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. Grim Reaper

    Nixon was corrupt but Johnson wasn't? Roosevelt a national saint? Likely cheated? Nothing on Cliinton? Blake you are a political clown-write about when we're going to get jobs! This article is ridiculous.

    July 1, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • Unrelated

      To become a president, you need to be morally corrupt. The good guys would never make it.

      July 1, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  2. Bob

    Because presidential scholars says we shouldn't.

    July 1, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  3. whybs

    Sheep want to be in a herd! Without it, they are lost!

    July 1, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  4. PHinMiami

    There is a 'Higher Power', of that we can be sure. Energy, Karma, Fate, Spirit, Deity, God, call it what you want, there's more than meets the eye here. The word 'God' is a slippery-slope because people want to make it a man, put a face on, then 'voices' can be heard.

    That being said, there's no pre-destined end to our lives. We are and always will be part of Darwin's Theory. Yes, you have to 'look both ways' when crossing the street.

    Religion is a tool (NOT a necessity) to use for spiritual connection to the Universe, not win an election. Religion, unfortunately has been used to justify the arrogance of man. Probably the largest massacre on earth was the Spanish Inquisition, all in the name of Christianity.

    We all have claim to a minute piece of our Universe. What we do with it is up to us.

    "Stay thirsty my friend."

    July 1, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • Hammer Of The Gods

      When man was primitive, we needed religion to find morality.
      Now that we have morality, we no longer need religion.

      July 1, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  5. stjdsj

    Shamefully, preachers and politicians urge Americans to follow the example of Abraham Lincoln, in spite of the following historical facts:

    Lincoln ordered 38 American Sioux Indians publicly hung at the same time on December 26, 1862, the largest mass hanging in U.S. history (www.unitednativeamerica.com);

    Lincoln deported hundreds of free blacks to poverty-stricken Haiti, telling black leaders on August 14, 1862, “There is an unwillingness on the part of our people for you free colored people to remain with us.” (www.thelincolnlog.org/view/1862/8/14);

    Lincoln publicly stated he started the War only to collect a 40% import tax on Southerners, causing the unnecessary death of over 600,000 Americans;

    Lincoln ordered thousands of Northern political opponents thrown in prison, including newspaper editors and Legislators;

    Lincoln hypocritically exempted all Northern slave-owners from his Emancipation Proclamation, including General Grant who owned 4 slaves the entire war;

    Lincoln invited mediums to the Whitehouse in attempts to communicate with his dead son; and

    Ten of Lincoln’s closest friends wrote that Lincoln was not a Christian in The Life of Abraham Lincoln (pages 486-504) by Ward Lamon (read online at http://www.books.google.com.)

    Woe to Americans, if Obama follows Lincoln’s example.

    July 1, 2012 at 10:05 am |
    • PHinMiami

      Obama v Lincoln?

      What's your point? Your post is a total failure to 'connect' anything.

      Stop cutting your pills in half.

      July 1, 2012 at 10:10 am |
  6. Unrelated

    Obama, as a person with some intelligence, I believe he's an atheist, and the religious pretense is just a charade.

    July 1, 2012 at 10:04 am |
  7. Jo

    It matters regardless of what the historians say. This is America, get over it!

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


      We'd at least like an American

      Yeah, like Panamanian born John McClain ?

      July 1, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  8. hippypoet

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

    July 1, 2012 at 10:02 am |
    • Timmy

      We'd at least like an American

      July 1, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • hippypoet

      it makes me puke to say i am a citizen of these United States of (OF) America after i put some thought into what we have become!!!.....we are not worth the hype anyone gives us nor are we special in anyway.

      i rather have a pres from a third world country – they seem to have what really matters in mind!

      July 1, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • TrueBlue42

      Timmy, we have an American in the Presidency; his name is Barack Hussein Obama, he's proven time and again that he's an American (check out the birth certificate), and he'll be President of the United States of America until January 2017, when he hands the keys of the White House over to the next Democratic President.

      July 1, 2012 at 10:46 am |
  9. hippypoet

    "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." (Article 6, section 3)

    this pretty much spells out that no religion of any loser wanting to become pres should matter even in the least.

    July 1, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • Unrelated

      Try to run as an atheist.

      July 1, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  10. undermind

    I'd vote for a Republican before voting for an atheist.

    July 1, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • I thought jesus was white

      how about a muslim?

      July 1, 2012 at 10:02 am |
    • Hammer Of The Gods

      I would vote for Satan over any Republican.

      July 1, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  11. Patrick

    Hey John,
    Get over yourself and stop writing such nonsence, seriously, you sound like a real fool. Do you really think it doesn't matter, if you actually believe this, you stand alone my friend. Even the non believer want's his or her leader to be a non bewliever as well. Stop writing all this rubbish and get a real job!

    July 1, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  12. Reggie from LA

    I know in the case of Obama, no matter what he believes or what the Lord can do, there's some devils on the Right that can test any faith or power.

    July 1, 2012 at 10:00 am |
  13. Guest

    We need a president who believes in God, to lead our country. Without God we are NOTHING!

    July 1, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • Unrelated

      With god, we are a butt-of-all-jokes.

      July 1, 2012 at 10:02 am |
    • whybs

      So, would Ra, the sun god, an approved god, moron? 🙂

      July 1, 2012 at 10:02 am |
    • phil

      Whose God? Your God? My God? Their God? I bet I know who you would pick...your God because nobody elses God could possibly be the real God, right?

      July 1, 2012 at 10:14 am |
    • Fearless Freep

      We need a president who believes in Good, to lead our country. Without Good we are NOTHING!

      Fixed that.

      July 1, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  14. Chet

    Boo cnn. No one is buying it this time. If you think a Repubican will hurt your ratings then why don't you just say "we at CNN don't like Mitt".
    More Americans are catching on these days. Just like the fuel, the liars with money still rule for now.
    No Respect,
    Chet, Buckner mo

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

      We at CNN dont like Mitt.
      Feel better ?

      July 1, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  15. Bill

    Faith should matter as well as the Oath. Swearing to tell the truth under god. You know the game rules before you enter the game, If you have a problem with them rules go elsewhere. Fundamental's of life. This country is turning into a communist country right before our eye's People take drivers license picture with there face covered, How stupid can that be. These are our laws and rules don';t like em, leave the country. But our so call leaders have to stand up to these foreigners and with a liberal government it won;t happen.

    July 1, 2012 at 9:59 am |
  16. Pinkflam

    Here it comes. We're about to find out that Old Balmy has been funnin' with us all along and he really is a Mooslem from Kenya

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

      As a person with some intelligence, I believe he's an atheist, and the religious pretense is just a charade.

      July 1, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • vulpecula

      Your assertion that Obama is an atheist is baseless. Your obviously a rightwinger trying to smear his name with theists. Obama and his wife both are christians, and an atheist has to tell you this? Stick to the facts, your you'll just be written off as a troll or imbecile.

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

      He is really white.
      He just paints himself black so you will hate him.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  17. Indyswimmer66

    The point is... it should NOT matter! Our Founding Fathers had it right... Separation of Church and State!

    July 1, 2012 at 9:58 am |
  18. Colin

    As a rational person, I would find it very hard to vote for a presidential candidate who believes in the nonsense of Christianity. I prefer a person who does not believe in the supernatural.

    July 1, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • I thought jesus was white

      I agree with you. And if christians think you are wrong, then ask them if they'd vote for a running pres who is muslim. They wouldn't, which shows the truth about their hate.

      July 1, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  19. Kevin Barbieux

    Wow, the best religion article ever presented by CNN. "Piety and performance don't always match." Honesty, it's like a breath of fresh air. Lets have more of if.

    July 1, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • TERRY

      Taken from the implicit assumption of this article is that Christian presidents do a better job than a non-Christian president. Most Christians I know never assumed faith = better performance. However, we hope for Christian presidents, at least for me, because (s)he shares my values and eternally, I prefer someone believes in the authority of Jesus Christ above and beyond him/herself.

      July 1, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  20. Dr. Robert K. Hennings Jr. II

    Does it really matter what you believe in as long as you do your job and stick to your word and promises?

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

      I'd prefer an atheist (rational) president.

      July 1, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • I thought jesus was white

      I too would prefer an atheist as president.

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

      Jesus WAS white ! I have an autographed picture of him !

      July 1, 2012 at 10:12 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.