Skip to site content

Presidents’ Religions Weren’t Always a Big Deal

With the February birthdays of both Presidents Washington and Lincoln celebrated as a national holiday, I found a column by a Charleston, S.C., Post and Courier pundit somewhere between amusing and disturbing.
At least this sentence. “[A president’s] religion,” he wrote, “once mattered, but concerns mount if the word ‘devout’ is attached.”

“Once mattered”? I’d say just the opposite, at least when one glances across the pages of history.

For instance, in his 2006 book, “So Help Me God,” the late Forrest Church explores the religious perspectives of America’s first four presidents.

The title of the book comes from whether George Washington, in fact, uttered those words at his inauguration in 1789. He may well have. Still, Washington’s religion seems to at least have had its eccentricities.

An Anglican, Washington even served on the vestry of his local Virginia parish – except Washington never observed communion.

Rather, when Washington occasionally attended church services, he habitually excused himself when it was time to observe the Eucharist, once even being chided, publicly, by a Philadelphia bishop for doing so.

John Adams is generally regarded the most conventionally religious among America’s first four presidents. Yet his Unitarianism would hardly be considered necessarily Christian as defined by so-called “evangelicals” these days.

Nor would that of the Deist Thomas Jefferson, whose personal edition of the New Testament conveniently omitted any reference to Jesus’ miracles, much less our Lord’s resurrection.

The exemplary teachings of “Jefferson’s Jesus” trump anything suggesting the “supernatural.”

If James Madison may have initially studied under the Scottish Presbyterian influence of Princeton’s John Witherspoon, he gradually moved away from such orthodoxy and is considered a seminal proponent of the separation of church and state in the First Amendment to the Constitution.

As for Lincoln, if, as president, he regularly attended Sunday services with Presbyterians, he never “belonged” to a church and remained notably skeptical of organized religion.

Which stands in contrast to Ronald Reagan, over a century later, who seldom darkened the door of any church, yet galvanized the “Religious Right,” an idolatrous form of “civil religion” which persists in our nation’s political climate today.

Indeed, the Baptist Jimmy Carter was likely the most “devout” of presidents, yet he was soundly rejected by those on his “political right” for not being the right kind of Christian.

Religion once mattered? That seems hardly the case when one compares presidential politics in a more formative era of our national life with how religion is so stridently traded on among those running in the Republican primary race these days.

If President Obama persists in not overstating his consistent Christian witness by resorting to mere political posturing, former Gov. Mitt Romney accuses him of forsaking “traditional religious values” for a “secular agenda” – even as Romney’s own Mormonism is considered, by some, as hardly sufficiently Christian.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum, who appears to be running for “theologian-in-chief,” has reduced his politicking to, among other extremist commentary, that of merely exploiting a caricature of Roman Catholicism with which even apparently the majority of Catholics disagree.

Newt Gingrich, who seems capable of exploiting anyone or anything in the service of his grandiose self-interest, has hardly distinguished himself as a poster boy for either ethical behavior or moral credibility, despite his newly claimed Roman Catholic persona.

And whatever one might think of U.S. Rep. Ron Paul’s extremist positions on various matters political, to his credit he seems the least given to trading on religion for whatever the political purpose.

Religion once mattered in American presidential politics? Not for anyone who didn’t miss school the day they taught history, or who isn’t living under a rock these days, certainly where legitimate religious expression is concerned.

Indeed, Article VI, paragraph 3 of the U.S. Constitution clearly prohibits any “religious test” involving anyone running for public office in America.

As for those who framed the Constitution – including our first four U.S. presidents, however unorthodox their religious views – they (unlike those currently engaged in primary presidential politicking) at least had enough sense to realize that when religion and politics get confused, it leads to little good for anyone.

For tragically, not only does government get corrupted, authentic religion does as well.

MontyKnight, an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ, is a pastoralcounselor in Charleston, S.C.