Our American Presidents and their Religious Faiths

Our American Presidents and their Religious Faiths


Ralph Lord Roy

Presidents’ Day directs particular attention to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, both born in February. It also provides an occasion for focusing briefly on others who have held that esteemed office. What have been their church affiliations, including that of Barack Obama whose views on religion are hotly debated?

The first half-dozen were heavily impacted by the Enlightenment of the 18th century. Four of the six - Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe - were from Virginia, each of them officially Episcopalian. Evidence suggests, however, that they were influenced by a form of Deism, popular at the time, which emphasized the sovereignty of God, admired Jesus for his teachings, but rejected the doctrine that Christ was God in the flesh. Their ‘enlightenment’ had its limitations, as all four were slaveholders. In the case of Washington, his Will specified that his slaves should be freed once his wife had died. One of the troubling contradictions in our early history is how Jefferson could write “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence and continue to hold slaves.

The other two, John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams, both from Massachusetts, were of Puritan stock - basically Congregationalist - who lived during the defection of various churches in the Boston area to Unitarianism, which denied the Trinity. John Quincy Adams became a charter member of the First Unitarian Church in Washington, D. C.

Abraham Lincoln had a strong sense of God’s providence, especially evident in his Second Inaugural Address, but was skeptical when it came to traditional Christian theology, a subject discussed in an earlier column. While he never joined a church, the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington has a ‘Lincoln pew’ where he and Mrs. Lincoln sat when they attended services there.

Many presidents moved easily from one Protestant denomination to another. Theodore Roosevelt, for example, listed himself as Dutch Reformed, but had gone to his mother’s Presbyterian Church as a child and later worshiped at an Episcopal Church when at his home on Long Island.

Dwight Eisenhower went to Sunday School at a Mennonite Church, but wasn’t baptized and confirmed until 12 days after his first inauguration when he officially became a Presbyterian. Ronald Reagan was raised in his mother’s Disciples of Christ denomination, but after retiring in California he and Nancy attended the Bel-Air Presbyterian Church. George W. Bush grew up Episcopalian, then joined Laura’s Methodist church following their marriage. Perhaps the most devout president was Jimmy Carter, who left the Southern Baptist denomination when it refused to ordain women, yet still teaches Sunday School at a local Baptist church in Plains, Ga.

In May 1994, the First United Methodist Church of Meriden sponsored a weekend bus trip to Washington where we attended the Foundry United Methodist Church on Sunday. During the organ prelude several secret service personnel scurried down the aisles, followed by the Clintons. Bill is a Baptist, but while president he went with Hillary to her church. Throughout the service a voice from a sound truck outside loudly denounced him. For a president to attend worship in Washington today requires extensive secret service protection and can risk public vilification.

John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960, our first president who was Catholic. Since colonial times, there had been a strong bias against Catholicism, some sheer bigotry, but much of it rooted in the belief among Protestants that it was hostile to American democracy. Pius IX, among other popes, had scornfully condemned Protestantism as heretical and sharply denounced the separation of church and state (‘error has no rights’). Kennedy won by calming these fears through his historic speech to ministers in Houston, gathering as much as 80% of the Catholic vote, and carrying such overwhelmingly Protestant states as Georgia, North and South Carolina, Arkansas and West Virginia. JFK’s presidency and changes made by Vatican II have all but eliminated anxiety about Catholicism. Moreover, some of the most liberal areas of the nation, including southern New England, have very large Catholic populations.

What about President Obama? His American grandmother was raised Methodist, his grandfather Baptist. His Kenyan dad, from a Muslim family, had become an agnostic. Obama’s mother remarried, this time to an Indonesian, and they lived in Jakarta where Barack attended both a Catholic and a public school. In his book “Dreams from My Father” he details how he had professed his Christian faith in response to an altar call at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. (The UCC includes most Congregational parishes.) Among other initiatives, Obama has been the first president to hold an Easter breakfast at the White House, recently directed his administration to file a brief to permit overtly Christian prayers at city council meetings, and earlier this month gave a major address at the National Prayer Breakfast.

Despite all this and much more, some critics of the President insist that he is a crypto-Muslim and/or waging a war on Christianity. A new book entitled “Perfect Ending”, written by Robert Jeffress, pastor of the 11,000-member First Baptist Church of Dallas, warns that Obama’s policies are paving the way for the Antichrist. Here the Bible is twisted to promote partisan prophetic poppycock. Whether we support or oppose his policies, one obvious goal of President Obama, in keeping with the Constitution, is to make citizens of every creed feel comfortable as they practice their faith in America.

Ralph Lord Roy of Southington is a retired United Methodist minister. Email: Ralphlroy@aol.com.

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