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. BJ

    As Christians we must continue to pray for our leaders! They need all the prayer that can be given.

    July 1, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  2. salathieljones

    Reblogged this on The World Outside of Yourself.

    July 1, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  3. Insider

    I've heard that Obama clears the Oval Office several times a day, pulls out a hidden prayer mat ,faces East and prays to Allah.

    July 1, 2012 at 9:55 am |
    • midwest rail

      Trolling should never be this obvious...or boring.

      July 1, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • jemzinthekop

      Once again not only solid ignorance at work, but another glaring example of the silliness of theists who want god everywhere as long as it is the christian one.

      July 1, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • Pppplease

      Perhaps if you just keep repeating it, the sheep will believe your every word. At this point do you actually think there are any more crazies dropping out of the tree you're shaking? If they have yet to be convinced to go right or left, they still have a capacity to think. You don't likely have relevant thoughts to offer this group.

      July 1, 2012 at 10:26 am |
    • Fearless Freep

      Hey Fox, i found another one of your mental patients.
      Please collect.

      July 1, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  4. ObamaUntil2016

    Relgion shouldn;t be a factor but the narrow mindedness of the right wing makes it a factor. The right only wants candidates who are evangelic and fundamentalst. Scary, huh?

    July 1, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  5. El Flaco

    As a Liberal, who supports Obama even though Obama is a Centrist, I am observing Conservatives as an outsider.

    What I see happening is that Evangelicals and Fundamentalists have been given a very uncomfortable choice. They have to choose between a Black Christian Democrat and a White non-Christian Republican.

    What I see is that Evangelicals and Fundamentalists are White first, Conservative second, and Christian third.

    July 1, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  6. hmcidc

    Interestingly you don’t see a single news article on Obamacare on CNN this morning? Could it be that they are trying to kill it and turn attention to something else because they know it has sealed Obama’s doom (and a lot of Senate Obamacrats too). If the dems thought 2010 was bad wait till November. It looks for sure now that we will have a Republican House and Senate to go along with the Presidency.

    July 1, 2012 at 9:54 am |
    • hmcidc

      I wonder if LA will burn when Obama is voted out?

      July 1, 2012 at 9:56 am |
    • Pppplease

      I'd put that crystal ball down, if I were you. Any families who have children with serious health issues will be voting just on this issue. Anyone who has a sick spouse on their healthcare will vote for this president. Anyone who cannot get healthcare because of pre-existing health issues will vote for this president. Your assumption that the whole nation finds agreement with your views about healthcare is just a wish on your part. You see, lots of people know they will be fiscally ruined without the protection offered in this new bill, and they will show up come election time.

      July 1, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • Fearless Freep

      Its a dead issue.
      Only the poor pitufull souls who cant get over it keep bringing it up.

      July 1, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  7. LadyOcean

    Sorry, I only half agree with this. Religion definitely shouldn't have anything to do with the Presidency. It has no bearing on a person's character. There are millions of people who attend church regularly that give no thought to the idea of messing somebody over to get a promotion or lying about something on their resume to get a job.

    As far as "Tricky Dick" being the most corrupt president. You've got your head up your rectum too far. He never did anything any other president hasn't done. It's just he got caught. Keep it in perspective please. Otherwise nothing you say will be considered valid.

    July 1, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  8. WJR

    Amazing that the editors for a huge news company don't catch 3rd grade grammar errors on the front page of their website: "presidential scholars says we shouldn't"

    July 1, 2012 at 9:53 am |
    • Fearless Freep

      Here is a gold star for your weeny.
      Go to the head of the class.

      July 1, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  9. jemzinthekop

    The current Ayatollah of Iran is a very devout and scholarly man of his faith, but somehow I doubt all those that think the President should be a devout man of faith would replace Obama with Ali Khameni.

    So when people say The President should be a devout man of faith, what they really mean is The President should be a devout man of THEIR faith. Which of course is what all this religious nonsense is all about – The god I believe in due to the place in the world I was born loves me more than he loves you because you believe in a different god because of the place in the world you were born.

    Frankly I would rather a President that said "I have the codes to the nukes, you should be thankful I don't believe in talking burning bushes, angels, food falling from the sky, talking snakes, parted seas and all that other silly mythology that morons have made into dogma"

    July 1, 2012 at 9:52 am |
  10. chefdugan

    Faith, prayer, belonging to some organized religion that picks your pocket every week, all a bunch of baloney. I would much rather have a president that has a mind of his or her own and that is not cluttered with all that religious claptrap. We need fewer Billy Grahams and his BS in the world and more realists. One day we will be enlightened enough so that a self-declared athiest can run for President and win. Then, for the first time, we will be a totally free nation.

    July 1, 2012 at 9:52 am |
  11. El Flaco

    I think Romney's motivation for seeking the Presidency is to fulfill the Mormon 'White Horse Prophecy' of Joseph Smith. Romney sees himself (I speculate) as the figure in Smith's prophecy who rides the White Horse to Washington and saves America.

    That explains why Romney has no stable political beliefs. He believes he is destined to be President because God wants it – not because he wants to implement Conservative social policies. He will be doing the will of God (Mormon version). So politics means nothing to Romney. Issues mean nothing to Romney. Romney believes he is guided by Destiny or God or Something to greatness.

    And – he believes – America will then turn to Mormonism as Joseph Smith's prophecy predicted. I think Romney sees himself as the Mormon Messiah. That is why political positions mean nothing to Romney.

    I think that Romney’s inner world is very strange. I am troubled at the thought of Romney as President.

    July 1, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • Unrelated

      Downright scary, if that's true. And it just may be!

      July 1, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  12. Mark

    Rev Wrights hate sermons is was Obama has been listening to for 20 years

    July 1, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • midwest rail

      is...was...has been.... HUH ?

      July 1, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • Pppplease

      Go back to school and get educated and then give us a fully developed thought, and perhaps then I will look to you for enlightenment.

      July 1, 2012 at 10:10 pm |
  13. majav

    Julia Gillard is Australia's current leader and she is an avowed atheist. Australia has not suffered one bit and Australians are smart enough to vote for the best candidate irrespective of religion.

    Are we really in the 21st century? It seems that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were more evolved regarding separation of church and state than all the baloney served up by modern-day US Presidents.

    How can any politician kowtow to the most ignorant and backward thinking voters and profess religion as newsworthy?

    Religion should remain in the private domain and be no one's business and certainly not to be worn as any sort of badge.
    It dishonors the secular and civil way of life best suited for an enlightened and modern world.

    This country has become much less secular in the propaganda of politics. It really is subterfuge as it occupies the minds of voters with irrelevancy rather than addressing issues such as the right to privacy, and oh yeah, the economy!

    July 1, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • jemzinthekop

      This seems about right to me.

      July 1, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  14. hippypoet

    we truly are a nation of morons!

    let not the truth be known but mythology rule your judgment – an american sentiment

    July 1, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  15. chavela

    religion and politics: deadly combination.

    July 1, 2012 at 9:49 am |
  16. pewptypewp

    Religion shouldnt matter one bit. Im sick of religious fanatics thinking that religion (and when I say religion I mean THEIR religion..because we all know those other religions are silly and untrue, theirs is the real one!) has a monopoly on morality. It does NOT. If you need religion to decipher for you whats right and wrong in this world then I just feel sorry for you for being unable to think for yourself. If you need religion to make you feel better about dying then by all means go ahead a worship, but cut it the hell out with trying to act like your religion has a monopoly on everything thats good in life and other people who believe different cannot are responsible for all the bad.

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

      Being an atheist actually allows one to stand outside of the pack of fanatics. It's the only moral, rational position to be in.

      July 1, 2012 at 9:51 am |
  17. shades

    It would certainly help for a leader to have God in his life, but not necessarily make him unable to lead if he didnt

    July 1, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • Unrelated

      On the contrary, it would help if the president was not delusional.

      July 1, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  18. shades

    make no mistake about it, Obama will be defeated in November, but not because of his religous lacking.

    the rock star thing is gone, he was able to drag people who never voted before in their lives in 08 tothe polls,
    but forgot to take into consideration most will never vote again..

    he's a failure folks, doesnt make him a bad person, he was just unprepared for the enormity and decided to focus on details

    July 1, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • pork&beans

      So uninformed. I guess, by choice.
      He's done more for this embattled country than the previous 4.
      It's too bad that folks can't look past the color of his skin and see that.
      And don't give me the 'we're not racist' crap either. I'm white. I know when people are racist. My own parents don't like Obama. Why? Because he's black. Of course they don't admit that. But I know the truth.

      July 1, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • chefdugan

      Nice thoughts from someone who suffers from self-delusion. The fact is NO ONE is 'prepared" to be president of the US. If they were the Bush's would never have made it.

      July 1, 2012 at 9:55 am |
    • Pppplease

      Perhaps if your tiny audience has lived under a rock the past decade, they might agree with you. Most of us do look back at the choice given the country, and do NOT regret their decision. McCain and Palin lost because it looked like a bigger train wreck. Bush and friends repeatedly talked about another depression and designed a bailout for the fat cats. Main street is still paying for the sins of Wall Street. The cause and effect of deregulation is a dark cloud on our future. Romney supports the same program and you want to stand and beg for yet another serving.

      July 1, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • Fearless Freep

      Your crystal balls are broken.

      July 1, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
  19. Robble

    People should be judged by their actions, not what they say they believe.

    July 1, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • Unrelated

      Doesn't the belief determine action?

      July 1, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  20. Public Reproval

    uh, FREEDOM of CHURCH and STATE! duh! does it really matter what religion one president is when religion is responsible for a vast majority of all brutality and genocide on planet earth since religion began?!?!

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

      I'd prefer an atheist (rational) president myself.

      July 1, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • Please tell us

      Unrelated - how did you determine that you are rational, and that these presidents are not?

      July 1, 2012 at 9:58 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.