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. Maya

    I don't vote for people who have imaginary friends.

    July 1, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • hez316

      I suppose then that you have never voted.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
  2. Christian

    Obama claims to be a Christian but according to his actions, he is not one. If I told you I was a unicorn would that make me one? That analogy is a clear demonstration of Obama's "Christianity."

    July 1, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      No True Scotsman fallacy, redux.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • 666667

      So, Is George Bush?

      July 1, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • lolwut


      Everything is like, subjective, dude.

      *lights up a joint*

      July 1, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  3. albert

    This world is in for a rude awakening. The Bible has always condemned religion and has called for its destruction. Read Revelation 17:1. And Revelation 17:15-24. The "Wild Beast" illustrates the United Nations, and religion is referred to as the "Harlot". Very interesting reading. The bottom line is that religion will be destroyed for the plague it is.

    July 1, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
  4. Dread

    How can anyone vote for a CULT MEMBER for President like Mittens?

    July 1, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
  5. Pillsforthecrazy

    Well, some people might not care what religion their president is, but if you look up mormonism and find out that they actually believe that they will eventually become gods (they call it eternal progression) and that our God was once a man on some other planet...then maybe you will care what religion our next President is...

    July 1, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • asdf

      yes, because the whole three-day zombie thing is so believable...but the other planet thing? Sheesh.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
  6. The Truth

    The President's faith does not matter because faith in general of any kind does not matter. Let's put aside the ancient folklore and keep our imaginary friends to ourselves. They have no place in politics and will have zero impact on getting this country (and this planet) back on track. Ignorance is bliss. It is also dangerous and is becoming more and more irresponsible as time goes on. Religion = Ignorance.

    July 1, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • hez316

      So our current President and his republican rival are ignorant?

      July 1, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • albert

      I agree. Religion = Ignorance, the Bible = Truth. There is a huge difference. Religion is far remove from anything that the Bible actually teaches. The rapture, Christmas, Easter, eternal torment is hell, these are not Bible teachings, but rather pagan teachings that were adopted by religion, and then taught as "Truth" Did you also know that people worshiped the Cross (Tammuz), long before Jesus was on the earth? Yet, many so-called "Christians" wear and bow down to this idol.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • The Truth

      Hez... Yes... Don't confuse ignorant with stupid. Ignorant means one chooses to "ignore" the truth. I personally doubt either candidate is actually a believer. They're just looking for votes and don't want to scare the hoards of believers out of voting for them by speaking the actual truth.
      Albert... my point... faith doesn't matter globally. It may matter to you and millions of others personally. It won't solve worldly problems and has no place in the political realm. Especially in a country that supposedly has a separation of church and state.

      July 1, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
  7. BigTex1

    Why does it matter? They all ultimately report to their puppet master, Israel. We might as well be a jewish nation.

    July 1, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
  8. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things ;

    July 1, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  9. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things ;

    July 1, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  10. thes33k3r

    Here's looking forward to the day when we elect our first secular humanist atheist president.

    July 1, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • Ronald Regonzo

      At the inauguration a flock of pigs will be seen overhead.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
  11. Freethinker Seeking Reason

    The more a candidate suffers from religious addiction, the less likely we should vote for them, although in this atmosphere of choosing the lesser evil, policy positions are the most important factor.

    Obama generally has good policies, but his insulting pro-theist religious rhetoric is extremely hard to listen to. We need a thinking atheist in the oval office so badly it often seems that otherwise we are doomed to become a third-world theocracy. Religion is killing America, one useless prayer at a time.

    July 1, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
  12. CarrotCakeMan

    President Obama's faith makes him a better person, a better American, a better President. Romney? His religion means he will not respect the right to Freedom Of Religion of anyone else.

    July 1, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • Pragmatist

      Harry Reid is a Mormon, majority leader of the Senate and supporter of Obama. How does your indictment of Romney make any sense? I suppose your next comment will be how rich Romney is. Oh, aren't John Kerry and Nancy Pelosi also worth $200 million plus?

      July 1, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • hez316

      @pragmatist I was unaware Reid was a mormon. Wow.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • Pragmatist

      He is indeed, but you can see why this is inconvenient for Obama and the media.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
  13. Michael

    Oh really!!!? The GOP and Tea Party made such a huge deal about Obama possibly being not Christian. And, now that they have candidate WHO DEFINITELY IS NOT CHRISTIAN it may not matter? It just goes to show they will do and say anything to get control of this country rather than do what is best for the American people.

    July 1, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • madrep

      This Country was founded on Christian beliefs and values. You don't like, leave..."so what if we know very little about this POTUS....right? LMAO

      July 1, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Yawn. Read some history. It was not founded on beliefs that were "Christian" but on ideals that are common to many cultures and eras.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • Ronald Regonzo

      But his color will be delightsome.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • hez316

      I missed something. Did Romney say he's not a Christian?

      July 1, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • Mormons are fine people

      They are just not Christians.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
  14. lolwut

    Where to begin? I'll just make this one glaring note..

    Great job smearing Andrew Jackson, but you forgot to mention that your secular idols Washington and Jefferson were rich slaveholders as well. And also that both had their own genocidal and forced assimilation policies towards Native Americans.

    July 1, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • Hi Pauly!

      You obviously never reead much about Jackson.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • lolwut

      Why read about Jackson when I have my revisionist history right on CNN.com?

      July 1, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
  15. ford69

    If Romney becomes President we'll really have the first non-Christian President. I wonder why no one has really looked at the Mormon religion yet in terms of what they believe?

    July 1, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • One one

      What difference does it make. Is one phoney religion any better or worse than the other phoney religions ?

      July 1, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • CarrotCakeMan

      YES, OneOne, most religions are benign. Most religious people are OK. Mormons want to take over our government. They have been caught interfering in our political process.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • Ronald Regonzo

      But the color will be right.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • Pragmatist

      CarrotCakeMan forgets the inconvenient truth that Obama's right hand man in the Senate, Harry Reid is Mormon.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
  16. NutsJustNuts


    July 1, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  17. My Pet Snake Reggie

    Aaaaaah, look at the old white guys having a nice nap after their big day!

    July 1, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
  18. Roger

    CNN's daily futile attack on Christianity. Que all the Atheist trolls!

    July 1, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • Maya

      Learn to spell, THEN insult other people.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • Freethinker Seeking Reason

      I guess perception is everything, as many see these pro-Christian CNN faithy articles as wordy crutches of delusion and supersti-tion. They might occasionally help a few people think, but on average they defensively shore up the irrational status quo.

      As for inconvenient facts, the Nones are one third of young people today and are the fastest increasing "religious" demographic in America, so you might want to analyze your understanding of futility.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
  19. md

    It would be nice to finally have a president that doesn't believe in fairy tales.

    July 1, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
  20. Angry Annie

    Pictured above: President Bush ruminates on if it is too late to acquire any amount of intelligence, while Jimmy is trying to take a dump in the presence of Bill who is playing with little billy while thinking of lewinsky.

    Yup, our two party system hard at work.

    July 1, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Got a better idea?

      July 1, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • Angry Annie

      "Got a better idea?"
      Words from a beaten down $tupid american.

      Tom definitely got beat, and now he's hollering down the street.

      July 1, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      So then that would be a "No" from AA.

      July 1, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • Angry Annie

      Yes, that would be a no, as in you have no brains tom.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
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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.