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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. lance

    after having a bankrupting muslem in office for 4 years im game for any other religion to step in.

    October 6, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • James

      you really have no idea what the word muslim means do you? I hope you are sterile

      October 9, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  2. Frank

    it wouldn't be so sad if it weren't for

    October 5, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  3. waitasec

    religion is just an opinion...

    October 1, 2012 at 11:53 am |
  4. Art T

    This is so stupid... Not worth a read. Beliefs are just that, beliefs... Thing is we should be talking about why people sometimes see it fit to talk about other peoples beliefs unless we want to change something about that. If you stop talking about it, perhaps then people won't have such negative view points on it all. Let a person be who they are, we elect a president based on record and where they stand on issues, not whether or not they believe in something.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:21 am |
    • JFritz

      Unless those beliefs impinge upon national policy, a dangerous possibility where fundamentalism is involved.

      October 5, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
  5. Azmond

    Obama is still a Muslim .
    You can walk into a shoe store , but that doesnt make you a shoe .
    Obama can walk into a church , but that doesnt make him a Christian .
    Obama is a Muslim . He has Muslim Brotherhood members on staff in the West Wing , and CAIR , ISNA , MSA have all point access to the administration . How does that expand freedom here ?

    September 17, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
    • Eric Thompson

      Obama is clearly a Christian. He has been called a Muslim by Christian extremists but he has also been called a Christian by rioting Muslims as well. But it is clear he is Christian, since he has said he was multiple times, especially since he syas yes to gay marriage

      September 23, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
    • Lorraine

      AZMOND, OBAMA IS more than a muslim, he is a skull & bone, which means he take orders from the enemy of YhWH (God), is what you have been taught to call Him, but His name is YHWH, THE CREATOR OF ALL LIFE, YHWH. Obama takes order from your ruler, he is my twin brother in Genesis 25, prophesied to rule this world we are in. Did you know he started racism, I bet you thought the whites did no it was my twin broter, you have been beguiled, i am so sorry. THE FORTUNE 500, JEWS, THOSE WHO ARE COMPLICIT TO THIS SPIRITUAL WAR. YHWH BLESS.

      September 26, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • Lorraine

      THE REASON I CAN TELL YOU THIS BECAUSE HE HAS THE TOTAL DOMINION NOW, IT WAS PROPHESIED, AND YHWH SAVE US ALL. AND IT IS GOING TO GET EVEN WORST. CLUE. IF YOU WANT TO KNOW WHY JUST CALL 1-773-874-0325, JEREMIAH 23: 1-8. YHWH BLESS, FORGIVE, US ALL.

      September 26, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • di

      Why are sure he is muslin and not a christian?

      September 30, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  6. Da King

    of course it matter you ideeit.

    September 11, 2012 at 1:32 am |
  7. CSX

    Of course it does not matter. Nothing matters except political power over dollars.
    Communism, Islam and Socialism does not matter, why would their faith matter?
    Besides Obama is a lost man anyway.

    September 10, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
  8. RustyHinges8

    A president uses religion just as he would a particular speech; visiting a large fund-raiser, or wearing the appropriate suit. It’s part of the characterization of being the President. After all, 1/3 of America still take the Bible literally, and who wants to make them angry? Most of the country still believes that a President with ANY religious background will make the better decisions, possibly by owning a conscience, but don’t bet on it. Check out what roles religion played with serial murderers.

    September 4, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
  9. mark

    A Presidents faith may not matter to whom? It matters to the One who matters most. The person we elect elect to the highest office in the land reflects the spiritual condition of the people. Right now that symbolizes spiritual depravity. We should vote our conscience, and not be concerned what others may think about us. This is something we do before God, and we don't have to vote for someone who is dishnorable to an office of honor. Better to withold our vote at times, then to vote for those who aren't qualified for the office. Elections and nations and kingdoms will come and go, but what really matters is our position before God. God sent His Son to atone for our sins. We need to address our sin problem with God as that has eternal consequences. We need to receive Jesus as our Lord and Savior, then we will know God's peace and pass from death to life. This matter will not go away, it has eteranl consequences. God bless

    August 20, 2012 at 11:23 pm |
  10. Jesus is the most powerful figure known to mankind (Fact)

    John 8:47-"He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God."

    John 3:18-"He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God."

    John 8:44-"You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father's desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies."

    It is very simple atheist, you do not belong to GOD, but indeed you are of the devil. That is why it is impossible for you to believe because GOD is not in you nor does He know you. Lets read what Jesus said He will say to those who does not belong to Him on judgement day.

    Matthew 25:41-"Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels."

    August 18, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • KyleClifton23

      You are what is wrong with Christianity. You can not force anyone to believe in Christ, and blatantly telling someone that they are the son of the Devil will definitely not help the case. You are why people are so outspoken against Christianity. You're supposed to show people Christ through love. You have no room to talk being a sinner as well. You are no better than the Pharisees that judged Jesus, and you're no better than anyone else in this world. As a true Christian you should live through faith and not of your own works. Be tolerant of others or they may become intolerant of you.

      September 11, 2012 at 9:11 pm |
    • Doug

      You are the problem, not the solution. It's the 21st century... bury religion for the good of humanity.

      September 17, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • The Prole

      Thank You Doug,

      September 30, 2012 at 10:10 am |
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    August 15, 2012 at 8:27 am |
    • Lorraine

      OK, IM OLD, AND YOU ARE GOING TO HAVE TO IMPRINT THE REAL WEBSITE OK, IM NOT FINA LOOK FOR IT OK, JUST POST THE WHOLE THANG ALRIGHT, AND IM LAZY TOO, ISN'T JUST GREAT, NOT REALLY.

      September 26, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
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    August 15, 2012 at 3:41 am |
    • Lorraine

      DON'T WORRY, IM NOT ON DRUGS AND I KNOW WE ARE OKAY, ESPECIALLY WITH YHWH, DO THE 10 COMMANDMENTS, AND YOU WILL PREVAIL. YHWH BLESS.

      September 26, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
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  14. myfamilyneedsamiracle

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    August 14, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • Lorraine

      TURNN TO YWHH BUT YOU MUST YOU MUST DO THE LAW THE 10 COMMANDMENTS WITH ALL OF YOUR HEART, YHWH BLESS.

      September 26, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  15. gigi

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D1lFYO5zE-c&w=640&h=390]

    August 13, 2012 at 8:55 am |
  16. PAUL

    Are We Still Talking About This??

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqTiAMFqz7g&w=640&h=390]

    August 4, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
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  18. kindness

    This is my experience... Thank you.

    MY personal testimony.
    A thought to consider without an ego response

    I Accepted Jesus christ as my lord and saviour. You never know how soon is too late. Transcend the worldly illusion of enslavement.
    The world denounces truth....

    Accepting Jesus Christ (for me) resulted in something like seeng a new colour. You will see it .....but will not be able to clearly explain it to anyone else..... Its meant to be that way to transend any selfism within you.

    Also... much the world arranges "surrounding dark matter into something to be debated" in such a way that protects/inflates the ego.

    The key is be present and transcend our own desire to physically see evidence. We don't know anyways by defending our own perception of dark matter.

    Currently.... most of us are constructing our own path that suits our sin lifestyle. Were all sinners. Knowing that we are is often an issue. But both christians and non are sinners. Even once we are saved by christs merciful grace we will still experience adversity to mold us to adhering to the truth.
    We will slip... But not fall of the ship ...carrying us onward to perfection in christs grace.

    We don't like to Let go and let god. We want control to some degree. This is what Jesus asks us to do. "Follow me".
    It's the hardest thing to do... but is done by letting the truth of scripture lead you (redemptive revelation)... as I said .

    Try reading corinthians and see if it makes sense to you. Try it without a pre conceived notion of it being a fairy tale.
    See the truth...
    do we do what it says in todays society... is it relevant... so many have not recently read and only hinge their philosophy on what they have heard from some other person...which may have been full of arogance pride or vanity..

    Look closely at the economy ponzi, look at how society idolizes Lust , greed , envy, sloth, pride of life, desire for knowledge, desire for power, desire for revencge,gluttony with food etc .

    Trancsend the temporal world.

    Just think if you can find any truth you can take with you ....in any of these things. When you die your riches go to someone who will spend away your life..... You will be forgotten.... history will repeat iteslf.... the greatest minds knowledge fade or are eventually plagerzed..... your good deeds will be forgotten and only give you a fleeting temporary reward . your learned teachings are forgotten or mutated..... your gold is transfered back to the rullers that rule you through deception. Your grave will grow over . This is truth .

    Trancsend your egoism and free yourself from this dominion of satan. Understand you are a sinner and part of the collective problem of this worldly matrix... Repent.... Repent means knowing (to change) The Holy spirit (within) will convict you beyond what you think you can do by yourself. Grace is given to those who renounce the world. That are" in" the world but not "of " the world.

    Evidence follows faith. Faith does not follow evidence..... Faith ....above reason in Jesus Christ.

    Faith comes by Reading or Hearing the word of god from the bible . Ask Jesus in faith for dicernment and start reading the new testament... You will be shocked when you lay down your preconceived notions and ....see and hear truth ... see how christ sets an example ... feel the truth....

    Read Ecclesiastes. Read romans or corinthians.

    You cant trancend your own egoism by adapting a world philosophy to suit your needs. Seek the truth in Christ.

    Sell all your cleverness and purchase true bewilderment. You don't get what you want ....you get what you are by faith above reason in christ.

    I promise this has been the truth for me. In Jesus christ .

    Think of what you really have to lose. ...your ego?

    Break the Matrix of illusion that holds your senses captive.

    once you do . you too will have the wisdom of God that comes only through the Holy Spirit. Saved By grace through Faith. Just like seeing a new colour.... can't explain it to a transient caught in the matrix of worldly deception.
    You will also see how the world suppresses this information and distorts it

    You're all smart people . I tell the truth. Its hard to think out of the box when earthly thinking is the box.
    I'ts a personal free experience you can do it free anytime . Don't wait till you are about to die.. START PUTTING YOUR TREASURES WHERE THEY REALLY MATTER >
    Its awsome and It's just between you and Jesus

    my testimony

    Romans 10:9

    "If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved

    July 30, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
    • Mohammed_Islam

      Dear kindness,

      Have you read the following verse in Romans 1?

      25 For they exchanged the truth of God for [p]a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed [q]forever. Amen.

      If Jesus is part of the creation which he is, then aren't you worshipping a creature rather than the Creator only who is worthy of worship??? or you havne't paid attention??? there are lot more contrary things can be found in the book you believe.... and these are facts...

      Peace!!!!

      July 31, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • Mohammed_Islam

      This is what Jesus said to his deciples when he was asked whom to worship...

      Indeed, Allah is my Lord and your Lord, so worship Him. That is the straight path." (Al Quran Chapter 3: Verse 51)

      July 31, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • Bob

      Joh 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
      Joh 1:2 He was in the beginning with God.
      Joh 1:3 All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.
      Joh 1:4 In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men.
      Joh 1:5 The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.
      The god of the Quran and the God of the Bible are not the same god you may want to look into things a little better. If the Bilble didnt exsist the Quran would cease to be also for so much of the Quran is based on the Bible. It is not a self supporting work.

      August 19, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
    • myweightinwords

      Bob, neither is the Bible. Much of the myth and stories of the Bible come from earlier civilizations/myths.

      August 19, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
  19. Irence

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    July 30, 2012 at 1:29 am |
  20. Linda Lara

    Well written, thank you.

    July 29, 2012 at 7:26 pm |
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About this blog

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.