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. Jaime

    Faith matters when your stupid enough to belong to a religion that was started by a known criminal and con-man

    July 2, 2012 at 1:39 am |
    • Bootyfunk

      "Faith matters when your stupid enough to belong to a religion"
      should have put a period there.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:25 am |
    • bkshepherd@alaska.net

      Speaking of stupid, the word is You're as in YOU ARE instead of your as in YOUR grammar indicates that you should go back to school

      July 2, 2012 at 2:41 am |
    • The Bird Is The Word

      @Jaime: You'll need to be more specific. Just which religion are you talking about? Oh...any religion that isn't yours.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:47 am |
    • Jaime

      @Bird is the word Speaking as an ATHEIST, I suggest you look up the roots of Mormonism. But if you still want to vote for Mitt Romney, be my guest.

      @bkshepherd@alaska.net Oh no, I made an error in grammar on the internet in my haste to write a comment, whatever shall I do? It's not an essay for school, get a life you tool. By the way, I like the best response you can come up with to my comment is to insult my grammar. Intelligent conversation at it's finest.

      July 2, 2012 at 4:04 am |
    • sam stone

      please do not confuse "faith" and "religion"

      July 2, 2012 at 9:11 am |
  2. Suzanne Marie Stuart

    Theocracies are on the rise. There are quite a few Americans who, becuase of their religious faith, feel that making the USA "Christian"' will make America a better country. Which denomination would rule? Whose theology would we all be forced to follow/convert to? Our founding fathers did not want to go there. Getting away from a state religion started this country. Our ancestors came here to get away from religious tyranny. Why on earth would we want to go backwards?

    July 2, 2012 at 1:24 am |
    • The Bird Is The Word

      Well said. Maybe someday those who want a CHristian nation will see that there would only be more infighting, next time among Christians. It's really simple, isn't it. Depressing, too.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:44 am |
  3. Obama Knows

    Good clip of Obama on this subject.


    July 2, 2012 at 1:23 am |
  4. gargle

    Religion is for insecure people. Get a grip on reality.

    July 2, 2012 at 1:08 am |
    • pockets

      “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.” EXCUSE ME....'we tie character and religious beliefs together.....LOL So speaking as an agnostic does that mean I have "no character"? Give me a break will you....what a stupid comment to make.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:41 am |
  5. DocReality

    CNN and Barack Obama: making it up as they go....

    July 2, 2012 at 12:50 am |
  6. Epidi

    "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." = typical religious zealot or political mud throwing reaction. I AM Pagan so I don't mind being called one. What deity or inner self one turns to for comfort or inspiration shouldn't matter. What matters is a person's character and willingness to reach out and help his fellow humans & protect the earth they live on. Period.

    July 2, 2012 at 12:46 am |
  7. Xis

    It doesn't matter because religion is a load of crap

    July 2, 2012 at 12:45 am |
    • NotGOP

      Oh great now I can quit believing because of that intelligent statement. Thanks so much.

      July 2, 2012 at 12:49 am |
    • DocReality

      Religion is for people who believe they're going to hell. Spirituality is for people who've already been there.

      July 2, 2012 at 12:49 am |
    • NotGOP

      I do like that Doc.

      July 2, 2012 at 12:52 am |
    • Narry

      Maybe those spiritual people belong in hell? If they're as judgmental so some Christians here I can see why.

      July 2, 2012 at 12:54 am |
    • sam stone

      Religion is top down. Personally developed beliefs are more true to the person.

      July 2, 2012 at 9:17 am |
  8. nena

    From my readings and my observations of the President, I believe that he governs with an OPEN MIND & AN OPEN HEART. How much more do we want. Romney on the other hand, I believe he would govern with a CLOSED MIND AND A GREEDY HEART. His goal is to make his rich buddies richer by reducing all kinds of regulations. If he makes it to the White House his rich buddies will be there ready to collect for getting him to the White House. Romney is a dangerous man.

    July 2, 2012 at 12:43 am |
    • NotGOP

      Well said!

      July 2, 2012 at 12:46 am |
  9. Bert BigDongler

    To CNN editors, a President's faith doesn't matter when their candidate sat in the church of the racist Rev. Jeremiah Wright for 20 years. Yes, lets go with "faith doesn't matter" until after November...

    July 2, 2012 at 12:31 am |
    • Andrew

      You know he's already been president for these 4 years. So you're part of this conspiracy club that says "he was only being moderate because he wants to be re-elected, this time he'll *actually* be the evil dictator we've been calling him"

      Incidentally, the dictator-like things that I am most opposed to from the president seem to be the same things Republicans never want to comment on. For as much as Republicans like to say he's "weak on immigration", Obama has spent quite a bit of money and effort to secure the boarder, deporting more illegal immigrants in one term than Bush did in both of his despite the smaller influx of illegal immigrants (likely due to the sluggish economy). I HATE how Obama has been handling the "war on drugs" and feel that's an incredibly insane waste of money, but you won't find Republicans talking about how Obama's "anti-drug" because for some strange reason the "personal-freedom" loving conservatives think the government should tell us what we're allowed to put in our bodies.

      Republicans likewise love shouting "hey look at these information leaks" but Obama has been one of the most vicious prosecutor for leaks leaks out there, and has made it a nightmare to try to get information out. Even information that's entirely benign, like admitting we were having drone strikes. As though the people being bombed in Afghanistan and Pakistan didn't know they were being bombed, they instead have to get that information from US news service, and that's considered a heinous information leak?

      Worse still, Obama wants those prosecuted? What happened to free press? The complaints usually levied against the man seldom actually match his job performance, but because what a lot of Obama does is virtually identical to Bush, you find many of the complaints are of some alternate reality. Hell, even the "executive privilege" for this fast and furious fiasco is directly out of Bush's playbook, and now Democrats are scrambling to explain why they're trying to defend the action while criticising Bush, and Republicans have just been pretending they never condoned Bush's use when they attack Obama now.

      There are no shortage of faults to find with Obama, but often I feel that much of the criticism misses the mark because it simply doesn't mesh with reality. You don't get to say "Obama's a friend to illegals" when he deports twice as many as his predecessor, while he simultaneously deports record amounts with diminished influx. You don't get to say "Obama's weak on security, he lets too much leak out" when he's been among the most difficult presidents to get information and leaks from in the first place, in spite of his promise for "transparency".

      These are real problems, but they're the same accusations I would throw at Bush, which is why Republicans seem not terribly inclined to levy them at Obama, and would rather use talking points that don't match the facts.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:27 am |
  10. shawbrooke

    Revisionist history abounds. Remember when who knows how many historical elected figures were "proved" to be gay? It's not entirely honest to say that someone who marries outside their faith and does not practice is still a member of the faith that there were raised in. Nixon had many long years between his faith background and the White House. What all this might prove is that if you leave your faith you will over time become unlike people of your faith, hardly a shock since it was your decision to leave your faith.

    Where I agree with the article is that once in power, people strive to stay there. Obama's gay marriage statement, that takes him away from pretty well any faith background whatever it was to begin with, might be an example.

    July 2, 2012 at 12:31 am |
    • The Bird Is The Word

      @Shawbrooke: How about "typical liberal Christian"? Sounds not only jusdemental, but prejudgemental to me. In addition, the tone if the entire post is QUITE unChristian.

      July 2, 2012 at 12:37 am |
    • NotGOP

      Except the love your neighbor part... Oh yeah that's not in the right wing bible. My mistake.

      July 2, 2012 at 12:37 am |
    • The Bird Is The Word

      @Shawbrooke: YOu probably saw that my reply was to a previous post of yours saying you didn't think Chris' post judg

      July 2, 2012 at 12:38 am |
  11. John C

    I had Dr. Darrin Grinder as my English Professor!!!!! He also co-wrote the book CNN with Dr. Steve Shaw, a professor of Political Science at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho.

    July 2, 2012 at 12:30 am |
    • Herman Wiffles

      Northwest Nazarene University And Chinese Food Restaurant in Nampa, Idaho? That's my alma mater too!

      Go NNUACFR!!!

      July 2, 2012 at 12:38 am |
  12. cgs

    If Americans could elect a Reverend Wright Christian with Muslim roots then I guess anything goes.

    July 2, 2012 at 12:29 am |
  13. The Bird Is The Word

    "I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires."
    -Susan B Anthony

    July 2, 2012 at 12:25 am |
    • Epidi

      Susan was a wise woman. 🙂

      July 2, 2012 at 12:49 am |
    • Tem in SD

      AMEN to that.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:43 am |
    • Fact

      "Delight thyself in the Lord, also, and He will give you the desires of your heart." Proverbs

      July 2, 2012 at 7:39 am |
  14. chris

    If every so called Christian practiced their faith like President Obama, the pews would be empty and clergy would be on the streets with their collection plates. The president has only been to church twice in the last year...typical liberal Christian with do what I say, not what I do.

    July 2, 2012 at 12:20 am |
    • The Bird Is The Word

      And you, sir, are a typical Christian who judges others even though specifically told NOT to by Jesus.

      July 2, 2012 at 12:29 am |
    • The Bird Is The Word

      I must add that if you are truly repentant for judging others when you shouldn't, post a public apology here – both to Jesus and your fellow man.

      July 2, 2012 at 12:30 am |
    • JOHN

      Exactly... people want to confuse the definition of what a real Christian is. Obama is one of them... reason being these people pick and chose what they want to believe and practice in the Bible.

      July 2, 2012 at 12:32 am |
    • shawbrooke

      What you've reported is a factual statement although we can't verify it. I can;t understand why it's judgmental to say things the way they are.

      July 2, 2012 at 12:33 am |
    • The Bird Is The Word

      @John: Do we wait for Cris to publicly profess his faith to the world and ask the forgiveness of Jesus for his judgement, or do you figure we're wasting our time?

      July 2, 2012 at 12:35 am |
    • Christopher

      And you do not understand what Christ meant by do not judge. People seem to take that to mean let people say and do whatever theyd want. That is so off base that is hard to respond but I shall try. That passage so often poorly interpreted means not to jduge who is in heaven and who is in hell. Nothing more. Look at Matthew 18 about how we are called to correct our brother. I am sure more will say I am judging but that woudl only show they have no argument so lets throw that nonsense out the window.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:42 am |
    • The Bird Is The Word

      @chris: My interpretation is different. So tell me – whose opinion is more valid? The rational answer is neither, and that's EXACTLY why religion and government must be separate.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:20 am |
  15. Avalon18

    You believe better in to a leader of a country if the have fear to God. The one we have is way for far of those believes

    July 2, 2012 at 12:17 am |
  16. Aces Full Mike

    The left does not want religion to be an issue, at least not Obama's Black Liberation Theology ala 20 years with Jeremiah Wright – if that was fully vetted instead of swept under the rug like in 2008, Obama wouldn't have a chance.

    July 2, 2012 at 12:16 am |
  17. spangler

    In America, people are free to believe what they like but are not free to impose their personal religious views on the rest of us through civil law. How many times do we have to go around this circle?

    July 1, 2012 at 11:58 pm |
  18. frootyme

    It should not matter because this country was formed based on the principles of separation on Church and State.
    If we claim to be secular and diverse, we should continue to ignore the religion.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:54 pm |
  19. Greenspam

    America is still living in the dark ages of religion, where a President's religion matters. Where religion continues to creep into our domestic government policies. The forefathers forsaw the danger of this, that's why we have SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE. The forefathers would be rolling in their graves if they saw what's happening today.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:52 pm |
  20. Reality

    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 11:51 pm |
    • rumplestilskin

      If he was born into the wrong religion, would not an omnipotent creator have given him (Romney) the ability to switch to the correct religion in order to save his immortal soul? If not, he has no choice in the salvation of his own soul. He is automatically damned.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:34 am |
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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.