Religion, readability and the presidency: a historic combination
Presidential displays of piety, like this, are common and historians say they make presidents more relatable.
February 7th, 2013
06:00 AM ET

Religion, readability and the presidency: a historic combination

By Dan Merica, CNN
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Washington (CNN) – Employing faith, whether calling for nationwide prayer or healing the nation by quoting scripture, is a presidential tradition as old as the office itself.

The nation’s first president, George Washington, was also the first to call for a National Day of Prayer, one of “fasting, humiliation and prayer” to “acknowledge the gracious interpositions of Providence.”

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in his famous fireside chats, promised “salvation” from the economic doldrums of the Great Depression. And President Barack Obama, in the aftermath of the tragic shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, quoted scripture as a way to comfort those grieving.

Obama will continue this tradition on Thursday when he attends the National Prayer Breakfast, a longstanding Washington event that has hosted every president since Dwight Eisenhower.

The breakfast is organized by The Fellowship Foundation, a nonprofit religious organization, and is designed to bring together leaders from the political, religious and business realm.

Obama has participated in the breakfast each year of his presidency. Last year he used his remarks to discuss his personal faith. “I wake up each morning and I say a brief prayer, and I spend a little time in scripture and devotion,” he said.

Religious and presidential scholars told CNN that while some critics may question whether events like the prayer breakfast blur the line between separation of church and state, the use of religious language helps presidents connect with the people they were elected to lead.

“I think that it is pretty clear that presidents have employed religious terms, not just in times of tragedy, but throughout their career, in order to seem more relatable and a little bit more like their constituencies,” said Darrin Grinder, co-author of “The Presidents and Their Faith.”

“We like to see our presidents as reflecting our values and actually being better than we are,” he said. “As a largely Christian nation in terms of self-identification, even though we don’t talk about the Bible, when the president speaks in that kind of language, it is a better version of ourselves.”

The most common use of religion by presidents is after national tragedies or when the country faces difficult times.

George W. Bush used scripture and religious language to comfort the nation after the September 11 terrorists attacks; Bill Clinton did, too, after the Oklahoma City bombing, as did Ronald Reagan after the space shuttle Challenger explosion.

Using scripture this way, said Richard Norton Smith, a professor at George Mason University, fulfills the “emphasizer in chief, mourner in chief, grief counselor in chief” role of the presidency.

But use of religion has also changed over the years, Smith said. The nation’s founding fathers “did not spend the revolution on their knees praying to an anthropomorphic god.” Instead, he said, they used religion as “an effective tool of state,” but were generally mum about their own personal religious beliefs.

“At that time, there was still a fear that we could become a religious state,” Grinder said.

The use of faith began to change around the turn of the 20th century. During the Depression, Roosevelt used religious language and faith in an attempt to uplift people.

Then there was the presidency of John F. Kennedy and questions about whether a Catholic would follow the Constitution or the pope. Kennedy delivered a speech just weeks before the 1960 election, stating he believed “in a president whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation, or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.”

Kennedy’s speech was ironic. Though it quashed concerns about his faith and helped lead to his presidential victory, it also made it normal for a president to publicly address his faith, the opposite of what Kennedy’s speech intended.

The “big sea change,” as Grinder put it, was with President Jimmy Carter and the 1976 election.

Carter is widely considered the most outwardly religious man to occupy the Oval Office. While in office, Carter was known for quoting scripture, talking about his Baptist faith and continuing to teach a Sunday school class during his presidency.

Before he was president, Carter also used to “testify” his faith by going house to house.

“Hi! I’m Jimmy Carter, a peanut farmer. Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior,” he would ask, according to the book “The Faiths of the Postwar Presidents: From Truman to Obama.”

Reagan, the man who beat him in 1980, would cement the impact that faith would have on the presidency. According to Grinder, Reagan was able to tap into the idea of the United States being a chosen country, a promised land.

“That rhetoric was very helpful and hopeful to people compared to what they had been experiencing since Watergate,” he said.

Since then, Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama have regularly professed their faith in public and quoted scripture in speeches.

When asked why he was a Christian at a backyard town hall in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 2010, Obama said he was “a Christian by choice.”

Obama went on to say that he “came to my Christian faith later in life and it was because the precepts of Jesus Christ spoke to me in terms of the kind of life that I would want to lead — being my brothers’ and sisters’ keeper, treating others as they would treat me.“

For Smith, this sort of overt religious identification is standard for today’s presidency.

“The fact that a president alludes to biblical passages or quotes the Bible or overt expression of religious faith, is par for the course,” Smith concluded. “It can be both a public ministry of healing and a personal expression of faith that however bad things are now, they are part of a large plan that ultimately is better.”

- Dan Merica

Filed under: Barack Obama • Belief • Faith • Politics • United States

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  1. Science

    Free speech helps educate the masses................POLITICIANS too !

    Where do morals come from?

    By Kelly Murray, CNN


    Gravity is not up for debate !

    BY the way ...................Splat goes a fairy in the sky !...............bye bye tinker bell !

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    Apr. 25, 2013 — A strange stellar pair nearly 7,000 light-years from Earth has provided physicists with a unique cosmic laboratory for studying the nature of gravity. The extremely strong gravity of a massive neutron star in orbit with a companion white dwarf star puts competing theories of gravity to a test more stringent than any available before


    Hey James Madison................religion has none it looks like.............with the comments on this blog.

    The Big question is ETHICS ! does religion have any ?

    The Ethics of Resurrecting Extinct Species

    Apr. 8, 2013 — At some point, scientists may be able to bring back extinct animals, and perhaps early humans, raising questions of ethics and environmental disruption.


    April 30, 2013 at 4:16 pm | Report abuse |

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    Dinosaur Egg Study Supports Evolutionary Link Between Birds and Dinosaurs: How Troodon Likely Hatched Its Young


    And NO ANGELS the pope KICKED them OFF the TEAM last year !

    From Soup to Cells—the Origin of Life


    the wrong path is Adam and Eve !

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    Mar. 4, 2013 — The discovery and analysis of an extremely rare African American Y chromosome pushes back the time of the most recent common ancestor for the Y chromosome lineage tree to 338,000 years ago. This time predates the age of the oldest known anatomically modern human fossils.


    No god(s) needed or required to graduate from public schools in the US

    Remember : Adam had to POKE himself hard with his OWN BONE to create Eve.

    No god(s) needed................... Old. DNA works..................also catches crooks !

    Ancient DNA Reveals Europe's Dynamic Genetic History

    Apr. 23, 2013 — Ancient DNA recovered from a series of skeletons in central Germany up to 7,500 years old has been used to reconstruct the first detailed genetic history of modern Europe.


    Ca-nabis and Cannabinoids (PDQ®) – National Cancer Insti-tute


    Mar 21, 2013 – [1,2] These plant-derived compounds may be referred to as phytocannabinoids. ... have a protective effect against the development of certain types of tumors. ... In lung cancer cell lines, CBD upregulated ICAM-1, leading to ...

    Good stuff !

    The fact...............the earth is to old for this nonsemse ! Time to EVOLVE !

    Ancient Earth Crust Stored in Deep Mantle

    Apr. 24, 2013 — Scientists have long believed that lava erupted from certain oceanic volcanoes contains materials from the early Earth's crust. But decisive evidence for this phenomenon has proven elusive. New research from a team including Carnegie's Erik Hauri demonstrates that oceanic volcanic rocks contain samples of recycled crust dating back to the Archean era 2.5 billion years ago. Their work is published in Nature.


    For what...................... ? Make sure to read what the pope said !

    Where do morals come from?

    By Kelly Murray, CNN


    Learning is fun with facts.......................... and facts work when teaching children.

    Atheist Prof. Peter Higgs: Stop calling Higgs boson the ‘God particle’

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    Stephen Hawking is wrong, Pope Benedict XVI said Thursday – God did create the universe. The pope didn't actually mention the world-famous scientist, who argues in a book published last month that the laws of physics show there is no need for a supreme... \



    Heaven is 'a fairy story,' scientist Stephen Hawking says updated Tue May 17, 2011
    By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor The concept of heaven or any kind of afterlife is a "fairy story," famed British scientist Stephen Hawking said in a newspaper interview this week. "I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when...


    April 7th, 2012

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    The Jesus debate: Man vs. myth


    Make sure to read comments

    April 18, 2013 at 3:10 pm | Report abuse |

    Breaking News

    NASA: Three planets found are some of best candidates so far for habitable worlds outside our solar system.


    NASA: Mars could have supported life

    Star Dust we are



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    BBC. Planet of the Apemen. Battle for Earth 1. Ho-mo Erectus


    BACKFILL on E =mc2.....

    Einstein letter, set for auction, shows scientist challenging idea of God, being 'chosen'

    By Jessica Ravitz, CNN

    Decades before atheist scientist and author Richard Dawkins called God a "delusion," one world-renowned physicist – Albert Einstein – was weighing in on faith matters with his own strong words.

    “The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends,” Einstein wrote in German in a 1954 letter that will be auctioned on eBay later this month. "No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.”


    May 4, 2013 at 6:47 am | Report abuse |

    May 4, 2013 at 6:58 am |
  2. irrawibSeathe

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    April 9, 2013 at 11:24 pm |
  3. Reality

    Free Will and Future are inherent to all the thinking beings in the Universe. This being the case, it is not possible to alter life with prayers. Statistically, your request might come true but it is simply the result of the variability/randomness of Nature..

    So put down your rosaries and prayer beads and stop worshiping/revering cows or bowing to Mecca five times a day or going to worthless prayer breakfasts.

    Instead work hard at your job, take care of aging parents, volunteer at a soup kitchen, donate to charities and the poor and continue to follow the proper rules of your religion or any good rules of living as gracious and good human beings.

    February 8, 2013 at 8:09 am |
    • laststonecarver

      Does it say in the Special Book, that the followers should assimilate thought?
      If they think, then satan might get them. It is better to let someone else think for you.

      February 8, 2013 at 8:24 am |
  4. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Pray without ceasing,
    Prayer changes things

    February 8, 2013 at 7:13 am |
    • laststonecarver

      maybe this will ease your mind:
      Et introibo ad altare Dei: ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam
      but you're gonna have to stop praying to look up the translation.
      You may find a hidden treasure.

      February 8, 2013 at 7:50 am |
    • Jesus

      Prayer does not; you are such a LIAR. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs!.

      February 8, 2013 at 8:10 am |
    • ElmerGantry

      Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things stated once again and again and again over and over; Ad Nauseum,
      "Prayer changes things"

      Earlier I challenged you to do something positive for humanity by praying to stop the international forced sëx trafficking of an estimatated 800,000 people.

      To wit,

      I see your prayers to stop the estimated 800,000 people who are forced into sëx traficking across international borders have not worked.
      Wait since prayer changes things that means you have not been praying to stop this scourge on humanity.

      Why won't you pray to stop this repulsive human abuse?

      Matthew 21:21:
      I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.
      [A true believer can ask a mountain to throw itself into the sea, and it will be done. LOL!]

      Mark 9:23
      All things are possible to him who believes.

      Luke 1:37:
      For with God nothing will be impossible.

      John 14:12 Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father.

      John 14:13 And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.

      John 14:14 If ye shall ask anything in my name, I will do it.

      Nothing could be simpler or clearer than Jesus' promises about prayer in the Bible.
      So there you have it, straight from Jesus in the New Testament in clear, simple, and unequivocal terms.

      You are a sincere believer are you not?

      So go ahead and do it. Pray to god to eliminate forced international sëx traficking, bacterial disease, viral disease, genetic disorders, war, famine, etc.

      In Matthew 21:21 Jesus states; I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt you can do anything including making a mountain throw itself into the sea. You do have faith and do not doubt, RIGHT? So do it.

      Or perhaps your faith is not really up to snuff and you know that so you do not pray to end these human scourges but instead only come up with your usual wimpy statements and name calling.

      February 11, 2013 at 10:42 pm |
  5. laststonecarver

    Cogito ergo sum –
    A possible to do list, when you are actually experiencing Life:
    Come forth from your Self – become aware of your environment
    We are the many eyed creatures -behold the Awareness Chamber
    Carry the Eye – use your perception
    Behold the Imagination –
    Behold another life –
    Create thought –
    Create perception –
    Consider the alternatives –
    Love your enemies –
    this is just a short list, and there is so much more....
    You can think your way through the believer and non-believer Swamps. Its just a place, in Space and Time.
    Look into another beings' eyes. Take a big drink from the pool of their thoughts.
    Believer or Non-believer, we are still on this floating rock called Urth, together.
    No one person or group owns it.
    We all have access to Truth and Understanding and Happiness.
    And there is enough of these for Everyone.
    They are not held captive in an icon, or a book, or a Special place.
    Your mind though, can be held captive in an icon, or a book, or your Special Place.
    It is your mind. You inevitably decide.

    February 8, 2013 at 6:41 am |
  6. Mohammad A Dar

    Religions are best suited for retired people.

    February 7, 2013 at 9:36 pm |
  7. John Stefanyszyn

    Different presidents...different faiths...but one common way of life ...freedom of self rights.
    The USA is a one "religion" state, its religion is "freedom" of self rights, which declares that it is right to be free to worship any "god".
    But Christ Only will rule.

    February 7, 2013 at 7:47 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      "But Christ Only will rule.'

      What an odd statement...

      February 7, 2013 at 10:05 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      Rule what? The local insane asylum, most likely.

      February 7, 2013 at 10:09 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.