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. Dave

    But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Obama's faith is what ever gets him the most votes.

    July 8, 2012 at 10:00 am |
  2. Mark Palmer

    Pretty CLEAR HERE...Who is Spiritual and WHo is Not...

    July 8, 2012 at 3:45 am |
    • jwt

      It makes no difference who is and who is not.

      July 8, 2012 at 7:00 am |
  3. Martin P. Payan

    We have too much religion but not enough love, and respect for one another.

    July 7, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
    • buddycouch

      I wonder about people and their thought processes when I read an article such as this. I have known a few "religious nuts" in my day that listened to Christian music obsessively and quoted the Bible as if it was required by law, yet were the most corrupt evil humans I have ever known. They give good christians a bad name, a VERY bad name. People need to understand faith is a private matter and if someone wants to request help/information then its fine to express your personal beliefs if you choose too. The problem is self righteous people who more often than not have mental conditions such as ADHD or obsessive compulsive disorders. When people like this start carrying a religious book around there are going to be problems. It is just like with anything else. We all know "that guy" who knows it all and has done everything you have done and surpassed you 10 x over. People like this need extreme care when being involved in religious activities. They seem to take it upon themselves to be gods sword if there is one LOL.

      July 8, 2012 at 9:22 am |
  4. Martin P. Payan

    We have too much religion but not enough love, and respect for each other.

    July 7, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
  5. PrimeNumber

    There's a lot to be said for separation of church and state. Atheists and others moan about the church's not paying taxes. So here's the scenario: missiles from US warplanes killed entire Iraqi families at wedding ceremonies. Who bought those missiles? The church's don't get taxed so who did buy them? Well, that would have to be Joe Taxpayer, many of whom are atheists complaining about the violence of religion. By having separation of church and state, the state gets to take the entire blame for such attrocities, and Abu Ghraib. And the secular taxpayer is complicit.

    July 7, 2012 at 12:34 am |
    • Arvoasitis

      A number of points you mentioned could be discussed further. For example, churches are tax exempt (and therefore not complicit in military adventures) but church members are not. This is an issue for the Amish, for example, who are a strong fundamentalist pacifistic group who take Jesus' teaching seriously. Should they be exempt from that portion of their taxes that goes to the military? If so, should they pay that portion into the charity of their choice, or the government's choice?
      Another issue, at one time American soldiers had a right to refuse to fight on foreign soil. It played significant role in the War of 1812-14, for example, where in key invasion attempts of Canada, roughly half of the Americans exercised their right and refused to cross the border. Yet, the world is none the worse off for their decision. Why shouldn't that right not be returned to Americans today?

      July 7, 2012 at 9:06 am |
  6. Thomas Guerra

    Does this author know Nixon at all?! He got more done for the disadvantaged than some of the most left-leaning politicians in the past 50 years, and though clearly flawed, those many left-leaning acts supported by Nixon clearly shows that Nixon did in fact practice his religion.


    July 6, 2012 at 11:37 pm |
    • PrimeNumber

      I know some Vietnam vets who would vote for Nixon again. Why? Because Nixon brought them home. Heard of "Bush's War"? Well, why don't we ever hear of "Kennedy's War" or "Johnson's War?"

      July 7, 2012 at 12:28 am |
  7. Jack

    Hello folks. Everyone is invited to visit – thestarofkaduri.com

    July 6, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
  8. Coflyboy

    Anyone's faith, including the President's should not matter. The ability to do their jobs is what matters. I could care less if Romney is a Mormon or Obama is a muslim (I know he is really Christian, but I'll let you right-wingers wallow in that one).
    It doesn't matter because all politicians go to Hell for their lies, deceit, fraud, corruption and whatever other criminal activities they are involved with.

    July 6, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
  9. dacutter

    Why should his religion matter? It is a minor point, compared to the question of gays and lesbians

    July 6, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  10. mac101

    Well of course it matters in terms of getting elected – only a person who is perceived as a christian can get elected president in this country.

    Once men have been elected to the presidency, however, their 'faith' is redundant; the only guiding principle is to get elected again, whatever it takes.

    July 6, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  11. Bill Deacon

    Gospel Mt 9:9-13
    As Jesus passed by,
    he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post.
    He said to him, "Follow me."
    And he got up and followed him.
    While he was at table in his house,
    many tax collectors and sinners came
    and sat with Jesus and his disciples.
    The Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples,
    "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?"
    He heard this and said,
    "Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.
    Go and learn the meaning of the words,
    I desire mercy, not sacrifice.
    I did not come to call the righteous but sinners."

    July 6, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • jwt

      good point about how atheists are not sinners.

      July 6, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
  12. blink

    Why can't anybody see the difference between religion and faith?
    Kant said: Nature spread men all over the world and to prevent them from creating a comprehensive monarchy (which would lead them to a comprehensive tyranny), gave them different languages and different traditions and this led them to express their beliefs in different ways, namely, in different religions.
    This means that all religions share a common core, right? There's this image that comes to mind: two different religions are like two parts of a stepladder leading to God and the nearer they get to God, the more similar they become. So, how can we say: this is a true religion, this one is wrong? Simple: since religion is something that men created (religions, not faith), a true religion is one that, at his core, respects the human being and has his needs (rational, spiritual, physical ...) on his mind.
    This whole rant to say: someone that follows a different religion from yours or isn't religious at all can have faith, too. Faith in the human being and in its possibilities and this should be worthy enough of anyone's vote

    July 6, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • Wrenn_NYC

      Religion and Faith each of many different meanings.

      Anthropomorphizing 'Nature' and giving it a sentient purpose is probably not a good idea. Time and distance account for different languages (language drift has been proven) and differing traditions (often based on historical occurrances, both natural and man made)

      No Humanity shares a common core. Common ancestry, nothing more.

      Yet, many have said 'this is the one true religion' and say so to this day.

      You are, round about, advocating secular humanism.

      Unfortunately, believers of many faiths (or should I say 'subscribers to' many faiths) will exclude those that they think don't agree with what they believe in. Conversely, they will often include those who say the right things, with little, no, or even opposite actual evidence as to whether the individual agrees with them.

      July 6, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  13. Arvoasitis

    I suggest that the real religion of the stereotypical American is patriotism. A candidate for president does not need to be a recognized patriot but must be able to represent himself as a competent and trustworthy priest for patriotism. Neither an extreme war hawk nor a pacifist will have much of a chance; Americans prefer someone who speaks softly but carries a big stick.

    July 6, 2012 at 7:56 am |
    • Wrenn_NYC

      Patriotism and Nationalism are just two other social constructs that serve a similar purpose to one of Religion's main social purposes. Acceptance of another as 'one of us' without a great deal of empirical proof. THe average person feels more comfortable living along side of people they think are similar them.

      July 6, 2012 at 11:49 am |
  14. Smooth Criminal

    In America? Yes it dose.

    July 6, 2012 at 5:49 am |
  15. Jack

    Hello folks. Everyone is always welcome to visit – thestarofkaduri.com

    July 5, 2012 at 10:20 pm |
  16. Doctor

    Because if you're above 140 IQ, you're either atheist or agnostic.

    July 5, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
    • ninja guy

      Agreed there's just too much proof to back up athiests.

      July 6, 2012 at 9:19 pm |
    • billdeacons

      First time I've heard an atheist offer proof. Do you really want to go there?

      July 7, 2012 at 7:31 am |
    • Moby Schtick

      @All above

      I disagree, completely.

      July 7, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  17. RobertE

    JWT Can you read? The relevance to the comment is toward the question of the article. "Why a president’s faith may not matter".
    I don't believe in evolution, but I can believe your parents were monkeys. If ignorance is bliss, you are very blissful.

    July 5, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • jwt

      My aren't you rude.

      All religions are a matter of faith – some require a little more than others is all.

      I personally don't see muslims as any more or less a religion than christianity. Neither is real in my mind. Neither is moman. A president from any of the three – or any other religion for that matter can serve the country equally well if he has the real good of the country at heart and not just the advancement of his personal religion.

      July 5, 2012 at 8:24 pm |
  18. shep

    See the problem with Romney is the fact that the Mormon church isn't a religion, it's a cult. Does the average American realize that Mormons believe that when they die they go to planet Kolob, not heaven?? Yeah, I can't find planet Kolob in my Bible either.

    July 5, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
    • jwt

      Well it's as real a place as heaven.

      July 5, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
    • One one

      @jwt. Both are myths of equal unsubstantiated status.

      July 5, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
    • jwt

      like i said ...

      July 5, 2012 at 8:21 pm |
    • Peggy Munro

      It's not about being a Mormon. It's about being Mitt. John Huntsman is also a Mormon but the difference between the two is as wide as the Atlantic.

      July 6, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • ninja guy

      Hey shep I don't think u can find any planet in your 2000 year old book but that's just becuase its outdated.what'd the differance between a made up planet and a made up destination?

      July 6, 2012 at 9:22 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      The only practical difference between a cult and religion is the amount of followers.

      July 6, 2012 at 9:23 pm |
    • lilly

      The truth is there is NO heaven or Planet Kolob. All a bunch of cults.

      July 8, 2012 at 12:56 am |
  19. RobertE

    If religion doesn't matter, How long do you think it will be before a Muslim, or a member of Islam would be elected President. Mormons and Islam have 2 things in common:
    1. They recognize Jesus, but don't follow his teachings
    2. They are both led by false prophets Muhammad and John Smith

    July 5, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • jwt

      Neither point is relevant to anything.

      July 5, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
    • The Old Wolf

      I would vote for a Muslim president faster than you can say "I'm a closed-minded bigot" if I were convinced he was a man of integrity whose goal was to build a world that works for everyone, with no one left out. And it's Joseph Smith, not John.

      July 5, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
    • ninja guy

      And three Jesus is just as fictional.I would vote for a budist a Mormon an islamist and a Jew.but I would nvr vote for a Christian.Rick santorum permanently ousted that vote

      July 6, 2012 at 9:26 pm |
  20. quacknduck

    If the Kennedy family had not been Catholic, there would not have been a Kennedy-Cardinal Cushing-Diem’s brother (a Catholic priest) connection which lead to the ‘Friends of Vietnam” organization led by Senators John Kennedy and MIke Mansfield which led to the US support for the Diem political organization in South Vietnam and was the foundation for a major commitment of the US to South Vietnam.

    July 5, 2012 at 4:24 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.