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. Chicago

    I care more that Obama is bankrupting America than I do about whatever his so called faith is. I think he believes more in the State controlling and running every aspect of our lives than he does about a higher power. So nobody can tell me a Godless President is better. This one sure isn't.

    July 1, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • Sam

      Paranoia and seeing things that don't exist are the hallmarks of a Religious Fanatic, or someone like you who spends too much time watching Fox News!

      July 1, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • See Forever Eye

      You have eyes, but you do not see.
      It was Obama that kept us from going bankrupt.
      The Republicans have you by the ballz.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Oh, please. Nobody's "running our lives". Stop hyperventilating.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
  2. nolimits3333

    Mormonism is a crazy cult. Joseph Smith started it as a scam.

    July 1, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • Sam

      That is true, and anyone who believes in it, no matter how well-intentioned, has questionable judgement!

      July 1, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  3. Colin

    I wonder how future generations will look back on religion in 21st Century America. Given the inexorable rise of rational thought, atheism and reason, it is only a matter of time before religious and other supernatural beliefs are totally marginalized in the West. Scandinavia, Great Britain and Australia are well ahead of the USA in this respect, but the USA will catch up.

    I can imagine school children giggling with amusement at how, even as late as the 21st Century, the US President had to publicly avow a belief in a Bronze Age Judeo-Christian god to have any chance of winning an election. It's pretty weird, if you think about it for five minutes.

    July 1, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  4. gramma75

    I believe obama is a muslim. Otherwise why would he exsempt them from his obamaTAX. Truly believe he is EVIL and should be held for treason to America. Whoeer said the Pope is the devil/evil will surely rot in hades. I am NOT a Catholic but a Baptist. Do not believe it really matters what a President religion is as long as he is not out to destroy our Country, i.e. obama!.

    July 1, 2012 at 10:34 am |
    • Chris Goodson

      What are you talking about?

      July 1, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • See Forever Eye

      That evil man, how dare he try to help poor people get health care.
      I beleeves its da devil hiself.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • Feed Your Head

      Not a gramma, maybe a six year old. look at the spelling.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Let gramma75 be a cautionary tale: When you let your pastor or Fox news tell you what to think, you sound sad and delusional.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  5. Friendly-neighborhood-atheist

    First off George Washington did NOT add "so help me god" to his oath. The only suggestion that he did came from one "witness" who was 6 years old at the time and by his own statements was standing several hundred feet away (and back then microphones didn't exist). Check it out. The notion that Washington started the "so help me god" addition is nonsense put forth by the religious right in their attempt to push their religion onto others. Washington was technically an Anglican (because all politicians in Virginia at the time were REQUIRED to be Anglican). Washington refered to god as "providence" in all of his writings and statements. Any source crediting him with use of the word "god" is forged... Look it up.

    July 1, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  6. ChazH

    Niels C. Nielsen is emblematic of America's petty concept of morality, when he states that ex-President Johnson "has no morality" just because he used profanity; while out of the other side of his mouth he's praising Johnson for his concern for the less fortunate. Which is more moral: caring for the needy or not using profanity? American Christians would overwhelmingly say the latter-because helping the less fortunate is "socialism," therefore evil.

    July 1, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  7. nestor

    because he is a christian fake, and because the church he went before was elect president the reverend and all congregation don't take of U.S. they hate the U.S. why he don't continues go to that church and keep the friendship he and his family have with that denomination in special with that reverend.

    July 1, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • sybaris

      Ah yes, american education at its finest.

      Your english teacher should be fired

      July 1, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • Fearless Freep

      Could you do that over in english ?

      July 1, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
  8. jrae1

    Excellent read – an enlightening article.

    Compared to religious people, "atheists and secular people" are less nationalistic, prejudiced, antisemitic, racist, dogmatic, ethnocentric, close-minded, and authoritarian.

    In the US, in states with the highest percentages of atheists, the murder rate is lower than average. In the most religious US states, the murder rate is higher than average

    July 1, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • David

      Correlation does not imply causation. And I'm as atheist as it gets.

      July 1, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  9. Bad Karma

    Religion, especially Christianity, is for the weak-minded. I'd rather my President thought for him/herself!

    July 1, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • Mary

      and the brainiacs here....

      NO ONE CAN EVEN THINK WIHTOUT GOD AUTHORIZING IT....you should thank God for letting you write and read...everything comes from God, even evil to test you...

      July 1, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • G O D


      and the brainiacs here....

      NO ONE CAN EVEN THINK WIHTOUT GOD AUTHORIZING IT....you should thank God for letting you write and read...everything comes from God, even evil to test you...

      This is God, i will get back to you as soon as i am done laughing my beard off.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
  10. Pat

    It matters if the President belongs to a CULT.......like the lds

    July 1, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • sybaris

      You need to understand the definition of "cult"

      Christianity is a cult

      Websters is your friend

      July 1, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • David

      Mormons believe a lot of crazy stuff. Just like every other religion.

      July 1, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  11. No Christian land here

    I always laugh whenever I hear people say America is a christian nation. Perhaps it is, but how can we tell when racism–hatred of people because of their skin color, is still a one number problem in American society? Ya give me a break. If this country is a christian nation one doesn't need to announce it to the world, but let's the good christian works speak for itself. Let see the love of all humanity, regardless of color, relentlessly shine. The Bible declares " How can one say he or she loves God when he or she does not love his brother?" We should not just claim we are a christian in our mouth but let our work and love of all God's creation truly show that indeed, we are a christian nation.

    July 1, 2012 at 10:29 am |
    • Unrelated

      Hello, we voted for a black president? You are full of it.

      July 1, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • str8vision

      So very true. Greed, selfishness, jealousy, hate, envy, prejudice, malice and a healthy dose of hypocrisy certainly doesn't follow the teaching of Christ. America mouths the words of Christianity but its actions throughout history are quite opposite of what christianity stands for. In order to justify launching a "preemptive" war, we knowingly lied about WMD's, yellow cake uranium and direct ties to terrorist organizations....(Thou shall not bear false witness). The resulting military action caused the deaths of a million civilians....(Thou shall not kill). We all know it was always about the oil....(Thou shall not covet thy neighbors goods). We murdered the American Indians (men, women and children), in order to steal their lands and burned witches (women and little girls) alive, all while claiming to be "good" Christians. The list goes on and on. America's version of the Christian bible should include the disclaimer "as long as it doesn't interfere with what we want to do".

      July 1, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  12. vanessa

    Reblogged this on You can take the A**hole out of the girl but... and commented:

    July 1, 2012 at 10:29 am |
  13. mikeosity

    Correction, Jesus would not agree with you "teen".

    July 1, 2012 at 10:29 am |
  14. Bayousara

    Two things we need to change in the United States concerning government (and we would all be happier for it) 1. Dilute the two poltical parties (Dem and Repub) with a third party (other than Independents who can't vote in many state primaries) and 2. Get religion out of politics by making it a crime to mention one's religious affiliation if running for office. Reason: Look at Egypt for starters.

    July 1, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  15. mikeosity

    No one and no GOD for President. I can't think of a more important thing than leaving God out of politics. crap business as usual.

    July 1, 2012 at 10:27 am |
    • SciGuy

      Not possible Mike. The God one believes in is foundational to his philosophy of life and governance. One may attempt to cover or hide his beliefs about God, but those beliefs will certainly affect the way he governs. I'd prefer full disclosure to your head-in-the-sand approach.

      July 1, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  16. Unrelated

    All surveys show religion is dead.

    July 1, 2012 at 10:27 am |
  17. anon

    Any POTUS whose religion is Government is a bad POTUS. Unfortunately our government education system has taught us otherwise, like FDR getting us out of the Great Depression when in fact he kept it going for an extra 10 years. And in a time of bad economic times, Obama wants to raise taxes to FDR levels. It'll have the same effect, extended crap economy. Good thing Obama never got that unemployment over 8% like he promised, and closing GITMO was "the right thing to do." Getting out of Afghanistan and Iraq on "DAY ONE" was an event we all could "Take to the Bank." And the world is a much better... oh, wait, he didn't do any of those things.

    July 1, 2012 at 10:25 am |
  18. SokrMom

    With respect to this whole article: Like, duh... Honestly!

    July 1, 2012 at 10:25 am |
  19. SciGuy

    The US is a nation of hypocrites. They virtually worship Lincoln, who directed the wholesale slaughter of hundreds of thousands for the purpose of subjugating 11 states forcing them into his "union." Today they support those candidates who are warmongers, while rejecting the peace candidate who would restore the Consti.tution.

    July 1, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • SokrMom

      Today, the right of peoples to self-determination looks a good bit different than it did then (like, it was largely an American invention). I'm sure Lincoln, and most Americans, felt that States could not be allowed to leave the union every time that had issues with other States. And you seem to be forgetting that the South's big beef with the rest of the Country had to do with its refusal to abandon a practice that was viewed by many then (and hopefully all now) as immoral.

      July 1, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • Adam

      What are you smoking? The forcing into HIS union? Is the union you referreing to the United States? Directed Wholesale slaughter? Are you referring to the Civil War? I hate to break it to you but both sides were shooting at each other. Please tell us who the 'Peace" canadate is?

      July 1, 2012 at 10:34 am |
    • SciGuy

      Lincoln by his own admission cared not for the plight of the slaves in his war. He sole concern was subjugating the South (he euphemistically called it "saving the union"). Further, several nations before and since have abolished slavery; none of them waged a war to do so. You are in fact making my point. Virtually all Americans make every excuse for the murderous Lincoln while they worship at his sanctuary in DC.

      July 1, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • SciGuy

      Adam, you appear to be the nonrational one here. The South was invaded, and fought in self-defense. When an armed rapist enters my home and we both commence shooting, by your logic I would be guilty of aggression same as the intruder.

      Ron Paul is the only candidate for peace.

      July 1, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  20. Teen


    July 1, 2012 at 10:19 am |
    • sybaris

      Say for the sake of argument that the U.S. is a christian country, is there some benefit to that?

      Do we get a star sticker on our papers?

      Do we get head of the line privileges?

      I really don't get why christards make such a big deal out of it

      July 1, 2012 at 10:26 am |
    • IGotYourReference

      Teen,. when you are a little older, you may learn a thing or two. America is certainly NOT a Christian country – we were founded by diests running on the notion that our country is for everyone of any (or no) religious faith. Would i surprise you to learn that we would not have won the revolutionary war (and therefore NOT been the United States of America) had it not been for the funding of that war from a prominent Jewish man? Look it up.

      What is amazing about our country is your ability to worship as a christian, and others to worship as muslims or jews or hindus or to not worship at all, as a small percentage of American athiests choose to do?

      July 1, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • Adam

      Please stop trolling. If you can't add something meaningful to the conversation stay quiet.

      July 1, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • mikeosity

      Jesus would not agree.

      July 1, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • SokrMom

      Yes, it is very apparent that you are a "Teen."

      July 1, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • Parfin Woodell

      *** SciGuy

      Adam, you appear to be the nonrational one here. The South was invaded, and fought in self-defense. When an armed rapist enters my home and we both commence shooting, by your logic I would be guilty of aggression same as the intruder.

      I just did a google check,
      The south fired first.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
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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.