February 7th, 2013
06:00 AM ET
By Dan Merica, CNN
Washington (CNN) – Employing faith, whether calling for nationwide prayer or healing the nation by quoting scripture, is a presidential tradition as old as the office itself.
The nation’s first president, George Washington, was also the first to call for a National Day of Prayer, one of “fasting, humiliation and prayer” to “acknowledge the gracious interpositions of Providence.”
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in his famous fireside chats, promised “salvation” from the economic doldrums of the Great Depression. And President Barack Obama, in the aftermath of the tragic shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, quoted scripture as a way to comfort those grieving.
Obama will continue this tradition on Thursday when he attends the National Prayer Breakfast, a longstanding Washington event that has hosted every president since Dwight Eisenhower.
The breakfast is organized by The Fellowship Foundation, a nonprofit religious organization, and is designed to bring together leaders from the political, religious and business realm.
Obama has participated in the breakfast each year of his presidency. Last year he used his remarks to discuss his personal faith. “I wake up each morning and I say a brief prayer, and I spend a little time in scripture and devotion,” he said.
Religious and presidential scholars told CNN that while some critics may question whether events like the prayer breakfast blur the line between separation of church and state, the use of religious language helps presidents connect with the people they were elected to lead.
“I think that it is pretty clear that presidents have employed religious terms, not just in times of tragedy, but throughout their career, in order to seem more relatable and a little bit more like their constituencies,” said Darrin Grinder, co-author of “The Presidents and Their Faith.”
“We like to see our presidents as reflecting our values and actually being better than we are,” he said. “As a largely Christian nation in terms of self-identification, even though we don’t talk about the Bible, when the president speaks in that kind of language, it is a better version of ourselves.”
The most common use of religion by presidents is after national tragedies or when the country faces difficult times.
George W. Bush used scripture and religious language to comfort the nation after the September 11 terrorists attacks; Bill Clinton did, too, after the Oklahoma City bombing, as did Ronald Reagan after the space shuttle Challenger explosion.
Using scripture this way, said Richard Norton Smith, a professor at George Mason University, fulfills the “emphasizer in chief, mourner in chief, grief counselor in chief” role of the presidency.
But use of religion has also changed over the years, Smith said. The nation’s founding fathers “did not spend the revolution on their knees praying to an anthropomorphic god.” Instead, he said, they used religion as “an effective tool of state,” but were generally mum about their own personal religious beliefs.
“At that time, there was still a fear that we could become a religious state,” Grinder said.
The use of faith began to change around the turn of the 20th century. During the Depression, Roosevelt used religious language and faith in an attempt to uplift people.
Then there was the presidency of John F. Kennedy and questions about whether a Catholic would follow the Constitution or the pope. Kennedy delivered a speech just weeks before the 1960 election, stating he believed “in a president whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation, or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.”
Kennedy’s speech was ironic. Though it quashed concerns about his faith and helped lead to his presidential victory, it also made it normal for a president to publicly address his faith, the opposite of what Kennedy’s speech intended.
The “big sea change,” as Grinder put it, was with President Jimmy Carter and the 1976 election.
Carter is widely considered the most outwardly religious man to occupy the Oval Office. While in office, Carter was known for quoting scripture, talking about his Baptist faith and continuing to teach a Sunday school class during his presidency.
Before he was president, Carter also used to “testify” his faith by going house to house.
“Hi! I’m Jimmy Carter, a peanut farmer. Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior,” he would ask, according to the book “The Faiths of the Postwar Presidents: From Truman to Obama.”
Reagan, the man who beat him in 1980, would cement the impact that faith would have on the presidency. According to Grinder, Reagan was able to tap into the idea of the United States being a chosen country, a promised land.
“That rhetoric was very helpful and hopeful to people compared to what they had been experiencing since Watergate,” he said.
Since then, Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama have regularly professed their faith in public and quoted scripture in speeches.
When asked why he was a Christian at a backyard town hall in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 2010, Obama said he was “a Christian by choice.”
Obama went on to say that he “came to my Christian faith later in life and it was because the precepts of Jesus Christ spoke to me in terms of the kind of life that I would want to lead — being my brothers’ and sisters’ keeper, treating others as they would treat me.“
For Smith, this sort of overt religious identification is standard for today’s presidency.
“The fact that a president alludes to biblical passages or quotes the Bible or overt expression of religious faith, is par for the course,” Smith concluded. “It can be both a public ministry of healing and a personal expression of faith that however bad things are now, they are part of a large plan that ultimately is better.”
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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 and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.