:44 am |
    • One one

      How do we know YOU are not a false prophet ?

      July 1, 2012 at 7:47 am |
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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.