The Surprising Faith Of 8 American Presidents

It is enlightening to look at eight presidents whose religious lives have troubled and fascinated Americans, and whose faiths may surprise us even today.
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Presidential religious lives are, for the most part, rather unremarkable--just like the majority of Americans they represent. As the 2012 presidential race, and especially the Republican nomination, dominate the news, the religion of the sometimes-frontrunner Mitt Romney continues to be an issue for many Republican voters. Americans have a hard time imagining a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a Mormon, as President. Yet Mormonism is, perhaps, the most American of all religions, founded by an American citizen and based on a sacred text that tells the story of God's work in the Americas. As many question Romney's religious heritage, it would be enlightening to look at eight presidents whose religious lives have troubled and fascinated Americans, or whose faiths may surprise us even today.

1. Andrew Jackson. Our first Presbyterian president, Jackson's religious life is noteworthy because he conscientiously refused to allow his religion to be a part of his office. Long before the Presidential Prayer Breakfast or the National Day of Prayer, Jackson was called on by members of Congress and influential religious leaders to call for a national day of prayer and fasting in response to a cholera epidemic. Jackson refused, stating that to do so would be to transcend "those limits which are prescribed by the Constitution for the President," and he feared that this religious encroachment could "disturb the security which religion now enjoys in this country in its complete separation from the political concerns of the General Government."

2. James K. Polk. Like Jackson, Polk also was reared in a Presbyterian community, though he was never a member of the church and was never baptized as a Presbyterian. The reason he was never baptized is that his father and grandfather were considered to be religiously suspect by the local Presbyterian church, "free-thinking radicals" who openly honored Deism and its proponents, like Thomas Paine. Polk's father refused to give a profession of faith, so Polk was not baptized until days before his death. This streak of independence, of not allowing others to dictate one's religion is certainly an American trait. Interestingly, Polk did have his own significant religious experience in a quintessentially-American way--at an open-air Methodist revival meeting where he "went away . . . a convicted sinner, if not a converted man," considering himself to be a Methodist (the first Methodist president) for the rest of his life. Out of deference to his wife's Presbyterianism, Polk waited until the week before his death to be baptized and confirmed into membership in the Methodist church, by the same pastor who had preached that open-air sermon years earlier.

3.Abraham Lincoln. Even though he is considered one of the greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln likely would be neither nominated nor elected today: he never joined a church, publicly confessed a creed, nor publicly uttered belief in God's endorsement of his policies. One should read Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, his "Meditation on the Divine Will," or his private letters in which he would declare simply, "The Almighty has his own purposes." Lincoln resides at the center of American political and religious history, and he seemed to ponder politico-theological matters more deeply than most ministers and theologians of his day. He never claimed to be born again, he never claimed Jesus as his favorite philosopher, and he loved to tell ribald stories and poke fun at himself. Yet he clearly sought the will of God and divine direction during what he called the "butchering business" of the Civil War.

4.Franklin D. Roosevelt. President Obama was not the first president to use the Gospels to justify social and economic policy. Roosevelt often drew on the Sermon on the Mount to promote the values of the New Deal and believed that service to God was best expressed in service to others. Also like President Obama (and many others), Roosevelt often refused to go to church while in Washington, saying, "It bothers me to feel like something in the zoo being looked at by all the tourists in Washington when I go to church."

5.Harry Truman. In his 1949 Inaugural Address, Truman stated, "We believe that all men are created equal because they are created in the image of God. From this faith we will not be moved." As he once wrote to his wife Bess, "I had a Presbyterian bringing up, a Baptist education, and Episcopal leanings, so I reckon I ought to get to heaven somehow, don't you think so?" While in the White House, Truman often attended the First Baptist Church in the District of Columbia, in part because its pastor made no show at all of Truman's attendance. As Truman wrote in his diary in 1948, "I go for a walk and go to church. The preacher always treats me as a church member and not as the head of a circus. That's the reason I go." He also penned in his diary: "If Jesus Christ were to return he'd be on the side of the persecuted all over the world. He'd most likely be wearing a ready made sack suit and be standing on a street corner preaching tolerance, brother love and truth." And Truman concluded that Christ would "probably be placed in a sanitarium in the free countries." However, it is troubling to read also in Truman's Memoirs that he saw that attainment of the atomic bomb (and the victory over Japan) as having "come with the help of God, who was with us in the early days of adversity and disaster, and who has now brought us to this glorious day of triumph." One might see why "Give em Hell" Harry kept these thoughts private.

6.Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower may have been instrumental in bringing "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance and making "In God We Trust" the national motto, but he was reared in a religious tradition that does not allow its adherents to take oaths of office or to recite the Pledge of Allegiance--the Jehovah's Witnesses (a religion/denomination born in the United States, as was Mormonism). His home was the meeting place for fifteen Bible Students (an earlier name for Jehovah's Witnesses), where they had lessons and held services, until he left for college. However, Eisenhower became the only president to be baptized and join a church during his presidency--the Presbyterian church in this instance.

7.John F. Kennedy. On September 12, 1960, Kennedy delivered the speech of his political career in Houston, Texas, before a crowd of several hundred mostly Protestant ministers. Kennedy was addressing what he referred to as "the so-called religious issue." As Kennedy saw it, the nation was facing a raft of issues from the threat of Soviet communism to hunger and despair at home. "These are," he argued, "the real issues which should decide this campaign. And they are not religious issues---for war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barrier." Nonetheless, JFK knew he had to address the question of his Catholicism. Kennedy famously (and for some, especially today, quite controversially) declared, "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the president----should he be Catholic---how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote," and he concluded, "I do not speak for my church on public matters; and the church does not speak for me." Earlier in his career in Congress, JFK once quipped that in Boston they learned their politics at home and their religion from Rome. As JFK put it, "I believe 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."

8.Jimmy Carter. During the 1976 North Carolina Primary, Carter made the statement that he was a "born-again" Christian, and most journalists and political pundits had little if any idea what this Southern Baptist, regular church-goer, Sunday School teacher was talking about. Soon almost every presidential aspirant was claiming to be born again or at least on pretty close speaking terms with God, if not having God on his campaign staff. In a short period of time, the president went from being seen as the nation's fire hydrant to our Chaplain-in-Chief, and we all wanted to know, religiously and/or theologically speaking, what made these candidates tick. The year Carter ran for the presidency a leading national magazine proclaimed "The Year of the Evangelical," and that November he beat President Ford in part due to strong evangelical support. Yet, many of those same voters would reject Carter four years later for his failure to seek to enact their views into public policy, as on abortion. As a Southern Baptist, Carter hewed strongly to his denomination's traditionally strong and sound commitment to the separation of church and state.

For the first two hundred years of this country, most of its presidents worked diligently to keep their religious lives private and to keep some sort of wall between their religion and the office. But this presidential race has brought us the "Thanksgiving Family Forum" (featuring most of the Republican presidential candidates and sponsored by an Evangelical Christian policy group), and 2012 already has brought us a National Prayer Breakfast at which President Obama tied his faith to his tax policies. The men who have been president have often struggled to balance their private faith with their public duties, and this election year will likely continue to reveal that tension in a public way that would have likely shocked our founders and shaken many of our presidents.

A Slideshow Of The Faith Of All American Presidents

George Washington

American President's Religious Denominations

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