Does a President's Religion Matter?

Written by Dr. Rex M. Rogers on . Posted in Local

abeAbraham Lincoln is near universally considered the greatest president in American history. Many scholars also regard Lincoln as America's greatest "civil theologian.

Interestingly, Lincoln remains the only president who used the name Jesus Christ rather than simply God in his public utterances. And his Second Inaugural Address delivered March 4, 1865, stands as one of the most impressive theologically infused orations in American political history.

However, historian Mark A. Noll said, "Considerable uncertainty arises...when Lincoln's own religion is examined. On the one hand, it is obvious that Christianity exerted a profound influence on his life...On the other hand, Lincoln never joined a church nor ever made a clear profession of standard Christian beliefs. While he read the Bible in the White House, he was not in the habit of saying grace before meals...Lincoln's speeches and conversation revealed a spiritual perception far above the ordinary. It is one of the great ironies of the history of Christianity in America that the most profoundly religious analysis of the nation's deepest trauma came not from a clergyman or a theologian but from a politician who was self-taught in the ways of both God and humanity."

Yet if Americans had looked simply to Lincoln's record of church affiliation and public professions of spiritual rectitude they never would have elected him.

Does Religion Matter?

So does a president's religion matter? Yes and No. Yes, if religion is defined as personal convictions, attitudes, behaviors, and character based upon theological understanding. No, if religion means denominational affiliation, spiritual posturing, a capacity for quoting Scripture or using its phrasing in slogans for political objectives (think Bill Clinton's "New Covenant"), or even having the "right" view on litmus test political issues. In recent American decades the electorate and certainly the "Christian community" have focused more on the latter than the former.

A President's Religion

President Harry S. Truman was a gifted leader who made it to the White House on talent, hard work, common sense, and FDR's untimely death. Truman's presidency proved momentous and his leadership is gaining respect as decades pass. He claimed to be a Baptist, but his penchant for cursing during radio addresses and his "Give 'em hell, Harry" approach disillusioned many of his Christian supporters.

In 1960, pundits predicted Democrat JFK would never win the nomination much less the presidency because he was Catholic. Then Kennedy won the primary in heavily Protestant West Virginia by landslide. After that, not many people talked about whether a President Kennedy would be subservient to the Pope. As it turned out, Kennedy's Catholicism was in little evidence during his presidency, while his sexual adventurism with Marilyn Monroe and others took more of his time, coming to light years after his assassination in 1963.

Following the unpopular and morally crude LBJ, a member of the Disciples of Christ, and an even more unpopular war, Republican Richard M. Nixon won the presidency on a second try in 1968. A Quaker, his presidency, reputation, and legacy bowed to resignation in 1974, the victim of his actions in the Watergate cover-up. This happened despite the fact that Nixon maintained a long friendship with evangelist Billy Graham who, along with the rest of the nation, was shocked to discover the depth to which Nixon had slumped in his Machiavellian politics and jarring use of ethnic slurs. The "law and order" President left office a law-breaker.

In 1976, Democrat Jimmy Carter was embraced by Christians and appreciated for declaring himself "born again." He taught Sunday School even as President. In the 2000s, Republican George W. Bush experienced much the same, acceptance by Christians and appreciation for his saying "Jesus Christ" was his favorite political philosopher. Christians tended to approve of both Carter's and Bush's habit of interpreting events in moral terms.

There's little doubt both Carter and Bush are genuine believers. They both openly try to remain faithful to the faith. Yet their political views are dramatically different, and both experienced degrees of rejection by Christians for what some consider ineffective presidencies.

During the 1980s, Ronald Reagan was regarded as deeply religious, but he rarely went to church. Reagan's religious convictions and certainly his spiritual life are variously even contradictorily described by members of his own family. Meanwhile, despite Iran-Contra, Reagan's presidency attained high marks in leadership and effectiveness, especially his part in ending the Cold War. Even with his sketchy religious profile Reagan is remembered as a leader of principle and courage.

Gerald R. Ford and George H. W. Bush, members of the Greatest Generation, each wore their religious convictions rather quietly and neither attempted to use them as means to political ends. Both men held the presidency only briefly but led effectively. Both were and are, respectively, men of honor and humility.

During the 1990s William Clinton's administration enjoyed a good economy and is remembered for positive accomplishment. But Baptist Clinton, who claims Christian faith and discusses religious matters knowledgeably, conducted a White House affair with Monica Lewinsky. The resulting scandal nearly brought down his presidency and his marriage. Somehow, he survived impeachment and continues to exercise political influence.

President Barack Obama has repeatedly said he is a Christian, yet some still express concerns about his religious heritage, i.e., his Muslim father and his education in Muslim schools. Meanwhile, the central issues of his presidency, the economy, the national debt, and even wars in Muslim countries do not turn on the President's religious identity.

Since at least 1976 presidential candidates have rushed to declare fidelity to religious faith with "I'm a Christian" media events (think John McCain or Donald Trump) or to niche their faith in a way acceptable to the electorate (think Barack Obama or Mitt Romney). This is likely to continue, even given American culture's declining knowledge of religious teachings. It's like checking the boxes, but whether it really means much is debatable.

What Matters?

We've had effective Presidents whose religious inclinations were seemingly of little consequence in their lives. We've had ineffective Presidents whose faith meant a great deal to them, as well as Presidents with glaring personal issues whose religious identity was promoted. It's therefore difficult to escape the conclusion that professed religion doesn't predict much about political leaders' actions.

So what really matters? The answer: the same thing that matters for the rest of us—character, founded upon worthy values.

What matters for presidential candidates and Presidents, and for that matter any political leader, are the basics. Is the political leader honest, truthful, humble, respectful, gracious, trustworthy, diligent in work, and moral? This may sound like the political leader is running for Boy or Girl Scout. But give the Scouts credit, they figured out a long time ago what makes a person a better person, and leader. It's not the religious group with which individuals identify but the eternal verities and values by which they live.

Every four years people complain about the increasing length and cost of the presidential primary season. But the arduous and convoluted nature of the presidential race allows the electorate to see wanna-be presidents under stress in multiple situations responding to innumerable pressure points, questions, and current events. We get to see who they are (think Edmund Muskie's tears, Howard Dean's scream, John Edwards' caddish adultery, Newt Gingrich's judgment). Taking the measure of another's character is at best an inexact science, but if we're watching, the democratic process at least gives us an opportunity.

Scripture reminds us "To do what is right and just is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice" (Proverbs 21:3). We must not just wear our religion but live our faith. Same for political leaders. We need to pay less attention to candidates' religious identity and scripted photo-op testimonies and more attention to the pattern of their lives.

Lastly, even a President of exemplary character may not experience "a good presidency" or turn out to be an effective leader. There's more to it than this. Still, "righteousness exalts a nation" (Proverbs 14:34). But either way, we should not worry, "for the kings of the earth belong to God; he is exalted" (Proverbs 47:9), and we should always pray "for kings and all those in authority" (1 Timothy 2:2).

Rex M. Rogers, President SAT-7 USA,,,
Author Information
Dr. Rex M. Rogers
Rex M. Rogers (born 1952[1]) serves as President of SAT-7 USA, the American promotion and fundraising arm of SAT-7, a Christian satellite television ministry by and for the people of the Middle East and North Africa. SAT-7 SAT-7, based in Nicosia, Cyprus, supports quality, indigenous-produced programming on four channels in three languages, Arabic, Persian, and Turkish.

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