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. Unrelated

    Look at the picture – the presidents heads bowed in reverence to an imaginary deity? Ridiculous. And those are our leaders that we rely on to make the right decisions affecting millions, if not billions, of people. Pathetic.

    July 1, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • John the guy not the baptist

      No date on the picture. Billy G. looks like he has passed and has been propped up there for show.

      July 1, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • sybaris

      I wonder which ones are thinking, "How many times do I have to pretend to do this in order to appease the religitards in this country?"

      July 1, 2012 at 10:19 am |
    • Hammer Of The Gods

      They are all sedated.

      July 1, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
  2. johannes

    The Jews have written another article about American politics. I am not surprised that is is against God as a subject.

    July 1, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • vulpecula

      Is there anything here you want to dispute with evidence?

      July 1, 2012 at 10:00 am |
  3. shades

    Obama chose to worship at a church that preached bigotry and anti American sentiment..
    that was his choice, and speaks of his character as you wish to percieve it.

    does it make him a bad leader? maybe, maybe not.

    Personally I like to think my president has a strong Christian belief, this election we get that from neither.

    So I will choose based on character, not the lies they choose to spew to get elected, suggest you do the same

    July 1, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • Hammer Of The Gods

      How about you get an education ?
      That was one speach made by Rev Wright that got tossed all over
      the media to bash President Obama.
      Obama wasnt even there when the speach was made.

      Its called "guilt by association".

      July 1, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  4. Catzie53

    Another diversion to keep the American minds off what really matters like obamacare, jobs, economy and the list goes on and on. I always felt obama just went through the motions religion wise, he good at doing things like that!

    July 1, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • sybaris

      Uh, there are other news sources.

      Google is your friend

      July 1, 2012 at 10:21 am |
    • Hammer Of The Gods

      Fox missess you.

      July 1, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
  5. Pat

    When people stop going against God's plan, we can all come together maybe. God determines our fate. If God didn't plan on Obama becoming President, it would never have happened. We are all here for a reason, we didn't just come here by mistake. We are here to do something God planned us to do, so we should respect God's choices.

    July 1, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • vulpecula

      Obama was elected by the majority of voters. Not placed there by divine right. Perhaps you should move to a nation with a King.

      July 1, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • Hammer Of The Gods

      Sorry, God is to busy to bother with your puny little life.
      He is tossing fireballs around the fermament.

      July 1, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  6. marisombra

    Obama is a muslim loving dictator.

    Impeach him!

    July 1, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • vulpecula

      You sould like you fell off the peach truck and landed on your head.

      July 1, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • Fearless Freep

      Scientists say its not good to eat your own feces, boy you smell bad.

      July 1, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  7. wyciwyg

    i disagree. how a person worships IS important when that religion or belief repeatedly calls for the complete subjugation or annihilation of all other beliefs. The fanatics of Islam are totally committed to wipe out all other faiths, and their ACTS speak very loudly to that goal. Beheadings, stonings and wanton executions for anyone who does not confirm to their rigid set of beliefs, is not a religion I want my president to subscribe to.
    This current WH occupant 's ACTIONS have been detrimental to our nation's economy, national security and relationsjips with long-standing allies. I greatly fear 4 more years of this person's "leadership" will be the death knell of America as we know it and as it was conceived.

    July 1, 2012 at 9:41 am |
  8. digitalclips

    The President's so called faith should not even be an issue unless it were something accepted as illegal such as a cult. Many of the founding fathers were non religious. Imagine anyone trying to run for POTUS today that openly admitted they were non religious! We have regressed on this matter to a dangerous level. Separation of Church and State was and still is fundamental to the well being of this country.

    July 1, 2012 at 9:41 am |
  9. shades

    Chrisianity IS the main religon of the United Sates, if Democracy and founding father means anything to you.
    Of course if you dont have God in your life you wouldnt understand that.
    but I WILL pray for you

    July 1, 2012 at 9:41 am |
    • hippypoet

      the very real fact that religious freedom was written in our consti tuation says alot....perhaps if christian mythology was the main belief it would be written somewhere so all would know this to be true right??? so sry for the logical thinking.

      you ask for others to do some research – maybe you should too!


      July 1, 2012 at 9:45 am |
    • sybaris

      Shades, by your logic any region, state or country that is not christian should be in chaos. That is simply not the case and is loaded with hypocrisy.

      July 1, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • Fearless Freep

      We are not a Democracy, we are a Republic.

      July 1, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  10. Rick

    More campaigning for Obama by CNN. DISGUSTING.

    July 1, 2012 at 9:38 am |
    • Fearless Freep

      Mor whinning from Rick ? Disgusting.

      July 1, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  11. khrog

    for all you religious readers here: never forget that the behavior of your fellow Christians, Muslims, etc. in present times and during the past couple thousand years is the reason why many of us afford YOU no respect. If you want to be associated with organized religion and/or support "religious views" in public and in legislation, YOU don't deserve our respect. Your stench has been growing for a long time and we never forget because those acts and views constantly come from the past into the present.

    July 1, 2012 at 9:38 am |
  12. hippypoet

    very interesting question...Why a president’s faith may not matter???? can anyone tell me why it should first before i even consider why it shouldn't?

    here is a simple answer for you all....if the belief can't be verified as anywhere near fact then the belief is merely a belief....no merit should be given to anyone who shares in any belief without proof of its reality and therefore no weight should be given to the one who holds said belief....not to mention that beliefs are as whims that move us to act and one should never be given any power due to a whim as whims are known to change at a WHIMS notice!

    oh yeah, and since this dude would be in charge of the country that holds claim to being the melting pot of the world (culture and religion) no belief that the ONE man has should be viewed as any more or less special then any other nor should it be given a grand position for it! that is something idiots do! aka something america has been doing for a while now – electing those purely on their beliefs and even sometimes on the idea of "someone you could share a beer with"....pathetic! its no wonder we are going to be a third world country soon – or at the very least we are going to split into a bunch of smaller countries...civil war anyone?

    i am ok with the idea of a nation being full and governed by idiots i just want those morons to stand up for themselves as idiots and say "yes, that was me".....

    too much to ask?

    July 1, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  13. Nord Jim

    Even Washington stopped going to church when he became president. It seems he got tired of having to listen to preachers lecture him from the pulpit about what the president ought to be doing.

    July 1, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  14. John

    Talk about hypocrisy! When it come to Obama, were by Islam law he is Muslim, because he was born to a Muslim father (and went to a Muslim school in Indonesia, and I believe that early education will make an influence for the rest of your life), however, when it comes to a candidate who is Mormon, it suddenly becomes important!

    July 1, 2012 at 9:37 am |
    • John

      Romney is a follower of the "White Horse" Prophecy.


      July 1, 2012 at 9:41 am |
    • sybaris

      Well John everyone is born agnostic so by your logic agnosticism should be the greatest influence on a persons life.

      July 1, 2012 at 10:10 am |
    • Pppplease

      Fanatics are going out of style. Obama met his father at 10 in the state of HI for ten days. Most of his youth was spent being raised by grandparents and his mother. A year spent abroad does not define a young person. I'm sure you're a birther, too. In fact, you'll paint a picture of a monster because you are unable to merely argue policies. Well, this man has proven himself to be just another president, who is no savior nor monster. Our great recession didn't turn into a depression and we didn't go over a cliff. Perhaps America's 24-hour news was a bad idea.

      July 1, 2012 at 10:10 am |
    • Fearless Freep

      You toilet heads love the word "Hypocrisy".
      Obama didnt run for President on his "religion".
      The far right "Christian" groups are the ones throwing Mormonism around.
      When you sit down, does your brain hurt ?

      July 1, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
  15. Michael Ruffin

    Mr. Blake, this is an interesting article. I know that you couldn't cover all presidents, but it would be interesting to read about how Pres. Carter's faith influenced his policies and decisions, given the very public way he expresses his faith, which, by all accounts, matches a strong private faith...

    July 1, 2012 at 9:36 am |
    • Fearless Freep

      A peanut farmer who had "lust" in his heart.
      Lost re-election because of Iranian Hostage Situation.
      I am a Democrat.
      This is Carters legacy.
      And Billy Beer.

      July 1, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
  16. Bill

    Interesting perspective and motivation for the article. Written with Obama as the center piece, it's underlying premise is that Obama should not be scrutinized for his religious beliefs and associations, nor should his beliefs be considered as a factor in voting for him. Why so little mention of the scrutiny the media has placed on the Romney's religious beliefs/affiliation? If the author is proposing that a person's spiritual faith or religion isn't relevant for "election" purposes, then it applies equally to both presidential candidates. Post a photo of both candidates and discuss the scrutiny both have received.

    July 1, 2012 at 9:36 am |
  17. Keith

    Many of the founders were Deists, they don't believe in the Trinity, so no matter what they believed about Jesus they would not be considered Christians. During the colonial days the Quakers were the most violent folks in the colonies, William Penn loved hanging Baptist and other Heretics. That is why separation of Church and State was insisted on by the Churches not the Politicians.

    When Tyranny comes to America it will be wrapped in a Flag and carrying a Bible.

    July 1, 2012 at 9:35 am |
    • Nord Jim

      And Congregationalists liked hanging Quakers, which they did right on Boston Common.

      This country was never about religious freedom. It was founded by religious people who were tired of being the persecutees and decided to come here and be the persecutors for a change. You can look it up.

      July 1, 2012 at 9:41 am |
      • Keith

        I know you are right, we have a great country in spite of Religion, not because of it.

        July 1, 2012 at 9:44 am |
  18. Valorie

    Everyone should make themselves familiar with Mormonism. It involves another planet and magic underwear. If Christians are more racists than religious and put Romney in office, it will give rise and credibility to Mormonism will make him a Messiah. From birth, Mitt Romney was thought to be the "chosen one". There is no way he could possibly keep his faith from influencing the duties of President. Mormons are totally and completely dedicated to their beliefs.

    Google: WHITE HORSE PROPHECY. And magic underwear.

    July 1, 2012 at 9:35 am |
    • shades

      thansk Val, now go back to your easy bake oven before your cake burns

      July 1, 2012 at 9:39 am |
    • sybaris

      "There is no way he could possibly keep his faith from influencing the duties of President. "

      Unlike Bush who invaded Iraq and killed tens of thousands because he said his [christian] god told him it was the right thing to do?

      July 1, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  19. Mop

    *** oustobamavanjonesobama

    How do you feel about the religion of 'God Damn America????
    Its called freedom of speach.
    Rev Wright said that, not Obama.
    Get a life.

    July 1, 2012 at 9:34 am |
  20. aginghippy

    It absolutely matters if our president is a hard core Christian, who believes that Christianity is the "official religion" of the United States. That immediately places the millions of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and atheists in the position of being outside the realm of "official citizenship". It also matters if the majority of congress members are hard core Christians, because that leads to the belief that we can implement laws based on Biblical dogma. The belief that it should be illegal for a woman to decide whether or not she should carry a baby for 40 weeks comes from Christian zealots. The belief that it's OK to deny h o m o s e x u a l s equal rights comes from the Biblical scripture which indicates that God despises them.
    The idiotic notion that being a Christian will ensure a moral and ethical president is so obviously false that it doesn't deserve consideration. Of course, many will claim that our past leaders, who professed Christian faith, then acted in immoral ways, just indicates that they were not TRUE Christians. Well, obviously, we can never know a man or woman's true character based on the religion they claim to follow. The idea that an atheist cannot be a moral and ethical individual is also patently absurd. We all have an inherent knowledge of what's right and wrong, without a Biblical list to remind us. Humans evolved with the capacity for EMPATHY, which leads all of us with any decency, regardless of our level (or absence) of religious affiliation. In fact, I fear any person who suggests that the only things stopping them, or encouraging them, in their decisions to do the right thing, is either fear of eternal punishment or promise of paradise.
    That's the ONLY difference between myself, a confirmed atheist, and the follower of any religion: I try every day to be kind and fair to everyone because it's the right thing to do. The religious person does it because God warned them that they had better be good, or else. It reminds me of our warnings to children around Christmas time.

    July 1, 2012 at 9:34 am |
    • BPollutin

      Stop making sense...and anyone who has an ounce of doubt that there is ZERO correlation between the morality of humans and their "religion" needs to relearn World History!

      July 1, 2012 at 9:44 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.