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. KTinCA

    Are you crazy? Of course it matters. But the trick is to examine the candidate's deeds – how does his or her life exemplify the faith? The person's actions, outside of Church, are the important things. You can be a member of a Christian Church and be a lousy Christian. However, remember that churches/faiths are hospitals for imperfect sinners. Don't try to lay the groundwork for discounting a candidate's faith-based actions.

    July 11, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
  2. SoldierOfConscience

    Muslim vs Mormon. talk about choosing between the devil and the deep sea

    July 11, 2012 at 11:39 am |
  3. MarkinFL

    In the picture above it is apparent that an older person expressing ones faith is indistinguishable from an older person that has nodded off. Looks like a seen outside of a retirement center for ex-presidents.

    July 11, 2012 at 11:37 am |
  4. SoldierOfConscience

    'Prez' Obama bin Biden is the worst president in history. He should go back to hsi native Kenya and practice his muslum faith there.

    July 11, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • MarkinFL

      Your opinions are about as useful as your "facts". Clueless from the first word to the last.

      July 11, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  5. Jm

    Yes Religion does matter.

    July 11, 2012 at 11:29 am |
    • Kafir

      Yes, specifically, not having any.

      July 11, 2012 at 7:33 pm |
  6. MrLowe

    "His legacy is built on his New Deal, an array of programs that protected the poor and elderly from the abuses of unrestrained capitalism."

    "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."

    July 11, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  7. Amit-Atlanta-USA

    The President's faith may not matter.

    Agreed........in most cases EXCEPT.........

    As long as he's not a Muslim........for the very simple reason that Islam is NOT merely a religion but a way of life which has all components incl. governance, politics, economy in addition to theology and it's the duty of every Muslim to fight for those causes.

    In this context arguments of some (incl. CNN's own Mr. Fareed Zakaria) who misleadingly claim to be NON-Practicing Muslims/or Non-Religious, does NOT hold good for the simple reason that Islam does NOT consider anyone who does not follow its edicts as a Non-Muslim, and

    Many such people who have NOT officilally discarded their Muslim religion show sure straits of Muslim thinking.....again like Mr. Zakaria.

    Sure, there are exceptions considering threats to life as Islam explicitly allows stern punishment to people who swear from its path......e.g. Mr. Salman Rushdie, Wafa Sultan, Ayan Arsi Ali etc.

    July 11, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • why Can't they?

      Ever heard do a moderate Muslim...there are hundreds fo thousands of them right here in the United States...Ever heard fo the Sunni type of Saddam and now Assad...they are the presbeterian or Church of Christ or any liberal Chriatian type...

      Not all Muslims are out ot conquer the World... your unfounded fear of them is unbelievable for intelligent Americans...

      Just because of a few terrorists and 9/11 you now exist in the extreme ...exactly where the terrorists want you to be...

      Any Uslamic attacks lately? in Amercia that is? no not any .... but with the millions of Musliims surely at aleast a few woudl love to throw their life away with a suicide atack right?????
      NOT ANY!!! 🙂 🙂 🙂

      July 11, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  8. smkyqtzxtl

    Dave, I have to agree with you.

    July 11, 2012 at 10:19 am |
  9. daveinla

    Marxist do not belive in religion.

    July 11, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • why Can't they?

      Neither do capatilits since the bible condemns their actions ...Oh they get a priest to make them feel better... sort of like a pill for a headache 🙂 LOL 🙂

      July 11, 2012 at 11:31 am |
  10. independentlyowned

    People don't think Obama's Muslim simply because of hate. People have hated the president since the dawn of America. Some have been hated so much they were assassinated, but no one thought they were Muslim (or some other hated religion of the time). People think Obama's Muslim because of racism and ignorance. His middle name is Hussein and instead of realizing that Hussein is as common a name as John, they see his dark skin and assume he's Muslim.

    July 11, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      Plus the fact that his father was a Muslim along with many other members of his family. Oh, and he was schooled in a Muslim school in a Muslim Nation. Oh, and he has said that the sound of an Islamic prayer is the most beautiful thing he has ever heard. Gee, I don't know how people could be so confused.

      July 11, 2012 at 11:13 am |
  11. Mel

    There is no greater man than the one who humbly seeks God in his life...

    July 10, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
    • ME

      Well Said

      July 11, 2012 at 7:53 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      No man is fit to lead who has not yet learned how to serve.

      July 11, 2012 at 11:14 am |
    • wrolf

      I think the millions of people persecuted, tortured, and killed by religious officials over the centuries would disagree with this.

      July 11, 2012 at 11:23 am |
    • Barb F

      President Obama, regardless of what he chooses as his personal belief system is one who has realized empathy and kindness, generosity and sympathetic joy as well as equanimity as key to the well being of all regardless of personal beliefs or gender preferences, color or national origin. Now if he could just find a way to implement policy based on such liberty and the pursuit of happiness. he cannot do it alone. Vote Obama!

      July 11, 2012 at 11:33 am |
  12. Jesusisalive

    Of course the President's faith matters, you cannot be one person in the the presidency and another on Sunday. those who try to convince you that it is possible are just liers, like Clinton, Obama, Pelossi and the like.

    July 10, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • Afton1


      July 11, 2012 at 9:43 am |
    • nonbeliever

      What's ironic, is that you dog people that at least claim to believe in your jesus, but yet you probably have no problem voting for a man who believe jesus and satan are brothers. Morminism thought they claim to believe the bible, has nothing to do with christianity.

      July 11, 2012 at 10:48 am |

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    Global economic crisis
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    CNN WORLD report, in the war 6, 75,000 civilians killed, 7500 troops of USA and its allied forces killed 3 25 000 people wounded and $ 3.5 Trillion Dollar spent for the war. This spending of $ 3.5 Trillion Dollar is the main cause of action for the present economic crises prevailing all over the world.
    After winning the war against IRAQ, the United States of America’s President Mr. George W.Bush, also admitted the same fact, and he openly stated that the Intelligence agency misguided him.
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    International chamber of commerce life member
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    July 10, 2012 at 1:53 am |
  14. Jem Rose Koontz

    Religious beliefs are simply beliefs. Beliefs may be right or wrong. Religion should not have part in governing our country.

    July 9, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
    • wrolf

      exactly right. unfortunately most religious people believe the fallacy that their religion endows them and ONLY THEM with access to moral thought and action... paradoxically, a further point in favor of preventing contentious belief schemes from the governing realm.

      July 11, 2012 at 11:32 am |
  15. Mark

    Forcing a child into ANY RELIGION IS CHILD ABUSE.

    July 9, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • Arvoasitis

      You sound a little too judgmental; perhaps a little perspective will help. For example, the Zoroastrians have always opposed religious conversions seeing it as contrary to God's plan. They permit no conversions into Zoroastrianism and consider all conversions an evil; they believe their is only one God and think it best to find Him in their own religion. In Judaism, a child born of a Jewish mother is technically Jewish regardless of what faith they profess. Perahaps what you meant was that imposing specific religious beliefs on a child is child abuse.

      July 9, 2012 at 8:47 pm |
  16. Howard B. Hassman

    God only knows if they have any faith.... HH

    July 9, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • Hamrick

      That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrepect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular. -Abraham Lincoln. July 31, 1846.

      July 9, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
  17. n8r0n

    A President's faith is important, in my book. If a person believes in invisible space gods, mumbling to himself with his eyes closed, and chanting ancient poetry, he's established in my eyes that his (or her) intellectual capacity is insufficient to handle the complexities of leading the world's most powerful nation.

    Hence, the pickle we find ourselves in. Only the faithful get elected in this stupid country.

    July 9, 2012 at 4:05 am |
  18. outlets

    There are definitely lots of particulars like that to take into consideration. That may be a great level to convey up. I offer the ideas above as common inspiration but clearly there are questions just like the one you convey up where crucial thing will be working in trustworthy good faith. I don?t know if best practices have emerged round issues like that, but I'm positive that your job is clearly identified as a good game. Each boys and girls really feel the impression of just a second's pleasure, for the remainder of their lives. outlets

    July 9, 2012 at 12:21 am |
  19. Jesus is the most powerful figure known to mankind (Fact)

    Would you debate with someone who argues that the sky is yellow, up is down, left is right, a tree is a lamp, or black is white? You debating with this person would leave both parties looking like fools. Christians please stop wasting your time on people who argue that our world and galaxy was made from nothing/has no Creator. I honestly believe that many years ago no one predicted that the world would get bad to the point that people are debating that this perfect system of life is a coincidence. Christians dont indulge in foolishness you will be looked upon as a fool as well.

    July 8, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • jwt

      I'll agree that jesus is the most powerful fictional character.

      July 8, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • goonliving

      The Beatles were more famous

      July 8, 2012 at 8:01 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      John Lennon did not claim to be more famous, he claimed that the Beatles were more popular. He later clarified that he was expression incredulity that a music group such as the Beatles would commandeer more acclaim than some one as important as Jesus, or God as a person.

      July 9, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  20. Sick of Media Bias

    The majority of what is labeled "history" in this article is exactly the opposite. Abraham Lincoln stated that it was after visiting Gettysburg and giving his speech that he decided to fully follow Jesus Christ. George Washington was one of the most religious men in the nation's founding and stated that America could not be rightly governed without the Bible. Both men were definitely Christians.

    July 8, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      So? Whether or not they were Christian is immaterial. Their actions were based on what was beneficial to the country at the time, not on what "God said" they should do.

      July 8, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Right TT and given the choice, I would elect the candidate who espoused a dependency on a greater wisdom than man's to choose the best path.

      July 9, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
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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.