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.”
Especially Hussein who has no God.
He is going to be replaced by a cult.
In the end, however manner they chose, all Presidents rely on God. It is the only way they can function.
What an incredibly ignorant statement Mr. Ramos.
What a crock.
Hey, look at the URL right now. See that? It says "religion.blogs.cnn.com" If you don't like religions, then don't come here. If you hate fish, would you eat lunch at a sushi restaurant? Nope! It seems so obvious but . . . I just had to say it for all the people who come here just to complain about a Being they don't believe in and curse people that never did them any harm.
Sir States-the-Obvious-a-lot: Regardless of what you think, the topic of this article is relevant to everyone in the US regardless of their belief or lack thereof. Religion doesn't exist in its own special bubble not affecting anything. It has a huge impact on politics, as this very article discusses, and thus is a concern for everyone.
People have the right to comment as they see fit. People have the right to read articles that they may disagree with. It makes for a well-rounded individual when they can honestly say that they expose themselves to knowledge and opinion outside of their comfort zones....
As long as they don't think they are God then I don't care what they do in the privacy of their own home.
...I JUST CONVERTED HELL !!!!
The unfortunate things is that not just for presidents, but for many average persons, this remains true. There is a dichotomy between what they say they believe and the way they act. But if one does have religious faith, it should have a profound impact on who they are and how they do their job – which is to be a blessing to others. If they fulfill their work requirements in the exact same way as if they have no faith then, then they really have no faith.
Just because a person may lack "faith" in some fairy tale it does not render them unable to be a good president.
I never said that. I simply maintain that if you have faith, it should matter. Having a faith that makes you act in no way different from someone who does not have faith means your faith is really irrelevant. But I was passing no judgment on those who have no faith and I certainly think we have had some good presidents whose faith had little impact on what they did.
So far Mr. Romney has pretty much gotten a pass on his Mormonism from the conservatives, but that will change, especially if he loses but even if he wins. For now the conservatives are holding their noses about it so they don't hurt the chances of a Republican winning, but once the election is over I predict we'll be hearing a lot more about it, in a negative way.
I hope it becomes a big issue because Romney's faith seems to make people happy and well balanced. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints produces excellent families, service minded youth, dedicated parents and civic leaders all working to make our world a better place. UCLA's study on The Spiritual Life of College Students demonstrates that young members of Romney's faith are committed, caring people who know what they believe and live it as well: http://spirituality.ucla.edu/
Congratulations to Ann and Mitt Romney for their life examples and for raising an excellent and successful Christ centered family!
Ali, that so-called church produces little Stepford robots.....that so-called church degrades women......FAMILY? Why this obsession with the notion of "family" as if it is some holy bloody grail. Goody two shoes cookie cutter people are scary.
True follower's of Christ would consider the point that, "Judging is JUDGING. Even if it means OUR President. We are JUDGED THE SAME MEASURE that we JUDGE. Our enemy is literally DIRT just like YOU and I. He (Obama) is in the right place at the right time (Good or Evil).... just like you and I (One wrong decision away). We Christians should STOP judging the world, and get off our ASSES and represent CHRIST!! like he represented US. HIS word says, "The RIGHTEOUS will SCARCELY make it into HEAVEN..."Our focus, so jacked-up." What are we thinking??? STOP JUDGING, AND START DRAWING...BE AN EXAMPLE YALL!! Sin is sin, no matter the SIZE, LOOK, OR COLOR. "Seek Christ and stop punkin out!!. Give on good ground and not the lottery. Give to the Kingdom of God, and NOT THE WORLD. At least there's a guarantee it will come back in the form of a blessing (well worth it). I love ya'll, stop killing and start loving. It's fun and smart.
Christians need to take it to the streets, like Christ did..STOP PUNCKIN!" (Oh I'm included..believe that).
My name is Candace .... ( : and I approve this message!
I have never met an evangelical Christian that was not a hypocrite. Neither have you.
Obama pronounces Arabic words perfectly with no accent. Difficult trick to pull off unless one speaks Arabic.
Do you speak Arabic Larry?
There is nothing wrong with knowing languages other than gutter American.
If Romney is elected, will it be viewed in the same light as JFK? That is JFK being the first Catholic president seems like it was, and still is, a bigger deal than the fact that we may potentially elect the first Mormon?
Why isn't Romney's religion scrutinized as much as Obama's, when Obama is clearly Christian?
WELL HERE ARE SOME REAL REASONS:
"Obama's religion is clearly Christian"? Clear to whom? I thought that he was a Muslim....and people scrutinized him as much as they scrutinized Romney as a member of LDS. What does any candidate's religion matter? If he has clearly expressed values, whether they are in a religion or not, that's what I want to know. Obama is a Hedonist and Narcissist; those value are useless when it comes to governing the U.S. for the greater good.
@Kevin – Why do you think that the president is a Muslim? Does he end his addresses with "God bless America" or with "Allahu Akbar"? The people who scrutinized him for it are of limited intelligence. Now, Mormonism is completely nuts, so I hope you keep that in mind when you vote. Our current president is not Muslim, and the challenger wears magic underwear.
As John F. Kennedy stated in 1963:
"Of all the stories of American pioneers and settlers, none is more inspiring than the Mormon trail. The qualities of the founders of this community are the qualities that we seek in America, the qualities which we like to feel this country has, courage, patience, faith, self-reliance, perseverance, and, above all, an unflagging determination to see the right prevail.
As the Mormons succeeded, so America can succeed, if we will not give up or turn back.…let us remember that the Mormons of a century ago were a persecuted and prosecuted minority, harried from place to place, the victims of violence and occasionally murder, while today, in the short space of 100 years, their faith and works are known and respected the world around, and their voices heard in the highest councils of this country. As the Mormons succeeded, so America can succeed, if we will not give up or turn back." JFK, Salt Lake City, 1963
Mormonism is a paternalistic cult.....
CNN – brainwashing the masses is not this simple. Romney's religion does or at least should matter to those who actually pay attention. Morman is not one of the "main" religions and that is for good reason. However, his religious preference is the least of his concerns. The votes he gets, will be from those voting against Obama and fueled by hate. Obama could have done so much more for America if racism wasn't allowed in congress. "Do nothing congress" more like Racist Bigot Congress
Romney's (or anybody's) religion should not matter in terms of it being used as a requirement for being elected to public office in this country. That's what the idea of separation of church and state is all about. What should concern people is that he is irrational enough of a person to believe in a bunch of made up stories by a known criminal in the mid-nineteenth century (Mormonism).
But the bulk of Romney's votes will come from the heretofore silent majority of Americans who have seen a lack of leadership, no direction and a clueless approach to economic recovery. Religion won't matter. God helps those who help themselves; he expects leaders to show people how to improve themselves. Obama has only shown people how to "help themselves" to the fruits of others' work...it's called "redistribution of wealth" and, if you like it, you are a citizen in the wrong country.
something stupid or obcijteonable. People do that all the time, including from LDS pulpits. The problem is that the man who is likely to be a candidate for president has a close friend and advisor who holds those views. Dan and Dan, this is where your comparison to Robertson and Falwell breaks down. Even though the GOP wanted the votes they could deliver and pandered to get them, everybody in the party recognized them as an embarrassment, and they were not considered to be part of a candidate's inner circle. If a GOP candidate wrote a book dedicated to Robertson, it would be called The Mendacity of a Dope. But none of them has, so this problem is much more severe, and has nothing at all to do with racism. Barack is stuck between his wife, who is ashamed of America, and his close friend and advisor, who invokes God in damning us to hell. You can't blame people for wondering exactly what he thinks, and if he doesn't find a way, quickly, to say I love America , he can kiss the nomination good-bye.I don't understand you who say that when Wright says God damn America , he is just trying to help us repent. As it turns out, we call call Wright's bluff very easily. His church's mission statement includes an unambiguous commitment to Africa . That's fair enough, I guess. But if this is how he talks to people he really loves and wants to help, we could expect to review his sermons and see occasions where he says God damn Africa . After all, that continent has plenty of violence, inequalities, and social pathologies, too. So, I just don't buy the idea that this is his unique way of wanting to help. Let us not condescend; let's give him the respect that is due an adult who means what he says, and let's recognize that he isn't playing games. He is sowing hatred and division and paranoia. In addition, I reject completely the argument that we can't blame him for speaking this way because he is a black man who grew up in this hellhole we call America. Most of the African-American men and women I know don't have that sense of bitterness. I'm going to lunch today with a black man who served in the Marine Corps, and who would be happy to punch Rev. Wright in the nose for defaming a country he loves. I think a much more likely explanation for his conduct is guilt. Instead of being oppressed because of his race, Wright lives a privileged life. He is almost certainly a millionaire, he knows he did very little to deserve it, and he resents the inauthenticity his condition forces upon him. No matter how much he claims to speak for the oppressed, he has very little in common with the people, black and white, who pack a lunch bucket and punch a clock every day, or who go without meals because they don't have any money.I invite anyone who still isn't convinced by my argument to try an experiment. When you go home to day, slap your spouse, hard. When she asks why, tell her that she deserved it because of past wrongdoing. And since everybody needs to repent, say God damn you to your spouse. Then come back tomorrow to this blog and tell me how it went.
A US President's faith most certainly does matter. Can you imagine Americans electing someone who is not Christian? Jewish, Muslim or perhaps an Athiest!!!! Oh my. Not in my life time.
You sound very uneducated and that makes you dangerous. Are you aware that Jesus was a Jew.
It would be great if we elected an athiest. It woudl prove our worth.
My guess is that we've already elected several atheists–they just don't acknowledge it and pretend to be Christian because so far that's been the only way to get elected. I believe that is changing, though.
Why not important for his belife?
It is very important for the President of USA.
God bless America that why this country can come to stand on this point.
But now America forgot the grace of God that blesses them.
I m not american but I can see how God love this country.
Get back to Him before too late.
The problems we have in this world come from societies that take ownership of God. The U.S. included. I love how Obama says " May God Bless Us". He gets it. Obama does know more about World religions than most. He just needs help when it comes to the private sector. His administration is letting him down miserably.
Religion is corruption. Destruction is it's one and only function.
This is Gods design. God is waiting for the one that can articulate this to the world. God is tired and wants to rest. This can only happen when we truly understand him. But to truly understand him is a mind blowing experience. An experience that will only lead you into madness. Take it from me, you will never be the same.
@teresa – Is there any way you could, by chance, explain what you think the "soul" is?
Hmmm . . . for those of you who don't think it matters, I especially encourage you to read "The Harbinger" by Johnathan Cahn. I encourage EVERYONE to read this book.
I so appreciate your words in the Journal Star today. The opennig up of yourself and your faith for all the world (well, all of Lincoln) to see. I think I find myself unwavering in some areas and wrestling in others. It used to bother me...the wrestling. And then I would remember that story about Jacob and how he would not back down against GOD (of all people) until he got what he wanted. And in the end, Jacob came away with a new name and (quite literally) a new way of walking. And so I just keep limping along on my journey of unwavering faith in a God who welcomes my wrestling and questioning mind.
Barack Hussein Obama's faith is Islam. We don't want him at the wheel, he is bringing down America's Christian beginnings. Apparently, the Muslim's goal is to have everyone convert, or killed. Some religion!
Go back to CARM where you belong, fundiot.
You should get someone to wipe the foam from the corners of your mouth.
get a life you loser!
You might need some help, fellow.
I agree Carm. If Obama was a Christian, he would not be for abortion or for gay marriage.
In the 60's, everyone was afraid that if JFK was elected, the Pope would be running the nation. It didn't happen. Many thought that with Obama's Muslim name, Allah would be the deciding factor in decision made. Hasn't happened (that we know of). Now everyone thinks if Romney is elected, the LDS will run the country. Stop being so stupid folks. You should be more worried about influences that actually exist like Special Interest groups/lobbyists. They are the true danger to politics, not religion.
Or a little thing called the International Consortium of Rothschild banks
I personally don't care what a person *believes*, but I do care how those beliefs lead them to *act*. If your faith (or lack thereof) makes you a better person (less selfish, more accepting, more humble, etc.) then it's a good thing. If, however, it makes you judgmental, narrow-minded, or power-hungry, then you would do well to take a hard look at those beliefs and challenge yourself.
Show me a musl1m and I will show you a possible t3rror1st.
Good joke, no?
Show me a christian, and I'll show you a person who believes "Perfect Love" builds and sustains a lake of eternal fiery torture for those that "Perfect Love" refuses to forgive. Terrorism has nothing on that dynamic.
Show me a Christian and I'll show you a sheep.
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.