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. effelbee

    The Founding Fathers built this country's principles not on religion but RELIGIOUS TOLERANCE. Only some of that principle is shown in these comments.

    July 1, 2012 at 8:24 am |
    • FloydZepp

      The "Founding Fathers" didn't build this country. The East India Tradning Company did and it wasn't for religious reasons. At the English weren't the only people "building America". You people know nothing of actual history.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:26 am |
    • TexanSwagger86

      'tip my hat'

      July 1, 2012 at 8:32 am |
  2. Paul

    CNN stop being the media wing of the socialist/no religion government that is slowing taking over. Be a solution CNN, rather than the problem.

    July 1, 2012 at 8:22 am |
    • No Difference

      The point is that piety by itself does not make a good leader. Faith without works is dead.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:24 am |
    • Bootyfunk


      you are insane. CNN kisses up to christians constantly. they NEVER right a fair article. they always tip toe around the religious, afraid to offend. just look down the list at the ridiculous stories. "would jesus support health care reform?" worthless christian pandering.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:28 am |
    • FloydZepp

      Learn to live with it. Christianity – as a religion is dead already – you worship Mamon through Prosperity Gospel now.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:29 am |
    • Josh

      Bootyfunk is a cyber-bully.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:33 am |
    • stopthemadness

      Why are tools like you allowed to breathe? How many times does it have to be said Obama is not a socialist. The national Socialist Party has denounced anything Obama does saying clearly Obama is no where near a socialist. But hey if you want to be an uneducated tool who is wrong about everything you post on this board so be it.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:34 am |
    • Mop

      If you dont like the message, shoot the messenger.
      If CNN didnt have these kinds of stories, what would you gripe about ?

      July 1, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  3. Momma

    Keep your head in the sand. Nothing to read or see here. Move on.

    July 1, 2012 at 8:22 am |
  4. lilyq

    "Piety and perfomance don't always match"

    So, it's alright if a politician says they are going to do/be something and fail as long as God isn't mentioned. Got it.

    July 1, 2012 at 8:21 am |
  5. Steve S

    Just because Christians have make mistakes as Presidents does not mean it doesn't matter! Heck, the reason that some sees the need for a savior in their life is because of the mistakes they make. A true Christian knows they need Jesus, the Son of God, who is the only perfect man whoever lived. Take God out of this country and we will fall, plain and simple. So if you see that Christian presidents who have God make mistakes, how much more those without? We will only accelerate our path down. Their are many evil forces out there.

    July 1, 2012 at 8:20 am |
    • FloydZepp

      Fail? Too funny! Christianity has nothing to do with success of a Nation – look at China. They own us.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:24 am |
    • TexanSwagger86

      How will we fall?

      July 1, 2012 at 8:25 am |
    • Bootyfunk

      yeah, jesus seems real 'perfect' here as he promotes slavery:

      Luke 12:37-38
      37 "Blessed are those slaves whom the master will find on the alert when he comes; truly I say to you, that he will gird himself to serve, and have them recline at the table, and will come up and wait on them.
      38 "Whether he comes in the second watch, or even in the third, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.”

      and here as jesus cruelly refuses to help a crying woman who's daughter is demon-possessed. then he calls her people dogs - nice racism. he tells her he is only here to help jews. once she agrees she is a dog, jesus heals her daughter. so basically, if you beg and degrade yourself, jesus will help you.

      Mathew 15:21-28
      21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.
      22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
      23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
      24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
      25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
      26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
      27 “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

      sounds like jesus needs a lesson in modern ethics.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:25 am |
    • Josh

      Bootyfunk denies slavery every time he/she buys something made in China, the slave-wage capital.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:34 am |
    • Fearless Freep

      *** Their are many evil forces out there.

      They are called "Republicans".

      July 1, 2012 at 10:43 am |
  6. Jonathan

    Whether you are president or whatever or lot in life – we are all sinners – victims of the sin nature. I have a bigger problem with politicians or anyone who professes to be a Christian and does not live it. In politics, I see this in Republican candidates more than Democrats. I think politics corrupts because of the money and power available to those who serve. We are a country that is run by huge corporate lobbyists and career politicians (hell bent on enriching themselves – regardless of party) and in 20 years there will be no middle class in the US. In the end, the Bible sums it up for the all generations – 'For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few'. Few is the key word. I.E. There will be many so called Christians disappointed on judgement day. "Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’"

    July 1, 2012 at 8:19 am |
    • Bootyfunk

      'sin' is a disgusting concept. it promotes guilt, fear and ignorance. the idea that we are all inherently sinners is an example of christian brainwashing.

      leave the cult. think for yourself.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:21 am |
    • Josh

      Bootyfunk is a cyber-bully who likes to name-call those who are different from him/her. Probably safe to assume Bootyfunk picks on the GLBT community, or kids with Down Syndrome as well. A cyber-bully is a cyber-bully is a cyber-bully.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:37 am |
    • Fearless Freep

      Catholic church tells me i am born with sin.
      Catholic church tells me Jesus died for my sins.
      So whats it gonna be ?
      Cant they make up thier minds ?
      Nice to have it both ways.
      There is no such thing as sin.

      July 1, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  7. Really?

    These comment boards crack me up sometimes. They might as well lower the voting age to 6 or 7 because the majority of people aligned with the two major parties generally act that age anyway. Everything is always the Dem's fault to Republicans, and vice versa. The voting population needs to wake up and realize that BOTH parties aren't exactly doing the general public any favors, and vote for ideal CANDIDATES, and not political parties.

    July 1, 2012 at 8:19 am |
  8. AntiquedFarmer

    This article is the biggest load of far fetching imaginative BS that I have ever had the displeasure of reading. America is the home of the free because of the brave therefore free from religious persecution. What I would like to know is if these "presidential scholars" are being paid with our tax dollars to sit around and create theories or if they are being backed by a terrorist group! Oh and @bootyfunk there is no way "the pres" can push that little button because there is this thing called checks and balances- try high school history.

    July 1, 2012 at 8:19 am |
  9. John Smith

    One for the road...LOL

    A little common sense before election day
    *THE PLAN*
    Back off and let those men who want to marry men to marry men.
    Allow those women who want to marry women to marry women. …
    Allow those folks who want to abort their babies to abort their babies.
    In three generations, there will be no Democrats.
    Damn – I love it when a plan comes together

    July 1, 2012 at 8:17 am |
    • FloydZepp

      The NASCAR set will perish from brain atrophy first. Love it when stupid kills its own.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:18 am |
    • JD

      I don't think that was a democrat senator tapping his toes in a restroom in Maryland trying to attract gays, LOL. Those who have logs in their eyes should not look at splinters in others.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:33 am |
    • Fearless Freep

      Sorry Idiot.
      All gay babies come from straight parents.
      Try again moron.

      July 1, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  10. bill

    Obama would have never been elected if he admitted he was muslim. He and Michelle have no respect for our flag or our way of life.

    July 1, 2012 at 8:15 am |
    • FloydZepp

      Except he's not a Muslim.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:16 am |
    • FloydZepp

      By the way, its not YOUR way of life. You don't own America.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:17 am |
    • Michael

      What proof do you have of this? And whose way of life are you referring to?

      July 1, 2012 at 8:21 am |
    • common sense

      and he and his wife do love the flag and the country

      July 1, 2012 at 8:25 am |
    • effelbee

      The President is NOT a muslim. But so what if he was? The US is a nation of religious tolerance, as in I will tolerate yours and you will tolerate mine.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:26 am |
    • jnpa

      What is meant by "our way of life?" A Christian life where everyone goes to church on Sunday and supports a Christian for president? But at the same time, has little use for those less fortunate, not willing to help your fellow man, not in favor of helping the sick and elderly, calling people "socialists" who are concerned with others and their well being, not willing to accept another's point of view or life style, wanting it all their way...no help, no concerns, no compromise. Ah yes, a Christian conservation fighting a nasty campaign to the bitter end...

      July 1, 2012 at 8:31 am |
  11. No Difference

    This isn't really a black and white issue. There is a full range from rabidly religious to rabidly atheistic. There is a full range from pure evil to pure good. The two axes are orthogonal, and history has shown you can easily find examples of people in all four quadrants.

    July 1, 2012 at 8:14 am |
  12. JUDA

    I like your format but would like to see the comments print larger. Difficult to easily and quickly read. Thanks for the consideration.

    July 1, 2012 at 8:14 am |
  13. Dan586

    It's people with strong religious faith that hurt and hold people back. Religion is the oldest form of brain washing and mind control.

    July 1, 2012 at 8:14 am |
  14. drinky

    That religious affiliation still (or ever should have) matters is a cosmic joke. Only three or four presidents were worth their weight in spit, and none of those in the last 70 years. Look at all these supposed pious "Christian" presidents...some of them have been the biggest slime bags EVER to hold the Oval Office. Washington really screwed this nation with his "so help me god" foolishness and other than attending a play, Lincoln's biggest mistake was his half-hearted god reference in the G-Burg address which lunatic god freaks have been hanging their hats on ever since.

    July 1, 2012 at 8:13 am |
    • No Difference

      You set a pretty high bar for presidents! Imagine how miserable your life would be without spit.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:21 am |
  15. Rick

    Especially with this Muslim President.

    July 1, 2012 at 8:11 am |
    • FloydZepp

      Except he's not Muslim no mater how many times you yammer it.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:13 am |
    • cykill

      especially when you have to say you believe that there is an invisible man living in the sky to be president...

      July 1, 2012 at 8:13 am |
    • dnick47

      Hey Rick. He's not a Muslim and he's not an anti-Christ like Romney either. Republicanss can only sspew forth hate and fear... fear and hate.... your Party is the most anti-Americaan part this country has ever seen. No agenda, no vision, nothing to add to the ppublic debate except "No!" and hate and fear. What a bunch of loosers.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:18 am |
    • No Difference

      Except that the whole point is that it shouldn't matter if he is a Muslim.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:19 am |
    • The Watcher

      Did you even read the column? The guy clearly states that Obama is christian. Romney is Mormon and probably has 3 other wives somewhere and he'll move all of them into the White House wihile making his fortune off the middle-class.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:37 am |
    • Rick

      Hey dnick47, I'm a registered Democrat but this President has let this country go to hell in a hand basket and he will not be getting my vote again in November.

      July 1, 2012 at 9:45 am |
    • Fearless Freep

      Six year old troll with his finger up his azz.

      July 1, 2012 at 10:50 am |
  16. Josh

    "BUT presidential scholars SAYS we shouldn’t – because piety and performance don’t always match."

    Seriously CNN... how many grammatical errors can you fit into a front-page headline piece?

    July 1, 2012 at 8:11 am |
  17. FloydZepp

    Of course, "Christianity" in America today certainly isn't based on any worship of Christ now. They worship Mammon through Prosperity Gospel now baby!

    July 1, 2012 at 8:10 am |
    • pablonatl

      I agree most "christians" are anything but. The church today worships christianity not Christ. If we did we wouldnt
      recongnize this place anymore.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:20 am |
  18. John Smith

    CNN and the liberal mass media was, and is, a creator of disinformation. If you have control of the information, and your good at deception, you will gain control of the masses. Remember 1984? George Orwell put this out decades ago as a fictional story, but whose laughing now?

    P.S. Knuckleheads, I never said anything of the kind your eluding too. YOU JUST ASSUMED THAT! Shows your level of brainwashing ......... lol.

    It is always amusing when people think that the bible is non-fiction.

    July 1, 2012 at 7:44 am | Report abuse |
    Sane Person
    The "End of times" has been "near" since day 1.

    July 1, 2012 at 7:44 am | Report abuse |
    One one
    How do we know YOU are not a false prophet ?

    July 1, 2012 at 7:47 am | Report abuse |

    July 1, 2012 at 8:09 am |
    • Fearless Freep

      *** CNN and the liberal mass media ....

      You lost it right there.
      Most of the media is owned by conservatives.
      There is this little thing called google.
      You can learn much instead spouting lying garbage.

      July 1, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  19. Arlen Crawford

    Dana, bootyfunk and all you other non-believers, what is the point of your constant tirades against Christianity? Are you bored with nothing else to do? When it comes time to make major decisions, I am glad that our president, whoever he is, believes in God. Other people must be too. We've never had a non-believer in office before.

    July 1, 2012 at 8:09 am |
    • concerned scientist

      We've never had a present who SAID they were an non-believer before. Many of Founding Fathers were Deists and be considered agnostic by today's hyper-religious society. Generally, I will vote against any candidate who uses their religion like a weapon since religion is the enemy of the mind.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:27 am |
    • Fearless Freep

      The Republican version of history, is not history.
      You say people come on here with nothing better to do,
      so what are you doing here ?
      You are not going to change anybodys mind so you are just
      as guilty of wasting time................Moron.

      July 1, 2012 at 10:56 am |
  20. Papa

    No it doesn't really matter, except in the case of Romney. Do we really want a president who devotes himself to a religion which is based on a scripture that was written down by a guy who stuck his head inside a tophat, then dictated the scripture he claimed magically appeared inside the tophat to another guy ? (and the other guy was coincidentally was a book publisher) Dum dum dum dum dum dum

    July 1, 2012 at 8:09 am |
    • You Don't Say?

      Nah, it's not going to matter if it's a Mormon either.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:48 am |
    • Fearless Freep

      I dont care that Romney is a mormon.
      He is a liar.
      Try getting a christian to vote for him.

      July 1, 2012 at 11:00 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.