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. w l jones

    One drop fell on a small desert country and it spread all over the world. Said enough.

    July 2, 2012 at 8:38 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      One drop of fear, hate and ignorance.

      July 2, 2012 at 8:40 am |
    • Rev. Rick

      The problem is that "one drop" became polluted by man and has poisoned the well from which it sprang.

      July 2, 2012 at 9:36 am |
  2. Rational Libertarian

    If a president believes that a known conman had the sole ability to read religious texts out of a stove-pipe hat and had conversations with angels, then that's a concern.

    July 2, 2012 at 8:24 am |
  3. JAB62

    Hey justsayin do us all a favor and don't. You're an idiot.

    July 2, 2012 at 8:21 am |
  4. Mary B

    The president's faith does not matter if it doesn't mattter to the president. Just as it is is those non-elected folks- the rest of us.
    People grow in their faith or grow to reject it. It is a matter of policies and treatment of the citizens of the USA, and also maintaining freedom and liberty to the citizens without trying to control all the aspects of their lives. And to do no harm from conception to natural death, not to promote these actions that affront natural law.

    July 2, 2012 at 8:16 am |
  5. Saint_John

    Please don't put a mormon in the driver's seat. This would be a major mistake. Romney's allegiance is to the exalted ones in Salt Lake City. Definitely take the time to Google up, "The Mormon White Horse Prophecy". We are totally screwed if a mormon becomes the next POTUS.

    July 2, 2012 at 7:35 am |
    • Meli

      Just shows how little do you know about mormonism. One thing for sure,,,,it that Americans will be saving mots and lots of money in alcohol since he and his family dont drink. That is a FACT..But your random statement just shows how little you know about mormons. I invite you to truly investigate....

      July 2, 2012 at 8:39 am |
  6. just sayin

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

    July 2, 2012 at 7:28 am |
    • Reality

      The Apostles' Creed 2012: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

      Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
      and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
      human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

      I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
      preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
      named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
      girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

      Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
      the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

      He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
      a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of

      Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
      many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
      and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
      Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
      grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
      and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
      called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

      (references used are available upon request)

      July 2, 2012 at 7:39 am |
    • .....

      Bull sh it alert, hit report abuse on all reality garbage posts

      July 2, 2012 at 7:45 am |
    • WASP

      @just sayin: really this again? i'm atheist and served 8 years in the UNITED STATES ARMY. i did two tours in iraq, and the only reason i got out; BTW honorable discharge; was due to injuries i recieved while in the military. so which of us deserves to be called american you chicken _______ MF. i served my country proudly, what did you do other than sit their and quote the ass that sent my buddies and myself to die for make believe weapons of mass destruction.

      July 2, 2012 at 7:57 am |
    • ironman59

      Your mentality is what is wrong with this country. The country was not founded on religious principals despite what your 5th grade education may have taught you. The majority of founding fathers did not believe in or support religion. Very few considered themselves christians ( i know, fact really blow don't they).

      The reality is I would much rather have an athiest as POTUS than someone claiming to be a holier than thou christian. As a matter of fact, all politicians should be athiests if you want true seperation of church and state. There are countless people in this country that don't believe in your "gawd" who have served us well. You however, would deny them their citizenship including the Jews from whom you stole the christian religion in the first place.

      July 2, 2012 at 8:31 am |
    • sam stone

      just sayin': who cares what george h.w. bush said?

      f him.

      f you.

      just sayin'

      July 2, 2012 at 9:07 am |
  7. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    July 2, 2012 at 7:00 am |
  8. don

    A presidents faith may not matter this time because its a Republicans faith that is being called into question. Just like draft dodging didn't matter in 2000

    July 2, 2012 at 6:27 am |
  9. Bart

    Winning The Future!! What's with this article? Another justification for Obama's Muslim leaning? Trying to ease the revelation that Obama might be a Muslim and joining Reverend Wright church was a ploy to get black votes? Obama will not join Reverend Billy Graham prayer session along with the Presidents pictured above.

    July 2, 2012 at 5:48 am |
  10. Smokey

    Maybe all you Republicans are too tolerant and pluralist and politically correct to say it but I, a Canadian, am gonna say it. If y'all elect a Mormon you are straight f***ed. These people want you to think they are Christians but they are NOT CHRISTIANS. They are a cult started by some con man, they are not people of faith. If you think a black president is bad, a Mormon president will be 10x worse. How can the Republican Party which is supposedly the party of faith nominate a Mormon? I personally find it terrifying. Mormons are NOT CHRISTIANS. If Romney is elected he will be the first non-christian president in American history. People spread these rumours that maybe Obama is a Muslim and not a Christian. Very well, it's possible. But Romney admits and indeed is proud to say that he is Mormon. That's far worse, in my book. If you elect a Mormon, do not be angry when you feel the wrath of the Most High. It will surely come to pass.

    July 2, 2012 at 5:46 am |
    • One one

      What does it matter ? All religions are BS anyway.

      July 2, 2012 at 6:27 am |
    • Meli

      I BET you have NEVER met a MORMON, nor have you taken the time to attend one of their MEETINGS. Your comment is based our of hatred. Like I would never go to an attorney to ask a medical question. I invite you to go to the source that can explain to you what mormons believe in. Go to mormon.org to see for yourself.

      July 2, 2012 at 8:44 am |
  11. Ernesto L


    July 2, 2012 at 4:17 am |
  12. Truth

    The current pResident's faith matters not. To truly believe in any established religion, one must possess a soul.
    Blacks do not possess souls (one drop rule, even a tiny smudge of black ruins the entire batch), therefore his "faith" does not make a difference, for it is nonexistent.

    July 2, 2012 at 3:26 am |
    • Zachary

      What scripture in what faith makes that claim?

      July 2, 2012 at 3:37 am |
    • Broderick

      All of mankind was equipped with souls. I don't know what god you believe in, but God did not give you that senseless information.

      July 2, 2012 at 4:19 am |
    • Otto

      You can't possibly be serious...

      July 2, 2012 at 4:56 am |
    • Humanist11

      You are a dangerous person and perfectly explain why I stopped following religion 25 years ago. You are an embarrassment to all Americans.

      July 2, 2012 at 4:58 am |
    • One one

      Take a good look everyone. This is what happens when religion takes hold.

      July 2, 2012 at 6:29 am |
    • sam stone

      one smidge of it, eh?

      July 2, 2012 at 9:10 am |
  13. polycarp pio

    I am a very conservative christian, some would call me extreme right wing on social issues. I think that every American should have free access to healthcare just like the Canadians, I am a veteran and the VA takes good care of my medical needs, and of course it is socialized government healthcare. I did not vote for the current president but I am not going to critisize everything the man does just because he is a democrate and that is what I fear the repubs are doing, everything the President does is taboo because he is in a different party. That being said I strongly very strongly disagree with him on abortion and gay rights. PP

    July 2, 2012 at 3:24 am |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      Why exactly do you feel it is your right to disagree on the issue of abortion and gay rights? The abortion issue has long been settled (Roe vs Wade) and gay rights are no different than your rights as a hetero.

      July 2, 2012 at 5:42 am |
  14. spangler

    "Did ye not know it is character which is judged and that love is never a sin?" HoeMowErectus 2:14

    July 2, 2012 at 3:20 am |
  15. Smeagel4T

    How many different religions does the IRS recognize in the US? Somewhere between 200 and 300. Every single one of them acting like THEY are the TRUE religion.

    July 2, 2012 at 3:15 am |
    • Humanist11

      It would be very logical to say that they all could not be correct. In fact only one could be correct. There is no evidence that any of them are correct. If there was then everybody would follow the one with clear evidence. They were mostly created to fill in the gap between the known science of the day (2000-4000 years ago) and what we didn't know. As science closes that gap steadily it clearly shows where the bible and other scripture are clearly wrong about our origins and other physical facts. If religion is wrong about so many facts then it would make sense to disregard them altogether. Their wrong teaching causes harm to millions of people around the world. Evolution has provided us with a moral compass that works very well and religion works hard to short circuit it. Good, moral people do not need a religion to be good, they only need to be born and raised by loving parents. I'm glad we had this little chat.

      July 2, 2012 at 5:15 am |
  16. ArdDruid

    """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"""

    and therein lies the rub MOST so called Christians don't believe in any of those ideas.

    July 2, 2012 at 2:34 am |
  17. Bootyfunk

    it matters a lot how religious a president is. he has the power to blow the entire world up x3. christians can't wait for the end of the world - so they can be whisked to a magical kingdom in the sky. the thought of some nutty religious zealot salivating at the thought of ushering in the end times is just plain scary.

    July 2, 2012 at 2:31 am |
  18. kelvin

    Yes he will. He also say suffer little children to come unto me, we are all God children there is no color in God sight only here on earth we see colors among our self , and he who with out sin cast the first stone.If your brother or sister is thirty give he or her a glass of water and they will do the same for you in return and yes he will support Obama care the more you give the more you will reap.What Obama going thorough right now will happen because he is doing a good job in God sight he just have to be strong he will be call all kinds of names but who God bless let no one curse may God bless you Mr Obama the president of this mighty nation and may God bless your family and God bless the people of USA.

    July 2, 2012 at 2:09 am |
  19. Cecilia Conley

    That was a great! I knew it but couldn't explain it very well. He is eloquent at times, and almost always as 'real' as Michelle. He had my vote before I saw this.

    July 2, 2012 at 2:08 am |
  20. Obama Gets It

    Great clip of Obama explaining what should be obvious.


    July 2, 2012 at 1:52 am |
    • Bootyfunk

      well said. i'd add a ton of other reasons, but well said.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:25 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.