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. MaryM

    Really? Magic underwear? God lives on or near the Planet Kolob. If Mitt believes this, what other nonsense does he believe in that Joseph Smith preached?

    July 1, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
    • hez316

      Glad to see you prefer BO's faith instead.

      July 1, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
    • MaryM

      hez, do you believe in what Joseph Smith taught?

      July 1, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • Hez316

      Definitely not

      July 1, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  2. Jerry Pelletier

    The problem with Obama is that he believes that he is king he might even think he is god like,
    he does not realize he is in his position for the people by the people.

    July 1, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
    • MaryM

      Jerry, and you know what President Obama believes. lol

      July 1, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
  3. John the guy not the baptist

    I think Georg e was a ha*rd core Mason, no idea what degree he obtained, but he was a busy guy.

    Tubal Cain rules....IAMO

    July 1, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
  4. Reality

    From p. 4:

    Bottom line: Romney is Mormon because he was born Mormon. Should we hold this against him?

    After all, BO also believes in "pretty/ugly wingie thingies, bodily resurrections and atonement mumbo jumbo.

    One should be voting based on rational thinking. Believing in angels, satans, bodily resurrections, atonement, and heavens of all kinds is irrational.

    Apparently, BO and MR have been severely brainwashed in their theologically and historically flawed Christianity and they are too weak to escape its felonious grip.

    July 1, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
  5. Ed

    Mittens wears magic underwear.

    July 1, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
  6. Aces Full Mike

    Bill Ayers, Frank Marshall Davis, Van Jones, Jeremiah Wright, Francis Fox Piven, Bernadine Dorn, Andy Stern, Derrick Bell, Jim Wallace, member of socialist New Party, International apology tour, 2,000 page health care bill that took a year to pass only after bribing his own party members, redistribution of wealth, social justice, Black Panthers, collective salvation, Black Liberation Theology, Critical Race Theory, Eric Holder, blame Bush and Republicans for everything, divisive class warfare rhetoric while he becomes a multi-millionaire in office and takes more campaign cash from Wall Street than anyone else, extensive Union cronyism, 9% unemployment, credit downgrade, Jon Corzine as his top financial advisor, White House security leaks, Solyndra, Siga Technologies and the Fast & Furious cover up – the “put the Community Organizer in charge to see what will happen” experiment is done.

    July 1, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • MaryM

      Really? Magic underwear? God lives on or near the Planet Kolob. If Mitt believes this, what other nonsense does he believe in that Joseph Smith preached?

      July 1, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
  7. Rogue351

    The presidents faith does not matter !!. The UNITED STATES is not a Christian, Muslim or Jewish nation. Therefore the faith of any political official voted into office does not matter. If the United States voted in political officials based solely on their religious affiliation we would be in the exact same boat as most all of the middle eastern countries we are constantly railing against. Regardless of the religion, politics and religion do not mix well. The reason being, the political official must make decisions that are right for all faiths there for looking at it from one religious perspective does not work. This political official is elected to make choices that are right for everyone and not just a certain religious affiliation of a certain race. So therefore the faith of the president does not matter if we are to have a fair nation. The fact that America is a nation of immigrants makes this more true. Separate church and state. By no way does this mean you can’t pray, handle snakes, read whatever religious publication you want, just keep your religion between you and whatever god your believe in. Religion should be a personal experience not one that is forced on people. Let our elected officials make choices based on right and wrong as it has been defined here in the United States. ONE NATION UNDER GOD does not specifically define exactly which god that may be for a reason.

    July 1, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • Robert Brown

      There is just one God and there is no question which one we are under.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • RogueIsaMoron

      The nation was founded under God fearing people you moron. You must not be from America like our NAZI president.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      A Nazi? Are you brain-dead?

      July 1, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • RogueIsaMoron

      NAZI= National Socialist. With the latest tax bill OBAMA passed he mad us socialist.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      You prove your ignorance. You have no clue what socialism is.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • Rogue351

      Look up the term "GOD" in the dictionary. By the way since when does a good Christian go around calling people names for their opinion ? You have proven my point exactly. Religious bias helps no one. It only serves to divide. United we stand divided we fall, ring any bells ?

      July 1, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
  8. Max Powers

    Jackson in no way deserves to be on the $20. Such a horrible person.

    July 1, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • Ronald Regonzo

      Agreed send them all to the committee to elect Mitt Romney (R)

      July 1, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • Dave

      Jackson on the twenty is actually a big FU to him by bankers. He hated national banks and thought bills as large as a twenty were horrible. So they put him on there as a way of making fun of him

      July 1, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  9. just sayin

    Satan is the ruler of my heart. Satan must run this country! We must all come together under the banner of Satan!!!!

    July 1, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • just sayin

      No one expects any better behavior from an atheist as your values include lying stealing and murder. You are right in character. God bless

      July 1, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • just sayin'

      Yes, I know that the only point I have is Reductio ad Stalinum, but this thinking stuff is really really hard!

      July 1, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • Rogue351

      Troll !!

      July 1, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • just sayin

      My therapist just told me to confess that I am a thief. That's why I keep talking to myself, accusing myself of stealing and lying. I have so many problems that only LORD SATAN can help me with!

      July 1, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
  10. Chris

    A Christian is needed to run this county and is the best choice.
    A Mormom or Catholic will do.
    An athiest nor a Muslim would ever be a good choice for this country nor any other.

    July 1, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • just sayin

      Chris, you are wrong! Satan would be the best choice to run this country. Or an atheist. Mormons are freaks!

      July 1, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • Bobablop

      ya, you're dumb.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
    • tallulah13

      You are certainly enti.tled to your opinion, Chris, and your one vote (should you be old enough to vote). Those of use who are concerned about what is best for this country will look at the qualifications that are actually necessary for the job and at the true character of the candidate, beyond the smokescreen of religion.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • Ed

      You sound like a clown.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
  11. A Master Mason

    Washington and Jefferson were both speculative Masons. We Masons do not subscribe to any particular religion. We do, however, subscribe to the notion that their is a supreme architect - unknowable by man. As such, none of us are surprised to see comments attributed to both (any many other) founding fathers that seem to reject the use of names that came from the voices of man under the guise of organized religion,.

    July 1, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
  12. Phil

    to the Author. I think your characterization of Richard Nixon is totally uncalled for, unjust and irrelevant.

    July 1, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • John the guy not the baptist

      Tricky Dicky made his bones in the Bohemian Grove, but even the powers that be never figured he would make it to the white white house, go figure.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
  13. just sayin

    I am a horrible, hateful person. Right now I'm living in a Psych ward where I'm allowed to get on these chat boards from time to time. Because I have Borderline Personality Disorder I lie all the time so that I can make people miserable. I hate God. I hate myself so much that I have to say different things all the time, but the one thing I KNOW I am is an atheist! Praise SATAN!

    July 1, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  14. Rob

    Christians have been screwing it up, lets go back to basics WE NEED ANOTHER DEIST PRESIDENT!

    July 1, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • Christianity

      America is a Christian nation.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • hez316

      @christianity I'd like to know your reasoning. I agree the US is influenced by Christianity but to say we are a Christian nation is tough.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
    • 1question

      America is a Christian nation – that is why we are so good at war, discrimination, abuse, and ignorance. We do them with religious zeal. We are almost on par with the Catholic church.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • Nope

      I actually agree.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
  15. jean

    I haven't heard whether the Tea Party would like to bring Puritanism back. I say that we should use reverse psychology and attempt to give them what they are asking for. Don't worry, it wouldn't take long for them to change their minds.

    July 1, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I propose we have a Shaker as president and make this a Shaker nation. That'll fix a lot of things.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  16. KEVIN

    Obama hs been hiding this all the time; He is actually Irish and wants to turn everyone Irish

    July 1, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
  17. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    July 1, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • Rob

      know what else changes things? getting off your knees and doing something.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

      Even though I am a christian, I admit that I don't really believe in prayer but my therapist told me that if I keep posting anti-atheism posts on all of these chat boards, I would be able to work out my anger and hatred for God. God doesn't love me or anyone else, and I know that. In fact I hate god! I LOVE SATAN!!!!

      July 1, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  18. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Even though I am a christian, I admit that I don't really believe in prayer but my therapist told me that if I keep posting anti-atheism posts on all of these chat boards, I would be able to work out my anger and hatred for God. God doesn't love me or anyone else, and I know that. In fact I hate god!

    July 1, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • just sayin

      When an atheist is frustrated and defeated it tends to steal lie or kill. Not to worry the TRUTH atheism is not healthy for children and other living things is posted above its lies. Common sense dictates the rest. Poor pathetic loser

      July 1, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • just sayin

      That's not true, false lying other just sayin' and Atheism is not! The only thing my therapist did was up my lithium and thorazine dosages!

      Stop stealing my names or I will use all the others I use!

      July 1, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
  19. asdf

    Not my quote, but I forget whose:

    George Bush has said that he hears God's voice and knows what to do. If he said that he heard God's voice come from a hairdryer, we would all think he was insane. I don't see why the hairdryer's involvement should change anything.

    July 1, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
  20. just sayin

    The great President George H W Bush once said an atheist is not a patriot and should not be a citizen of America, we are one nation under God. God bless

    July 1, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • just sayin

      I always wished I could lick the great President George W. Bush's feet and legs!

      July 1, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • just sayin

      Poor sad defeated little atheist awwwwww. God bless

      July 1, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • just sayin

      The voices! The voices!!!!!!! I know I say one thing and then something totally different. I can't decide if I'm a pathetic Atheist or a Satanist!!!!

      July 1, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • just sayin

      The poor widdle thing we all feel soooooooooooooo bad for it. go ahead and steal widdle atheist no one thinks you are capable of better anyway. God bless

      July 1, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Hahaha. "No one thinks you are capable of better anyway. God bless"

      Comedy gold. Might as well post "I hate your guts, you cur, God bless!"

      July 1, 2012 at 2:34 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.