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. Kindness

    This is my experience... Thank you.

    MY personal testimony.
    A thought to consider without an ego response

    I Accepted Jesus christ as my lord and saviour. You never know how soon is too late. Transcend the worldly illusion of enslavement.
    The world denounces truth....

    Accepting Jesus Christ (for me) resulted in something like seeng a new colour. You will see it .....but will not be able to clearly explain it to anyone else..... Its meant to be that way to transend any selfism within you.

    Also... much the world arranges "surrounding dark matter into something to be debated" in such a way that protects/inflates the ego.

    The key is be present and transcend our own desire to physically see evidence. We don't know anyways by defending our own perception of dark matter.

    Currently.... most of us are constructing our own path that suits our sin lifestyle. Were all sinners. Knowing that we are is often an issue. But both christians and non are sinners. Even once we are saved by christs merciful grace we will still experience adversity to mold us to adhering to the truth.
    We will slip... But not fall of the ship ...carrying us onward to perfection in christs grace.

    We don't like to Let go and let god. We want control to some degree. This is what Jesus asks us to do. "Follow me".
    It's the hardest thing to do... but is done by letting the truth of scripture lead you (redemptive revelation)... as I said .

    Try reading corinthians and see if it makes sense to you. Try it without a pre conceived notion of it being a fairy tale.
    See the truth...
    do we do what it says in todays society... is it relevant... so many have not recently read and only hinge their philosophy on what they have heard from some other person...which may have been full of arogance pride or vanity..

    Look closely at the economy ponzi, look at how society idolizes Lust , greed , envy, sloth, pride of life, desire for knowledge, desire for power, desire for revencge,gluttony with food etc .

    Trancsend the temporal world.

    Just think if you can find any truth you can take with you ....in any of these things. When you die your riches go to someone who will spend away your life..... You will be forgotten.... history will repeat iteslf.... the greatest minds knowledge fade or are eventually plagerzed..... your good deeds will be forgotten and only give you a fleeting temporary reward . your learned teachings are forgotten or mutated..... your gold is transfered back to the rullers that rule you through deception. Your grave will grow over . This is truth .

    Trancsend your egoism and free yourself from this dominion of satan. Understand you are a sinner and part of the collective problem of this worldly matrix... Repent.... Repent means knowing (to change) The Holy spirit (within) will convict you beyond what you think you can do by yourself. Grace is given to those who renounce the world. That are" in" the world but not "of " the world.

    Evidence follows faith. Faith does not follow evidence..... Faith ....above reason in Jesus Christ.

    Faith comes by Reading or Hearing the word of god from the bible . Ask Jesus in faith for dicernment and start reading the new testament... You will be shocked when you lay down your preconceived notions and ....see and hear truth ... see how christ sets an example ... feel the truth....

    Read Ecclesiastes. Read romans or corinthians.

    You cant trancend your own egoism by adapting a world philosophy to suit your needs. Seek the truth in Christ.

    Sell all your cleverness and purchase true bewilderment. You don't get what you want ....you get what you are by faith above reason in christ.

    I promise this has been the truth for me. In Jesus christ .

    Think of what you really have to lose. ...your ego?

    Break the Matrix of illusion that holds your senses captive.

    once you do . you too will have the wisdom of God that comes only through the Holy Spirit. Saved By grace through Faith. Just like seeing a new colour.... can't explain it to a transient caught in the matrix of worldly deception.
    You will also see how the world suppresses this information and distorts it

    You're all smart people . I tell the truth. Its hard to think out of the box when earthly thinking is the box.
    I'ts a personal free experience you can do it free anytime . Don't wait till you are about to die.. START PUTTING YOUR TREASURES WHERE THEY REALLY MATTER >
    Its awsome and It's just between you and Jesus

    my testimony

    Romans 10:9

    "If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved

    July 28, 2012 at 10:44 am |
  2. a12yearold

    sleepy presidents

    July 25, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
  3. Jeremy Ringley

    I'd prefer a president with faith in logic and reason.

    July 19, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  4. papa

    It matters in the case of Romney, I want as president with a bit more sense and logic not to believe in a religion which is based on a guy who back around 1840 stuck his head into a 'magic tophat' and dictated the so-called scripture he claimed he saw materializing inside the hat to another guy.

    July 19, 2012 at 7:59 am |
  5. NativeUSA

    What faith? Faith in Karl perhaps...................Karl Marx.

    July 18, 2012 at 9:54 pm |
    • davedave2

      Rush called – he needs you to kiss his but while he has some time between divorces and oxycontin abuse

      July 19, 2012 at 10:59 am |
  6. UK Dave & my fellow scientists

    ..I give you ALL HOPE !!!! 🙂
    ..Ever heard of PRODIGAL?

    July 18, 2012 at 9:32 pm |
  7. 1BigAssMstake

    A presidents belief in God does not matter? C'mon man, Seriously!

    July 18, 2012 at 8:26 pm |
  8. BJust

    Do atheists have enough restrain in them to stay away from offending others? Do religious people commit crimes? Does everyone sin?
    I think we need a Christian president here b/c most of the people want this. That's what the democracy is about – the will of majority. And minorities have to respect that, unless they want to live under a dictatorship.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
    • Religion is the downfall of society

      and who says that a christian president is what the "majority" wants? I would be willing to bet that christians aren't the majority...they just scream and moan louder than other people because they feel the need to be heard. The president's faith has nothing to do with how well they will perform in office, and since there should be a separation of church and state in government the religion of the president shouldn't impact any decisions made.

      Religion is a scam used to make money, put certain people in power to push the agenda of a specific religion, etc. It's a way to brainwash the masses into not thinking critically about their environment. the phrase god did it is never a good thing to believe. Think for yourself, believe in yourself. that is the only way to have true happiness in this life. If there's nothing more after you die, then who cares?

      Do you believe in ghosts? Do you believe in angels? Do you believe in demons? If you can't answer yes to all 3 then you are truely brainwashed by your religion into believing certain magic sky fairies exist and not others.

      July 18, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
  9. Phil

    A president's personal conviction and his responsibility to act as leader of a country that has diverse beliefs must make decisions that promote coexisting as peacefully as possible. Jesus said,"Let the wheat and the tares grow together"
    Mat 13:25 KJV – But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way.
    Mat 13:30 KJV – Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.

    July 17, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
    • Jayden

      Brain FadeSeptember 7, 2011 There are too many variables to anwesr your question.The viscosity of the meat is important how much fat is there, how much gristle is there?Further, it depends on what the final use is. Sausage stuffing requires a different grind than hamburger, etc.Well you need to first figure out how much fat and gristle there is in your meat. Then you need to decide what your ultimate goal is. Are you making sausage, hamburger or what? Narrow down your variables and we can let you know how many times to put it through your meat chopper grinder.

      July 29, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  10. petemg

    Why do you people want to remove God from America. You people think He does not exist so why do you fear Him. Is it because you would then have to be responsible for your actions.

    July 17, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • Katie

      It's not that we (non-Christian/non-religious people) want to remove religion from America, it's that one person's religious beliefs shouldn't affect how likely they are to get a job. Any job. The presidency included. Who cares what Mitt or Obama believes in? So long as they don't push their religions on us, then what does it matter?

      Also, just because someone isn't a Christian doesn't mean they don't believe in God.

      July 19, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  11. petemg

    This nation was founded for freedom of religion. Because of Christianity you do not have to practice if you so wish. That is something between you and God. Obama started this war on religion when he declared THIS IS NOT A CHRISTIAN NATION. Obama classified himself a Christian but does he practice the belief. He says he is not Muslim but does he not protect Muslims in many ways.

    July 17, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
  12. Wendy

    Its not their faith but it would be their lack of that would matter to me. All you Atheists really are full of yourselves. You are such a small minority in this country yet you think the rest of us are stupid. We are not stupid, you are arrogant. "its vannity to force another man to belive your way"...its not us trying to make you live our way, it is you trying to strip the word of God from everything. So yes, if a Presidential candidate doesnt believe in God, there would be no way heck I would vote for him or her.

    July 17, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • Who invited me?

      one can only "strip the word of god" if the word of god was incorrectly put there in the first place. for example the unconst i t utional change to "under god"in the pledge of allegience (which now excludes patriots because of the religious reference), or the changed national motto to in god we trust (which is a lie). Stop tryinig to put god everywhere, and we won't have to remove it.

      July 17, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • Liam

      Wendy I somewhat agree with you. Im an athiest myself but I get a rush of shame whenever one of us is out there shouting thir head off about how all religion is evil. Do I beleive in god? No. Do I judge other who do? Heck no. But what you said about no electing an athiest president purely on his lack of faith i beleive is unfair. Religion does add a bit of biased to one's point of view, and I think if the U.S Government dropped this whole religion craze we would be alot better off. It's unfair that gays can't get married and women have to go out of state in most cases to get an abortion. So what if the bible says in not allowed, it says alot of things like how women should please there man every day. Do I hate religion? No. Do I think we would be better off without it? Yes. Am I better than a single person reading this because I don't beleive in god. Of course I'm not, but your not better than me because you do.

      July 17, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • Nate

      There are actually more atheists/agnostics than Jews, Hindus, and Muslims in the US combined.....

      I'm atheist..but I don't hate Christians..or any religion There are retarded atheists..just like there are retarded Christians..but, I'm gonna do what you did and just generalize all christians as abortion clinic bombing, backwards, bible-thumpers....

      July 17, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
  13. Eric

    When mentioning Mormonism, I wish writers would include the fact that Mormons recognize Jesus Christ as having atoned for the sins of mankind, and being the savior of the world. So many people don't even know that basic doctrine of the LDS church.

    July 17, 2012 at 11:58 am |
  14. UK Dave & my fellow scientists


    July 16, 2012 at 9:25 pm |
  15. UK Dave & my fellow scientists


    July 16, 2012 at 9:18 pm |
    • mafia don

      Am I being wrecked by simplicity? 🙁

      July 16, 2012 at 9:20 pm |
    • mafia don

      Simplicity wrecks every crime! 🙁 🙂

      July 16, 2012 at 9:23 pm |
  16. trekie70

    For too long conservatives have believed that belief in God makes one a good President. 8 years of W. should have put an end to this myth but yet it persists. I, for one, do not base my vote on a candidate's belief at all. I don't care if they attend church or not, as attending church doesn't make you a Christian. Rather, I observe their actions and rhetoric is a far better indication of the kind of leader they are. That's how a candidate should be evaluated.

    Obama/Biden 2012!!!!!!!!!!!!

    July 16, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  17. What

    wow I read this amazing thing on SFANDE.com

    July 15, 2012 at 8:17 pm |
    • Sri

      NagasakiSeptember 11, 2011 Manytimes? If you grind many times, it will become gruel. Grinder also shulod not get spoiled by many times usage.You will be making gruel now ground meat if you do it too many times. You shulod not be damaging your meat mincer either way though.

      July 29, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
  18. Jesus is the most powerful figure known to mankind (Fact)

    Belief is based off of opinion, it can either be true or false. Atheist and some scientist believe there is no Creator (God), but creation created itself. Christians know that there is a God due to the evidence all around us. There is a difference between believing and knowing. Scientist cannot give solid physical evidence proving that love exists. Yet doesnt pretty much everyone know it exist? There is less evidence that love exist then there is evidence that God exist. There are physical things all around us proving God's existence. What evidence can anyone prove that love exist? So who is blind Christians or atheist? The answer is crystal clear. Just a reminder John 8:47-"He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God." John 15:19-"If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you."

    July 15, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
    • stan

      Well said, and God bless ya.

      July 19, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
  19. allenwoll

    Separate Church and State - PERIOD ! ! !

    July 15, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • Wendy

      It is separate you 1D10T! God god god god god god god....free speech! Freedom of religion! You infringe on my rights every single day when you say I am not allowed to pray at a sporting event. So your little minority should trump what the rest of us beleive....wow, arrogant much!

      July 17, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
  20. PraiseTheLard

    Of course it matters! If he's truly serious about his religion, that means that he's intellectually handicapped...

    July 15, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • Mike

      Ahh Atheism... the only religion in the world where, just by believing it, you can automatically be smarter than 80% of the human race, regardless of their IQ relative to yours. Max Planck? Werner Heisenberg? Morons... they weren't atheists. Obviously, you're much more intelligent than they are.

      July 17, 2012 at 1:00 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.