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. panorain

    Is this supposed to be a prelude to the announcement of the Kelly Fate or something. I remember when Carter bent over to show his sumbission. That was it! I forgave him for the sweater. Though I didn't forgive him for becoming a hostage in the White House no matter the symbolism. Never mind the suitcases. But when Jimmy bent over that was it.

    July 1, 2012 at 8:45 pm |
  2. ruth

    This great country called America was founded on faith and christianity,whether people like it or not democracy followed .George Washington knew it John Adams knew it and all our great forefathers had it.......we would not be enjoying our life if it was not for them,there was no muslims in America praying to allah...I am sorry but Jeremiah Wright had a person sitting in the pew every Sunday ,listening to him to hate white people and America for twenty years this person listened to him and said AMEN at the end ...funny we do not hear about him anymore ,....do you think Obama has forgotten his teachings.........NO

    July 1, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
    • Chris

      America was founded on rebellion against taxation without representation. That the vast majority of the populace held Christian faith of one sort or another was little more than a side-note. One of the great heroes of this nation, Benjamin Franklin, had written correspondence with a man in Istanbul, I believe it was, trying to convince him to come to the US to preach Islam. That is how much the founders believed in freedom of religion, not just freedom of Christian denomination as folks like you keep trying to convince others and rewrite history .

      July 1, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
  3. gary

    i'd rather an atheist president .. one based on facts

    July 1, 2012 at 8:37 pm |
    • Ned Flanders

      What is a fact? Is fact truth? Is truth relative to the person who views it or absolute and unquestionable? If truth is absolute who establishes it? Is what you call mythology relative of absolute?

      July 1, 2012 at 9:16 pm |
  4. Ned Flanders

    In order for anyone to comment on faith issues one must first know what faith is... if you don't have Christian faith then you do not understand the full meaning of what faith is... sorry but faith will be foolish to the one that does not have it... having faith does does not mean that one is superior instead one knows that they are to be humble before God and never proud for any reason before anyone... we all fall short... a President's faith matters to the one that has faith.

    July 1, 2012 at 8:36 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      Let me guess...you're the one who decides who does or does not REALLY have faith?

      July 1, 2012 at 9:14 pm |
    • Ned Flanders

      For myself I will discern who has faith... is it not the same for your self? Is there an evil in discerning?

      July 1, 2012 at 9:28 pm |
    • Chris

      Why don't you try reading the Bible a little bit more closely, Ned, and don't just skip over the parts which don't conform to your own views. One thing you will find: It is not your place to judge the faith of another man. That right belongs to God alone.

      July 1, 2012 at 9:42 pm |
    • Ned Flanders

      I should have more rightly stated that what is and who has faith is defined by the object in whom one has faith. God defines who has and who does not have faith. Christian are to work out their faith in "fear and trembling" which I define to mean after much reflection and discernment.

      July 1, 2012 at 9:48 pm |
    • Ned Flanders

      Chris, is it not Biblical to discern right and wrong?

      July 1, 2012 at 9:52 pm |
    • dyslexic dog

      from the dictionary, FAITH: "a firm belief in something for which there is no proof"

      I personally like to believe in things for which there is proof, and there is proof for the age of the universe and there is proof for evolution and there is proof for a myriad other things which show that the bible is nothing more than a bronze age, local, middle eastern story book.

      Christians, don't say that we magically appeares "poof" and that is evolution. Use your evolved brains and read all the facts. They are proven and do not need anyone to say that they believe them on "faith".

      July 1, 2012 at 10:08 pm |
    • Ned Flanders

      There is more than one dictionary and more than one definition of faith. The dictionary does not define that is right of wrong nor does it give us proof.

      July 1, 2012 at 10:26 pm |
  5. truth will out

    Atheist are just as devout in there own religious views of not having a religion as muslims christian and jews are, and would probably be willing to kill people over their non-belief as well

    July 1, 2012 at 8:35 pm |
    • gary

      false assumption

      July 1, 2012 at 8:39 pm |
    • The Truth

      Very False Assumption

      July 1, 2012 at 8:57 pm |
    • GodFreeNow

      Yay! Tax exemption for atheists. Protection under religious freedom!

      July 1, 2012 at 9:01 pm |
    • JK

      The atheists I have known are just as rigid in their belief as any other fundamentalists. They are more likely to proselytize and very closed-minded. I'm sure it's because they have to ignore a lot of the obvious truth about the reality of the spiritual world, which does not require a religion to perceive and interact with.

      July 1, 2012 at 9:11 pm |
    • GodFreeNow

      Rigid, i.e., "not agreeing with me"

      July 1, 2012 at 9:45 pm |
  6. JudyKay

    A perfect example of how facts can be selected and twisted and interpreted to support what the writer wants the reader to believe. Most of the examples seemed like a stretch. Some were clearly slanted. Overall, not a particularly worthwhile piece. The quote about "one pastor who campaigned against Jefferson’s election" is virtually meaningless, as is most campaign rhetoric, especially in religious circles where "putting the fear of God" into parishioners' hearts from the pulpit has been used for centuries as a way to stir up opposition to undesirable rulers.

    July 1, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
  7. NotGOP

    If you're still there hippiepoet, here it is http://www.near-death.com/

    July 1, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
  8. gman

    A series of articles like this can be expected, part of Mitt Romney campaign in attempts to make him accepatble to the radical christiians. The issue that still remains unanswered is "What will a mormon do if Terrorists strike on a mormon holy day"?

    July 1, 2012 at 8:19 pm |
    • Austink

      Could you give me an example of what a 'mormon holy day' is and an instance that would make you believe that inaction would be a result of observance of said 'mormon holy day'?

      July 1, 2012 at 8:33 pm |
    • bryes

      So, are you saying the Romeny campaign contols the articles that CNN puts out?

      July 1, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
  9. Allen

    "After a long pause, Mr. Lincoln solemnly replied: "When I left Springfield I asked the people to pray for me. I was not a Christian. When I buried my son, the severest trial of my life, I was not a Christian. But when I went to Gettysburg and saw the graves of thousands of our soldiers, I then and there consecrated myself to Christ. Yes, I do love Jesus." "

    He lived most of his life as a deist but died as aa christian. Just like a liberal to tell you the part of the story they like and reconstruct the rest away as inconvenient truth.

    To confirm this statement go to the Lincoln Museum; ask for The Lincoln Memorial: Album-Immortelles in the O.H. Oldroyd Collection. The book was published in 1883, and the quote is found on page 366.

    BONUS COOL LINCOLN STORY: Immediately after the war, he went to Richmond to the home of the President of the Confederacy who was, as you might imagine, "not home." His wife came to the door carrying a little baby in her arms, the baby of Jefferson Davis. The baby reached out to the President. Of course, Mrs. Davis was astounded to see Lincoln standing in her doorway. He took the baby into his arms and was given a big wet smack on the face. He handed the baby back to Mrs. Jefferson Davis and said, "Tell your husband that for the sake of that kiss, I forgive him everything." He was an incredibly humble man.

    July 1, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      Varena Davis was not in Richmond. She escaped with her husband and was heading south. Your last vignette is false.

      July 1, 2012 at 9:23 pm |
  10. objectivist5

    Religion, it teachers and followers are among the most corrupt on the planet. It's a mind game preying on the weak. You can't think for yourself so you turn to a deity for some kind of minute justification so you can go on with your life. It breeds hatred, deception, and greed. It causes war, death and destruction. Why follow anything with these characteristics is beyond me. It's bad enough we have a government heading toward totalitarianism and when they achieve that plateau, no religion will save you.

    July 1, 2012 at 8:17 pm |
  11. Luis Wu

    Neither George Washington nor Thomas Jefferson believed in the deity of Jesus. Jefferson even wrote his own bible, leaving out all references to miracles. John Adams and John Q. Adams were Unitarians. Lincoln never went to church and was thought by many to be an atheist.

    July 1, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
  12. JK

    Nixon wasn't the first, nor the last, egotistic person to consider the ministry. I've seen plenty of people undecided between acting and the ministry, which means if they become ministers, they are acting the part. I've seen many priests/ministers doing exactly that and it is sickening, yet not uncommon. That does not mean that many priests/ministers and their followers are not truly sincere, but none of them will be found in the fundamentalist religions for long, and Mormonism is one of the worst of the fundamentalist religions. Those who follow such cuckoo ideas should not be given public responsibilities at all, let alone the presidency.

    July 1, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
  13. JohnMays

    Maybe they killed JFK partially because of his faith... oh by the way new evidence has been found...http://youtu.be/nq-ZJ99qaCc

    July 1, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
  14. dina

    There is no reason to consider that religion makes a good president as obvious by the facts of this article.

    July 1, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
  15. Saheed

    This is a testament to America that when you stand for what's right and not on negative energy only "good" things happen, not perfect but good! Obama 2012.

    July 1, 2012 at 8:05 pm |
  16. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things ,

    July 1, 2012 at 8:05 pm |
    • gary


      July 1, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
    • stever51@verizon.net

      No, it doesn't.

      July 1, 2012 at 9:14 pm |
  17. stupid followed to its logical conclusion

    ends at atheism. you to wu

    July 1, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
    • Luis Wu

      I'm not the one that believes in imaginary invisible beings in the sky. You are. That's the epitome of stupid.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:06 pm |
    • stupid followed to its logical conclusion

      My point proven by you ... thank you wu

      July 1, 2012 at 8:07 pm |
    • GodFreeNow

      @Luis Wu, He's either a troll or too lacking in intelligence to warrant a response from you... These days, it's hard to tell the trolls from the believers.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
  18. goingfast


    July 1, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
  19. steve

    family doesn't like dogs, has no religion

    July 1, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
  20. Luis Wu

    I would rather have a president that uses logic, reason and objectivity instead of one that blindly accepts ancient mythology as fact.

    July 1, 2012 at 8:01 pm |
    • steve

      so where ya gonna find one?

      July 1, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
    • Frank

      A person as you describe is not allowed to be POTUS. You must believe in the supernaturatual in order to be president.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
    • GodFreeNow

      @steve, You're right. To find a truly non-superst.itious, adult-minded you have to look back to the time of Thomas Jefferson. It's sad that in over 200 years, this country still hasn't grown out of its childish behavior.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
    • ForGoodOfAll

      I agree 100%, Luis!

      July 1, 2012 at 9:10 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      We have had a few of those but mostly they have to pretend to be devout in order to be elected.

      July 1, 2012 at 9:31 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.