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. Brett

    We need another Thomas Jefferson.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:11 am |
    • AGuest9

      Absolutely a man ahead of his time.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Who believed only white, male landowners should be permitted to vote.

      July 1, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
  2. malik

    So if Obama is really a Muslim, it doesn't matter?

    July 1, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • hippypoet

      yay for you... you finally figured it out – religion doesn't matter as long as it doesn't effect the choices made by the one in charge.

      July 1, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • Doobie Wah

      Bingo !
      Hand that man a cigar.

      July 1, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
  3. 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?

    July 1, 2012 at 11:10 am |
  4. amenges

    "...because piety and performance don't always match." Well put CNN. I could not have said it better about the current Commander in Chief's pious underperformance.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:10 am |
  5. palintwit

    Fact: Sarah Palin gets more hate mail than Obama.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • Sean

      Do you have any proof for this "Fact".

      July 1, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • Omg

      Are you including missives from McCain?

      July 1, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • Doobie Wah

      I just hate her in my heart.
      Saved myself a stamp.

      July 1, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  6. Rob

    Well isn't this a turn of events from an extreme Obama Maria outlet? You get a non Muslim Republican candidate and he is labelled with the epithet 'religious right'. You get a non U S Muslim candidate, and religion 'doesn't matter'. How dare you call FOX biased.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • Chris


      Trusting that Fox News as impartial is like trusting John Roberts is a conservative.

      Please, for the love of your children, recognize that Fox is absolutely biased in their news coverage. Yes, they have some conservative "commentators", but none of their news coverage is unbiased. To report the news in an unbiased manner takes more discipline than Fox has ever demonstrated.
      Fox's NEWS reporting is uber-liberal. 100% of the time. Their "news reports" are from the liberal vantage point. They start with liberal (propaganda) assumptions, which are always built right into the naratives by AP & the like. From there, they 'ask' and 'answer' liberal (propaganda) questions.

      At their very best, they abandon logic and reason in favor just parroting the media machine's liberal propaganda du jour, ostensibly because they're fixated on making sure their liberal talking heads can run their mouths as much as their conservative talking heads.

      July 1, 2012 at 11:32 am |
    • Silly Side Up

      Fox is biased.
      Nya Nya, your it.

      July 1, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
  7. PumpNDump

    Great, the "team jesus" mouthbreathers are out in force. NOBODY cares what a competent President believes in, save for the wingnuts, racist, mouthbreathers and cretins.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • Rob

      You say that when you are wearing a burqa and you are classified lower than dogs. history repeats itself my friend. Ignore warnings at your peril!

      July 1, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • Silly Side Up


      You say that when you are wearing a burqa and you are classified lower than dogs. history repeats itself my friend. Ignore warnings at your peril!

      What should we call you if you are lower than a troll ?
      We have got to think of some new names.
      Something that brings up the image of a bowel movement.
      A dump ?
      Trickle down ?
      Hershey squirt ?

      July 1, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  8. chiniquy

    Give thanks and praises to The Most High G-D. We are thankful that human beings are still embracing the belief in The Creator of the Heavens and Earth. No matter which faith they embrace as long as they still believe in HIM. And O' you ignorant ones who think Islam is not from HIM, I challenge you to read the holy scripture of the Muslims (Qur'an) for yourselves. Muslims claim that it is the pure, undiluted words of our Creator. So why should any true believer in Christianity or Judaism be afraid to read it. And, don't get translations done by people who hated the religion. Find a Qur'an that Muslims accept as being a good translation. That way you will get a similar understanding of the religion as Muslims understand it. Any intelligent member of the Human Family would want to understand for him or herself what Muslims really believe.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • Josef Bleaux

      Blah blah blah mumbo jumbo oogah boogah to you too. How utterly stupid.

      July 1, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • John the guy not the baptist

      You left out many others..Tipitaka, Theogony, the illustrated Kama Sutra, Torah, Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster,Tao Te Chang, Dianetics, Kojiki and others. Please expand your horizons, the human family could use a broader perspective, also
      The Impossibility of God
      God is not Great
      Death of Religion

      July 1, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • Silly Side Up

      My Flying Spaghetti Monster comes with meatballs.
      Im good.

      July 1, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  9. harvey

    A person's religion is not of even the slightest concern to me at the ballot box. What concerns me is the job I feel that person will do.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:06 am |
  10. Sam

    I guess I met my comment quota?

    July 1, 2012 at 11:05 am |
  11. tangledthorns

    I'd vote for an Atheist or a Mormon before I'd vote for a member of Jeremiah Wright's 'Hate America' church.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:05 am |
    • Josef Bleaux

      I'd vote for just about anybody over a Republican.

      July 1, 2012 at 11:07 am |

      Republicans need not apply.

      July 1, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
  12. Colin

    Genesis is no more a description of Evolution than the Flintstones is a docu.mentary on the Jurassic Period.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:05 am |
    • cricket

      LOL. Pretty funny Colin

      July 1, 2012 at 11:23 am |
    • Silly Side Up

      Wilma or Betty ?
      Betty was a dish.

      July 1, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
  13. bbarrick17

    The fact that it's taken our country 200+ years to figure this out is sad.

    The government and religion should have no ties whatsoever.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:04 am |
  14. aN

    you liberals never cease to amaze me

    July 1, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • Silly Side Up

      Glad you are dazzled.

      July 1, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
  15. CLOUDY


    July 1, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • truindep

      Obama belives in Obama

      July 1, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • CLOUDY


      July 1, 2012 at 11:03 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Is it hard for you to read lower case letters, Cloudy?

      July 1, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • Josef Bleaux

      Tom – No, he's just too stupid to understand when to use upper case and when to use lower case.

      July 1, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      He probably thinks lower case letters are tools of the illuminati and the elite....

      July 1, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • Silly Side Up

      Hey i can yell too.
      Goody for me.

      July 1, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
  16. Marcy Darcy

    "The president’s faith?" He's Probably muslim.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • lordsir

      all presidents in the history of the US have had nothing to do with GOD.

      July 1, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • MikeyZ

      Your lips are moving, but all I hear is "blah blah blah blah".

      July 1, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • Silly Side Up

      Loosy goosy, you figured that out by youself ?
      Or did you hear it someplace.
      Did a widdle wepublican whisper it in your widdle ear ?

      July 1, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
  17. DogLipps

    It is obvious this article is meant to help President Obama in his bid for reelection.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • Chris

      If it's from the media machine, it's a hatchet job on conservatives.
      If it's about Dear Leader, he's the savior.

      July 1, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • vulpecula

      If it's a hatchet job on christians, it's only because christian leaders have filled their heads with lies about America being founded by christians, and that christianity somehow makes a person unable to do wrong. If you don't have evidence to show something in the artical is incorrct, then your opinion of the article is of no practical value or meaning.

      July 1, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • Doobie Wah

      Obama doesnt need any help.
      Take a look at your candidate lately ?

      July 1, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
  18. zoyster1

    Obama must be getting ready to come out and finally admit he's a Muslim.

    July 1, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • Josef Bleaux

      So when are you coming out of the closet?

      July 1, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • zoyster1

      Obama's been a Muslim longer than he's been a faux Christian.

      July 1, 2012 at 11:11 am |
    • Omg

      Zoyster, it's time to stop reading those tea leaves.

      July 1, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • Doobie Wah

      Romney is going to admit that he is a robot.
      Ever seen one hair out of place ?
      I think if you tap him on the head with a hammer,
      you would hear....clink...clink....clink.

      July 1, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
  19. Bill

    Personally, I don't care what religion my President is, unless of course he is some wingnut religion like Scientology or Mormonism. Our founding fathers separated church and state for a reason. If you want to have your government and your leaders run by religious beliefs, move to the Middle East.

    July 1, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • truindep

      you talk out of both sides of your mouth, sounds like you do care , just not when it comes to your savior Obama

      July 1, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • lordsir

      or baptist or evangelical. Maybe Obama is Jewish – Congress is.

      July 1, 2012 at 11:08 am |
  20. Josef Bleaux

    I'd rather have a president that doesn't believe in ancient mythology and ignorant superst!tious nonsense.
    ALL religions are nothing more than ancient mythology. Which myth you believe in depends almost entirely on where you were born. The Christians posting comments here would be arguing just as strongly for Hinduism if they'd been born in India instead of the US. It never cease to amaze me how most people don't get that. It's just ancient mythology, nothing more.

    July 1, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • Flatsguide

      If they believed in stupidity, you would be president, Joe.

      July 1, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • lordsir

      spoken like a true Stalinist.It is so because you say so.

      July 1, 2012 at 11:11 am |
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About this blog

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.