On the President’s Faith

Do you agree with the direction of this article?

John Blake, at CNN.com:

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.”…

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.



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  • Tom F.

    Interestingly, on a bit of a tangent, bias against atheists and agnostics may be intuitive, rather than learned. If religion helps people trust each other (because betrayers of social norms will be punished by God), than atheists will be viewed by most religious people as untrustworthy, possibly because people assume that atheists will have less qualms about violating those social norms.

    Even more interesting, atheists tend to find believers more trustworthy, perhaps for the same reasons.

    “Nonbelievers do not end up trusting their own kind more,” Shariff said. “While the degree to which someone’s belief in God — particularly the belief that being watched by this God makes people act better — did affect the strength of people’s distrust of atheists, those people who did not identify with a religion still tended to find believers to be more trustworthy.”

    http://projects.registerguard.com/web/newslocalnews/27259561-41/atheists-shariff-psychology-gervais-among.html.csp (The original article is in the Journal for Social and Personality Psychology.)

  • Jerry

    Always facinated on how some historians try to define Lincoln’s faith. We don’t have any direct quotes from Lincoln supporting Mr. Nielsens contention regarding Lincoln’s beliefs, and most of his own written obervations can be open to a number of interpratations. Perhaps it would be better not to make assumptions of this kind.

  • Patrick

    If you can access Lincoln’s private letters, it seems to me they are evidence he believed in the God of the Bible as opposed to being a deist or some pagan view of a god. He was fervent about the idea the civil war violence and destruction had God’s justice in it to bring about a “new&better day”, etc.

    The guy did some serious theological reflection privately. I ain’t a church member, so I guess using that guy’s logic I am also not a Christian although I worship Jesus as God.

  • Cal

    The problem is that most Americans want a president who worships god (a nebulous word if ever there was one). However the article asks an interesting question: Are we electing a High Priest? And if so, to what god?

    Columbia is that goddess in the pantheon of Democracy, Liberty, Consumerism etc. We don’t elect presidents who don’t have “American values” at heart. Of course no country has an elected leader with differing values. The difference is that America, embodying Empire/SuperPower/IndispensibleNation (Pick your terms), has a mythological narrative where the Founders seem to be Mediators and Prophets of the Divine Government. A consortium of Moseses receiving laws for an “Empire of Liberty” as Jeffeson called it or more blasphemously “the fulfillment of Christ” as JQ Adams said.

    Obama is said to be a Socialist, a Marxist, a Muslim, a Radical. And why are these bad and so damning? Because they’re unamerican. May as well be equivalent to Heathen or Heretic.

    This all comes from someone who partook of the cult and was ready to shed my blood for the remission of tyranny in the fight for democracy.


    Lincoln is a very confused character. Lincoln says to be converted as he is about to give his speech at Gettysburg. I don’t know what that means, but just because a leader mentions words like “God” “Christ” “Christian” “Bible” and others doesn’t mean they’re regenerate followers of the Messiah.

  • Rob

    I must say, this post is weak, Scot. You provide statements and examples that you’re asking your readers to just believe to be true when there is far less certainty about its validity. What Lincoln would say concerning the deity of Jesus, for example. Speculation at best.

  • Rob

    My apologies, Scot. I should have said “John Blake provides statements…”