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God in the White House

From Washington to Obama -- the presidents' religious beliefs and their impact on politics

1789-1797George Washington

The religious beliefs of the first president of the United States of America have been the subject of debate since he held office.

Washington's faith has been categorized at times as evangelical Christianity, deist, Free Masonry and mainline Protestant Christianity. Washington himself was raised in, married in and became a vestryman in the Episcopal Church (the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion). However, he rarely took communion and attended church sporadically.

Evangelical Christians have claimed that Washington accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior, though there isn't evidence of this specific belief aside from Washington's rare mention of the figure of Christ, often in relation to morality, in public speeches.

Though also sometimes labeled a deist, Washington doesn't fit the definition of a deist as a person who sees God as similar to a clockmaker, a being who created the world and set life into motion, watching over events on earth without interfering. Washington believed in a God who responded to prayer and human need. Of his experiences in the battlefield, Washington reported, "By the all powerful dispensations of Providence, I have been protected beyond all human probability or expectation."

Though this debate is kept alive due to the fact that Washington did not reveal belief or nonbelief in his diaries, keeping what he saw as his personal life strictly private, there is little room for debate about Washington's commitment to religious liberty and his belief in the link between religion and morality. His experience leading the Continental Army and the fledgling nation helped shape his opinion that religious intolerance and bigotry led to dangerous divisions where unity was needed.

Of the link between religion and morality, Washington states in his Farewell Address, "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports... And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."

Regardless of his personal religious beliefs, Washington, like other statesmen responsible for crafting the new nation, struggled with the question of how to impart a morality and virtue to a diverse people. In Washington's mind, that unifying virtue was central to creating a responsible and successful democracy.

Source: United States Senate (senate.gov)
John Adams
1797-1801John Adams

In contrast to his predecessor, John Adams was a self-professed "church-going animal" who made no secret of his religiosity. Raised in the Congregational Church, the established church in his home state of Massachusetts, John Adams later became a Unitarian. Unitarianism, a liberal strand of Christianity popular in New England, began in the liberal wing of the Congregational Church. Adams' childhood church subscribed to Unitarian principles 75 years before fully separating from the Congregational denomination.

Like other men educated during the period of the Enlightenment, Adams professed belief in a simpler, less mysterious form of Christianity. In a letter to his early political rival and late-in-life friend Thomas Jefferson, Adams condemned the superstition that he believed had corrupted Christianity, writing, "Twenty times in the course of my late readings, I have been on the point of breaking out, 'This would be the best of all worlds if there were no religion in it!' But in this exclamation I should have been as fanatical as [Adams' former pastor Lemuel] Bryant or [his former teacher Joseph] Cleverly. Without religion, this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company -- I mean hell."

In a second letter to Jefferson, written following the death of his beloved wife, Abigail, Adams ponders the question of the afterlife: "I do not know how to prove physically, that we shall meet and know each other in a future state; nor does Revelation, as I can find, give us any positive assurance of such a felicity. My reasons for believing it, as I do most undoubtedly, are that I cannot conceive such a being could make such a species as the human, merely to live and die on this earth. If I did not believe in a future state, I should believe in no God. This Universe, this all would appear, with all of its swelling pomp, a boyish firework. And if there be a future state, why should the Almighty dissolve forever all the tender ties which unite us so delightfully in this world, and forbid us to see each other in the next?"

Source: The White House Historical Association
Thomas Jefferson
1801-1809Thomas Jefferson

Convinced that the state had no business coercing religious conformity, Jefferson made defense of liberty the hallmark of his career. In 1776, he wrote the Declaration of Independence, and the following year, he introduced a Bill Concerning Religious Freedom to the Virginia Legislature. In 1787, he urged his friend and colleague James Madison to amend the Constitution to include a written guarantee of religious liberty.

Jefferson's campaign to end state support of religion fueled doubts about his personal religious beliefs. These doubts, which had swirled around him for years, emerged as a critical issue in the bitter presidential campaign of 1800. His Federalist opponents vilified him as an atheist and libertine. Jefferson fumed at the harassment coming from what he referred to as an "irritable tribe of priests" and even compared his persecution at the hands of the New England clergy to the crucifixion of Christ.

Jefferson won the election, beating his friend and rival John Adams. On New Year's Day 1802, he welcomed to the White House the dissident Baptist preacher John Leland.That same day, Jefferson replied to a letter sent by Baptists in Danbury, Conn., who chafed under the authority of the established Congregational Church. In his reply Jefferson invoked the famous metaphor of a "wall of separation" between church and state.

Like the other Founding Fathers, Jefferson was considered a Deist, subscribing to a liberal religious strand that values reason over revelation and rejects traditional Christian doctrines, including the Virgin Birth, original sin and the resurrection of Jesus. While he rejected orthodoxy, Jefferson was nevertheless a religious man. Influenced by the British Unitarian Joseph Priestley, Jefferson set his prodigious intellect and energy on the historical figure at the center of the Christian faith: Jesus of Nazareth.

Jefferson became convinced that Jesus' message had been obscured and corrupted by the apostle Paul, the Gospel writers and Protestant reformers. While president, he took a razor to the Bible, cutting out portions of the Gospels that involved miracles and retaining his parables and ethical teachings. The resulting volume, The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, affirmed his conviction that Jesus was not divine, but "a Teacher of Common Sense," primarily concerned with morality and ethical conduct.

Years later, Jefferson drew from the New Testaments in Greek, Latin, French and English to create The Life and Morals of Jesus, commonly known as the Jefferson Bible. Based on this work, he acknowledged to a close friend that he was "a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus." For Jefferson, it was the moral message of Jesus, not claims of his birth, death and resurrection, that lay at the center of the Christian faith.

1809-1817James Madison

Born into a prosperous slave-owning family in Virginia in 1751, Madison was baptized in the Anglican Church. As a young man, he studied under a Presbyterian schoolmaster before enrolling at the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University), known for its orthodox teachings and as a training ground for Presbyterian clergy. He stayed on in Princeton after graduation to study with the president of the college, John Witherspoon, who combined Presbyterian orthodoxy with a belief in the power of human reason, and was later the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence.

Upon his return to Virginia, Madison witnessed the growing tensions between the established church, his Anglican Church, and the members of dissenting faiths arriving in the colony. He was outraged to discover that a number of Baptist ministers had been thrown into jail for preaching without licenses and committed himself to fighting for liberty of conscience, which he equated with religious liberty: "That diabolical, hell-conceived principle of persecution rages among some; and to their eternal infamy, the clergy can furnish their quota of imps for such business. This vexes me the worst of anything whatever. There are at this time in the adjacent country not less than five or six well-meaning men in close jail for publishing their religious sentiments, which in the main are very orthodox. I have neither patience to hear, talk, or think of anything relative to this matter; for I have squabbled and scolded, abused and ridiculed, so long about it to little purpose, that I am without common patience. So I must beg you to pity me, and pray for liberty of conscience to all."

In 1777, Thomas Jefferson drafted a Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, which sought to guarantee freedoms of conscience and to separate the exercise of religious freedom from the power of the state. For the next 10 years, Virginia struggled to define the relationship of church and state. Madison led the fight, making his case in a brilliant argument for liberty titled Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments, which was circulated anonymously throughout the colony in 1785 as he prepared to reintroduce Jefferson's bill. In 1786, Jefferson's bill finally passed.

The so-called "Virginia experience" served as a model for the nation. When the Founding Fathers met in Philadelphia in 1787, Madison served as the architect of the Constitution. Following Virginia's model, the Constitution gave the federal government no authority over religion, creating a free marketplace.

The original draft of the Constitution did not contain any written guarantee of religious liberty; Madison thought it was unnecessary and unwise. Any attempt to list certain rights risked leaving other rights unprotected. In addition, there were so many sects and denominations competing for allegiance, it seemed improbable that any one of them could dominate the rest. But Jefferson disagreed, and he encouraged Madison to change his mind. Unwilling to let the anti-Federalists undo the Constitution and eager to get himself elected to Congress, Madison supported an amendment.

Madison divulged less about his personal faith than predecessors like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. As president he wrote, "The letters and communications addressed to me on religious subjects have been so numerous, and of characters so various, that it has been an established rule to decline all correspondence on them." Historians have questioned whether Madison was an intellectual who was interested in the policy implications of religious liberty or a private man with a religious belief that he did not feel the need to defend or grapple with in a diary -- or perhaps something in between.

Source: The White House Historical Association
James Monroe
1817-1825James Monroe

Little is known about Monroe's religious views aside from the fact that he was raised in the Anglican Church, as were all individuals in colonial Virginia. An early biographer of Monroe noted: "He was extremely reticent in his religious sentiments, at least in all that he wrote. Allusions to his belief are rarely, if ever, to be met with in his correspondence." The lack of information has led Monroe to be characterized variously as an Episcopalian, a Deist and unaffiliated.

Source: Library of Congress
John Quincy Adams
1825-1829John Quincy Adams

Like his father, John Quincy Adams died a Unitarian. Born into the liberal Congregational Church of his parents, he studied and scrutinized religion and initially chose the more conservative strand of the Congregational Church before migrating slowly toward Unitarianism. Though he chastised "the liberal class who consider religion as merely a system of morals," he celebrated the Bible because "when duly read and meditated on, it is of all books in the world, that which contributes most to making men good, wise, and happy."

Though he would later become the president of the American Bible Society, at his inauguration ceremony, Adams chose to place his hand on the United States Constitution rather than a Bible during the oath of office.

Adams believed that the miraculous and enthusiastic excesses of religion were dangerous. In reference to a religiously orthodox colleague in law school, Adams wrote: "When I observe into what inconsistent absurdities those persons run who make speculative, metaphysical religion a matter of importance, I am fully determined never to puzzle myself in the mazes of religious discussion, to content myself with practicing the dictates of God and reason so far as I can judge for myself, and resign myself into the arms of a being whose tender mercies are all over his works."

Source: U.S. Census Bureau
Andrew Jackson
1829-1837Andrew Jackson

Though he attended church throughout his life and subscribed to general Christian principles, Jackson experienced his spiritual conversion at home in Nashville, Tenn., after leaving the White House. After a long and distinguished military career, he found forgiveness the hardest part of his becoming a communicant in the Presbyterian Church. When the minister asked him if could forgive all of his enemies, Jackson reportedly responded, "My political enemies, I can freely forgive; but as for those who abused me when I was serving my country in the field, and those who attacked me for serving my country -- Doctor, that is a different case."

As president, Jackson chose not to issue proclamations for a national day of prayer and fasting while in office. In a letter dated June 12, 1832, he wrote: "I could not do otherwise without transcending the limits prescribed by the Constitution for the President, without feeling that I might in some degree disturb the security which religion now enjoys in this country, in its complete separation from the political concerns of the General Government. It is the province of the pulpits and the state tribunals to recommend the mode by which the people may best attest their reliance on the protecting arm of the Almighty in times of great distress."

Source: Library of Congress
Martin Van Buren
1837-1841Martin Van Buren

The most compelling evidence of Van Buren's religious history is a lingering rumor that "his voice could be heard above the entire congregation in song" at the Dutch Reformed Church he attended in his hometown of Kinderhook, N.Y. He attended a Dutch Reformed Church when at home and St. John's Episcopal Church, which sits 300 yards from the White House, while in Washington, D.C. There is no evidence that he was a member of either church.

Source: Library of Congress
William Henry Harrison
1841William Henry Harrison

Often listed as Episcopalian, Harrison was not a member of a church, and very little is known about his spiritual life. He bought a Bible the day after his inauguration and died a month later. Shortly after his death, the minister of St. John's Episcopal Church, near the White House, claimed, "Had the president lived, and been in health, he intended on the next Sabbath to become a communicant at the Lord's table."

Source: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
John Tyler
1841-1845John Tyler

There is not much evidence of Tyler's beliefs, though he's often listed as Episcopalian. Following his death a friend said, "He was a firm believer in the atonement of the son of God, and in the efficacy of his blood to wash away every stain of mortal sin. ... He was by faith and heirship a member of the Episcopal Church and never doubted divine revelation." However, no pastor came to his home to administer the last sacrament, and in her account of his last illness, Tyler's wife wrote nothing of faith, hope, Christ or eternity.

Source: Library of Congress
James Knox Polk
1845-1849James Knox Polk

Born into a Presbyterian family, Polk was never baptized. He attended the Presbyterian Church with his wife. The Polks prohibited dancing and card-playing in the White House -- a change from the gaiety of the Tyler administration. According to reports of his final days, his mother invited her Presbyterian pastor to finally baptize her son, but Polk said that he had promised a Methodist pastor he would be baptized to in that church. Polk was baptized a Methodist on his deathbed.

Source: The White House Historical Association
Zachary Taylor
1849-1850Zachary Taylor

Little is known about Taylor's religious views, though he is widely believed to have been an Episcopalian. With little documentary evidence to go on, a biographer wrote, "In the secret communion of his heart with heaven, who can say he did not die a Christian?" Like Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson before him, Taylor did not issue a proclamation calling for a national day of prayer and fasting while president. He explained his reasoning in a letter dated Nov. 5, 1849: "While uniting cordially in the universal feeling of thankfulness to God for his manifold blessings, and especially for the abatement of the pestilence which so lately walked in our midst, I have yet thought it most proper to leave the subject of a Thanksgiving Proclamation where custom in many parts of the country has so long consigned it, in the hands of the Governors of the several States."

Source: Library of Congress
Millard Fillmore
1850-1853Millard Fillmore

Raised in a Methodist household, Millard Fillmore showed little interest in religion before becoming a Unitarian in 1831. His belief in strict separation of church and state led him to remark in a campaign speech: "I am tolerant of all creeds. Yet if any sect suffered itself to be used for political objects I would meet it by political opposition. In my view church and state should be separate, not only in form, but fact. Religion and politics should not be mingled."

Active in New York politics prior to the presidency, Fillmore had found himself at odds with his political rival Gov. William Seward in the debate over whether public money should be used to support Catholic schools. While Seward advocated finding a compromise to give money to sectarian institutions, Fillmore contended that no sectarian institution should be supported by public tax money.

Source: New Hampshire State Library
Franklin Pierce
1853-1857Franklin Pierce

As a young man, Pierce was known more for hard partying and socializing than for any religious persuasion. He married a devoutly religious woman, Jane Appleton, who seemed in every way his opposite. Having suffered the death of two boys in early childhood, the Pierces experienced tragedy yet again two months before Pierce's inauguration, when their 11-year-old son Benjamin, their only remaining child, died before their eyes in a train accident. According to Pierce's biographer, Roy Nichols, "Much of the difficulty which he experienced in administration during the next four years may be attributed to this terrible tragedy and its long-continued after effects."

Never interested in politics, Jane Pierce came to believe that God had taken her son so that her husband could concentrate on being president and not be distracted. Pierce came to believe that his son's death was a punishment for his sins. His tenure in the White House was somber and largely a disappointment; his pro-slavery stance as a Northerner made him extremely unpopular.

After leaving office, Pierce was baptized and became a member of the Episcopal Church in Concord, N.H.

Source: Library of Congress
James Buchanan
1857-1861James Buchanan

Born into a Presbyterian family, Buchanan attended church regularly and contributed to a variety of denominations. Though he reportedly decided to join the Presbyterian Church during his presidency, Buchanan chose not to become a communicant while in office, saying: "I must delay, for the honor of religion. If I were to unite with the Church now, they would say hypocrite from Maine to Georgia." He joined the Presbyterian Church in Lancaster, Pa., in March 1861.

Source: Library of Congress
Abraham Lincoln
1861-1865Abraham Lincoln

Born to a Kentucky frontiersman and his wife, Abraham Lincoln was raised in his parents' Baptist faith, where evangelistic fervor combined with a stern Calvinist theology of predestination -- the belief that man's fate had been predetermined by God. Lincoln rejected this Calvinist view and shunned emotional excess, but the Calvinism of his youth left him with a lifetime lingering sense of fatalism.

The toll of the Civil War led Lincoln to undergo a profound spiritual journey; before the war, Lincoln had imagined Providence, the power sustaining and guiding human destiny, as a remote and mechanistic force. "Man is simply a simple tool, a mere cog in the wheel, a part, a small part, of this vast iron machine, that strikes and cuts, grinds and mashes, all things, including man, that resist it," he wrote.

When he was president, however, Providence began to emerge in his mind as an active and more personal God, a mysterious presence whose purpose eluded human understanding. Lincoln received the casualty lists and toured military hospitals. In February 1862, his son Willie died of typhoid fever.

In September 1862, one of the darkest moments of the conflict, Lincoln committed his thoughts about God on a small piece of paper that his secretary later titled "Meditation on the Divine Will":

"The will of God prevails. In great contests, each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. ... I am almost ready to say this is probably true -- that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet -- By his mere quiet power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest -- Yet the contest began -- And having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day -- Yet the contest proceeds."

Lincoln began to search for signs of God's will on the question of emancipation. In September 1862, Union forces drove Southern rebels from Antietam Creek in Maryland. It was not a rousing victory for the Union, but Lincoln gathered his Cabinet. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles recorded Lincoln's startling announcement: "God had decided this question in favor of the slaves. He was satisfied that it was right, was confirmed and strengthened this action by the vow and the results."

Lincoln had taken the victory at Antietam as the divine signal he'd been looking for. On New Year's Day 1863, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in the Confederacy.

On March 4, 1865, Lincoln once again took the oath of office. In his second Inaugural Address, which would be his final address to the American people, Lincoln endowed the Civil War with sacred meaning, creating an American Scripture and articulating an American civil religion that still suffuses the idea of the nation with religious significance.

Lincoln himself became a casualty of the conflict. Slain on Good Friday, he died the day before Easter Sunday. Some ministers privately lamented the fact that he had never formally joined a church. Yet Lincoln has become one of America's most theological presidents.

Source: Library of Congress
Andrew Johnson
1865-1869Andrew Johnson

Though Johnson claimed to be religious, he did not belong to a church and was accused of being an infidel. His response to the charge was, "As for my religion, it is the doctrine of the Bible, as taught and practiced by Jesus Christ." His biographer observed: "Like Lincoln, if he could have found an organization based on the personality of Christ, without creed or dogmas, without class distinctions or the exaltation and deification of money, he was willing to join it 'with all his soul.' But so far as he could make out, there was no such Church."

Johnson briefly felt kinship with the Methodist Church until the church participated in his impeachment hearings. He liked the Catholic Church because "of its treatment of the rich and poor alike. In the cathedral there were no high-priced pews and no reserved seats, the old woman with calico dress and poke bonnet sitting up high and being as welcome as the richest." His 1875 funeral was held at the Greenville, Tenn., Masonic Lodge.

1869-1877Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant was not a member of a church, nor was he baptized. He is often categorized as a Methodist, likely because his wife was a Methodist or because of an incident in which a Methodist minister allegedly sprinkled water on a sleeping Grant after he had taken ill and announced the baptism to the public. Grant himself had a negative experience with organized religion in his youth. While at West Point, he got into trouble for not attending religious services. He wrote to a cousin: "We are not only obliged to go to church, but must march there by companies. This is not republican."

1877-1881Rutherford B. Hayes

An examination of Hayes' diary -- which he kept from the age of 12 up to his death -- reveals a man grappling with religion. He reported on sermons and lectures he heard and philosophers and preachers he met. He writes about his Bible studies, his reaction to Ralph Waldo Emerson's philosophy and his faith in a supreme being.

"I find myself using the word Christian," he wrote of his religious views. "I am not a subscriber to any creed. I belong to no church. But in a sense, satisfactory to myself and believed by me to be important, I try to be a Christian, or rather I want to be a Christian and to help do Christian work."

His lack of affiliation with a church and professed doubts -- "the gloomy theology of the orthodox -- the Calvinists -- I do not, I cannot believe" -- did not keep him from searching for religious truth: "I by an oversight missed the Bible meeting in the Episcopal church last night. I am sorry. I wanted especially to attend. The religion of the Bible is the best in the world. I see the infinite value of religion. Let it be always encouraged. A world of superstition and folly have grown up around its forms and ceremonies. But the truth in it is one of the deep sentiments in human nature."

Though his wife, Lucy, is often described as a strict Methodist, she, too, seems to have believed that Christian actions were more important than adherence to specific doctrines. Hayes recalled a conversation Lucy had with a friend. She said: "All I can say is, I do want to do to others as I would wish them to do to me. This I always mean -- I always try to do. I think of it always." Hayes noted, "This was her religion -- treating all others according to the Golden Rule."

After attending what would be his final church service, Hayes wrote in his diary, "I am a Christian according to my conscience in belief, not of course in character and conduct, but in purpose and wish."

1881James Garfield

The "preacher president," Garfield converted to Christianity at a camp meeting in 1850. The next day he was baptized in the Disciples of Christ Church. "Today I was buried with Christ in baptism and arose to walk in the newness of life," he wrote.

Though not formally a minister, Garfield preached until becoming a member of Congress in 1863. One of his most famous sermons, "The Material and the Spiritual," presented Christianity as a remedy to what he saw as a growing materialism: "Men are tending to materialism. Houses, lands, and worldly goods attract their attention, and, as a mirage, lure them on to death. Christianity, on the other hand, leads only the natural body to death, and for the spirit, it points out a house not built with hands, eternal in the heavens."

Later in the sermon, Garfield described the Jesus he believed in: "Let me urge you to follow Him, not as the Nazarene, the Man of Galilee, the carpenter's son, but as the ever living spiritual person, full of love and compassion, who will stand by you in life and death and eternity."

When Garfield became president, he left his position as an elder in the church saying, "I resign the highest office in the land to become president of the United States."

A fierce advocate of the principle of separation of church and state, Garfield spoke in his inaugural address about the danger that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints posed, having established what many saw as a theocracy in the Utah Territory. "The Constitution guarantees absolute religious freedom," he said. "Congress is prohibited from making any law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The Territories of the United States are subject to the direct legislative authority of Congress, and hence the General Government is responsible for any violation of the Constitution in any of them. It is therefore a reproach to the Government that in the most populous of the Territories the constitutional guaranty is not enjoyed by the people and the authority of Congress is set at naught. The Mormon Church not only offends the moral sense of manhood by sanctioning polygamy, but prevents the administration of justice through ordinary instrumentalities of law. In my judgment it is the duty of Congress, while respecting to the uttermost the conscientious convictions and religious scruples of every citizen, to prohibit within its jurisdiction all criminal practices, especially of that class which destroy the family relations and endanger social order. Nor can any ecclesiastical organization be safely permitted to usurp in the smallest degree the functions and powers of the National Government."

Garfield was assassinated 100 days after taking the oath of office.

Source: Library of Congress
Chester Arthur
1881-1885Chester Arthur

Little is known about Arthur's religious life. His father, a Baptist minister, and his mother urged him to accept Christianity, but his biographer, Thomas Reeves, writes that Arthur and his brother's "hostility to the faith" caused a rift with his parents. Arthur's wife, who died before he became president, was an Episcopalian, and while Arthur attended St. John's Episcopal Church, the church closest to the White House, there is no evidence that he considered himself a communicant or was interested in church membership there.

Source: Library of Congress
Grover Cleveland
1885-1889Grover Cleveland

The son of a Presbyterian minister, Cleveland attended Sunday school and multiple services in his father's church each Sunday. He would remain a member of the Presbyterian Church his entire life.

There is little evidence that Cleveland attended church with any frequency while living in Buffalo, N.Y., as a young man; he reportedly preferred to frequent the city's saloons and inns. But his private correspondence indicates that he maintained his faith and that his religious upbringing remained important to him even though he may not have felt compelled to attend church.

In a letter accepting his nomination to run for president in 1884, Cleveland promised to rely "upon the favor and support of the Supreme Being Who, I believe, will always bless honest human endeavor in the conscientious discharge of public duty." He became more visibly religious while in the White House and attended the First Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., throughout his time as president.

Following the death of his daughter Ruth in 1904, Cleveland questioned the existence of heaven: "I had a season of great trouble in keeping out of my mind the idea that Ruth was in the cold, cheerless grave instead of in the arms of her Savior." His questioning eventually led him back to God. He wrote in his diary on Jan. 15, 1904, "God has come to my help and I am able to adjust my thought to dear Ruth's death with as much comfort as selfish humanity will permit."

Source: Library of Congress
Benjamin Harrison
1889-1893Benjamin Harrison

Harrison was born into a devout Presbyterian family and from a very young age observed the Sabbath without fail every Sunday. He officially became a member of the Presbyterian Church while attending Miami University in the early 1850s, and he would remain a devout church member his entire life. Upon moving to Indianapolis in 1854, Harrison joined the First Presbyterian Church, and, according to a church memorial: "He was constant in his attendance on church meetings; his voice was heard in prayer meetings. ... And in whatever way opened, whether public or private, he gave testimony for his faith and the lordship of his Master."

Harrison taught Sunday school and later became a church elder, a position he would maintain for 40 years. According to a soldier who fought with the future president during the Civil War, Harrison held nightly prayers in his tent and was well liked for his "earnest religious nature." In a letter written to his wife, Harrison implored her to ask God "for me in prayer ... first that He will enable me to bear myself as a good soldier of Jesus Christ; second, that He will give me valor and skill to conduct myself so as to honor my country and my friends."

Before his election to the White House, Harrison wrote about the power of prayer to a friend: "It is a great comfort to trust God -- even if His providence is unfavorable. Prayer steadies one when he is walking in slippery places -- even if things asked for are not given." Indeed, Harrison believed his victory in the 1888 presidential election was the result of divine Providence, and in his inaugural address he called upon God to bestow on him "wisdom, strength, and fidelity." Harrison continued his tradition of daily prayer while serving in the White House; a firsthand account of his presidency recorded that "No morning is passed in the White House and no day's duties or pleasures are begun without the brief family prayer."

Harrison's speeches are full of religious rhetoric, and on several occasions he issued proclamations recommending Americans of all faiths to observe days of prayer. In a June 7, 1889, directive, Harrison urged the Army and Navy to limit activities on the Sabbath.

Source: Library of Congress
Grover Cleveland
1893-1897Grover Cleveland

The son of a Presbyterian minister, Cleveland attended Sunday school and multiple services in his father's church each Sunday. He would remain a member of the Presbyterian Church his entire life.

There is little evidence that Cleveland attended church with any frequency while living in Buffalo, N.Y., as a young man; he reportedly preferred to frequent the city's saloons and inns. But his private correspondence indicates that he maintained his faith and that his religious upbringing remained important to him even though he may not have felt compelled to attend church.

In a letter accepting his nomination to run for president in 1884, Cleveland promised to rely "upon the favor and support of the Supreme Being Who, I believe, will always bless honest human endeavor in the conscientious discharge of public duty." He became more visibly religious while in the White House and attended the First Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., throughout his time as president.

Following the death of his daughter Ruth in 1904, Cleveland questioned the existence of heaven: "I had a season of great trouble in keeping out of my mind the idea that Ruth was in the cold, cheerless grave instead of in the arms of her Savior." His questioning eventually led him back to God. He wrote in his diary on Jan. 15, 1904, "God has come to my help and I am able to adjust my thought to dear Ruth's death with as much comfort as selfish humanity will permit."

Source: Library of Congress
William McKinley
1897-1901William McKinley

One of the most devout presidents, McKinley found Methodism at a camp meeting revival when he was 10 years old. He became a member of the church six years later and remained steadfast in the Methodist Episcopal Church throughout his life. A biographer described McKinley's faith: "His devout Methodism did not lead him to concern himself with dogma or denominational differences. The loving-kindness of God was McKinley's religion, and the source of his inner serenity."

McKinley himself beseeched God's help and mercy publicly in his Thanksgiving proclamations and inaugural addresses. In his first inaugural, he referred to the nation's founders: "Our faith teaches that there is no safer reliance than upon the God of our fathers, who has so singularly favored the American people in every national trial, and who will not forsake us so long as we obey His commandments and walk humbly in his footsteps."

In 1899, McKinley spoke to the General Missionary Committee of the Methodist Episcopal Church at the White House and described his decision-making process in intervening in the Philippines: "I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight, and I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed to Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night it came to me this way -- I don't know how it was, but it came -- (1) that we could not give them back to Spain -- that would be cowardly and dishonest ... (4) there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God's grace to do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died. And then I went to bed, and went to sleep, and slept soundly."

McKinley was shot in 1901. He publicly forgave his assassin before dying eight days later.

Source: Library of Congress
Theodore Roosevelt
1901-1909Theodore Roosevelt

Roosevelt joined the Dutch Reformed Church as a teenager in New York and wrote of his beliefs: "I know not how philosophers may ultimately define religion, but from Micah to James it has been defined as service to one's fellowmen rendered by following the great rule of justice and mercy, of wisdom and righteousness."

This emphasis on religion as service led Roosevelt to equate patriotism and religion. In his book Fear God and Take Your Own Part, he observed, "Unless we are thorough-going Americans and unless our patriotism is part of the very fiber of our being, we can neither serve God nor take our own part." He applied his understanding of Christianity to domestic and foreign policy: "We must demand honesty, justice, mercy, truthfulness, in our dealings with one another within our own borders. Outside of our own borders we must treat other nations as we would wish to be treated in return, judging each in any given crisis as we ourselves ought to be judged...."

Roosevelt attended church regularly and issued nine Thanksgiving proclamations. "For the very reason that in material well-being we have thus abounded, we owe it to the Almighty to show equal progress in moral and spiritual things," he urged fellow citizens. "Let us, therefore, as a people set our faces resolutely against evil, and with broad charity, with kindliness and good-will toward all men, but with unflinching determination to smite down wrong, strive with all the strength that is given us for righteousness in public and in private life. ... I recommend that the people ... meet devoutly to thank the Almighty for the many and great blessings they have received in the past, and to pray that they may be given the strength so to order their lives as to deserve a continuation of these blessings in the future."

Source: Library of Congress
William Howard Taft
1909-1913William Howard Taft

Raised Unitarian, Taft described his religious beliefs: "I am a Unitarian. I believe in God. I do not believe in the divinity of Christ, and there are many other of the postulates of the orthodox creed to which I cannot subscribe. I am not, however, a scoffer at religion but on the contrary recognize, in the fullest manner, the elevating influence that it has had and always will have in the history of mankind."

Despite regular attendance at All Souls Church, Taft was accused of being an infidel or atheist during his presidential bid in the 1908 campaign. Taft responded: "To go into a dogmatic discussion of creed I will not do whether I am defeated or not. If the American electorate is so narrow as not to elect a Unitarian, well and good. I can stand it."

As president, Taft acknowledged "Almighty God" and called on citizens to recognize and thank God for the blessings bestowed upon the nation. He lost his re-election campaign in 1912, and in 1917 he delivered a speech called "The Religious Convictions of an American Citizen," which many supporters wished he had given during his election campaign: "Unitarians believe that Jesus Christ founded a new religion and a new religious philosophy on the love of God for man, and of men for one another, and for God, and taught it by his life and practice, with such Heaven-given sincerity, sweetness, simplicity, and all-compelling force that it lived after him in the souls of men, and became the basis for a civilization struggling toward the highest ideals," he explained. "[Unitarians] feel the life of Jesus as a man to be more helpful to them, as a religious inspiration, than if he is to be regarded as God in human form. ... Unitarianism offers a broad Christian religious faith that can be reconciled with scientific freedom of thought and inquiry into the truth."

Source: Library of Congress
Woodrow Wilson
1913-1921Woodrow Wilson

Regarded as one of the most theological presidents, Wilson publicly joined the Presbyterian Church in 1873. Both his father and uncle were Presbyterian ministers, though his uncle was removed from the ministry after preaching evolution. The Presbyterian Church split over the issue of the scientific theory of evolution versus the inerrancy of the Bible. As president, he responded to a letter questioning his belief in evolution, writing: " Of course, like every other man of education and intelligence I do believe in organic evolution. It surprises me that at this late date such questions should be raised."

Wilson's father had assured him that faith was more important than doctrinal details, saying: "My son, don't you worry about doctrinal problems. Ask yourself this question: Do I love and want to serve the Lord Jesus Christ? If you can answer that in the affirmative, you need not worry."

Named the first non-minister president of Princeton University in 1902, Wilson moved to modernize the university, installing Roman Catholic and Jewish professors as well as expanding the science curricula. He made up for his lack of a theology degree by adhering to a daily practice of Bible study before bed and embarking on a lifelong study of Christian history and belief. In 1911, he spoke of his personal views on the Bible: "[The Bible is] a book which reveals men unto themselves, not as creatures in bondage, not as men under human authority, not as those bidden to take counsel and command of any human source. It reveals every man to himself as a distinct moral agent, responsible not to men, not even to those men whom he has put over him in authority, but responsible through his own conscience to his Lord and Maker. Whenever a man sees this vision he stands up a free man, whatever may be the government under which he lives, if he sees beyond the circumstances of his own life."

Elected president in 1912, Wilson served two terms. In 1915, he spoke with a friend about his faith: "My life would not be worth living if it were not for the driving power of religion, for faith, pure and simple. I have seen all my life the arguments against it without ever having been moved by them. ... [N]ever for a moment have I had one doubt about my religious beliefs. There are people who believe only so far as they understand -- that seems to me presumptuous and sets their understanding as the standard of the Universe. ... I am sorry for such people."

Source: Library of Congress
Warren Harding
1921-1923Warren Harding

"It is my conviction that the fundamental trouble with the people of the United States is that they have gotten too far away from the Almighty God," Harding famously said. Harding's God was a unifying force, his Jesus a role model on how to make the world a better place. In one of his last public appearances, Harding said: "We need less of sectarianism, less of denominationalism, less of fanatical zeal and its exactions, and more of the Christ spirit, more of the Christ practice, and a new and abiding consecration and reverence of God. ... Christ was the Prince of Peace, and we who seek to render His name glorious must move in the ways of peace and brotherhood and loving service."

Harding's mother, a Methodist, gave him the middle name Gamaliel in hopes that he would become a "teacher of God's people." He later joined the Baptist Church, though scholars debate whether he was baptized Methodist or even whether he flirted with atheism. Though Harding remained a member of the Baptist Church throughout his life, his family later became Seventh-day Adventists, and he himself joined the Masons and the Elks. He attended church regularly, but he did not reveal much about his personal faith or views. He did not take communion, finding himself unworthy of the honor.

In his inaugural address, Harding said: "Surely there must have been God's intent in the making of this new-world Republic. ... We have seen the world rivet its hopeful gaze on the great truths on which the founders wrought. We have seen civil, human, and religious liberty verified and glorified."

He concluded his address quoting the Bible: "I have taken the solemn oath of office on that passage of Holy Writ wherein it is asked: "What doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" This I plight to God and country."

Source: Library of Congress
Calvin Coolidge
1923-1929Calvin Coolidge

Though he had always attended church regularly, Coolidge became a member of the Congregational Church only after becoming president. In his autobiography, he wrote: "While there had been religious services, there was no organized church society near my boyhood home. Among other things, I had some fear as to my ability to set that example which I felt always ought to denote the life of a church member." When the congregants of the church he attended in Washington, D.C., voted to extend membership to him in 1923, he was pleased: "This declaration of belief in me was a great satisfaction."

Though famously reticent in discussing his personal beliefs or opinions, Coolidge wrote in his autobiography: "Any man who has been placed in the White House cannot feel that it is the result of his own exertions or his own merit. Some power outside and beyond him becomes manifest through him. As he contemplates the workings of his office, he comes to realize with an increasing sense of humility that he is but an instrument in the hands of God."

Source: Library of Congress
Herbert Hoover
1929-1933Herbert Hoover

Hoover was born into a devout Quaker family in West Branch, Iowa, on Aug. 10, 1874. His family had been Quakers since the early 18th century and had traveled to the New World in search of religious freedom. Throughout his childhood, he went to meetinghouse services every Sunday, and, in his own words, read the Bible "in daily stints from cover to cover." Hoover attended Stanford University in the 1890s, where he sat in on many lectures discussing new scientific developments, including evolution; he had little difficulty reconciling these new scientific concepts with his own personal faith.

In a 1950s national radio broadcast he elaborated: "Our discoveries in science have proved that all the way from the galaxies in the heavens to the constitution of the atom, the universe is controlled by inflexible law. Somewhere a supreme power created these laws. At some period, man was differentiated from the beast, and was endowed with a spirit from which springs conscience, idealism and spiritual yearnings. It is impossible to believe that there is not here a divine touch and a purpose from the creator of the universe. I believe we can express these things only in religious faith."

Hoover's work as a civil engineer led him to travel abroad extensively, making it difficult for him to attend church regularly, but when he returned to the United States, he attended informal Quaker meetings.

Religion was a primary issue in the 1928 presidential election, which saw Hoover easily triumph over Democratic candidate Al Smith, a Roman Catholic. Perhaps because of his own unorthodox religious background, Hoover never attempted to exploit many Americans' unease over Smith's faith. In his Aug. 11, 1928, speech accepting the Republican presidential nomination, Hoover declared: "In this land, dedicated to tolerance, we still find outbreaks of intolerance. I come of Quaker stock. My ancestors were persecuted for their beliefs. Here they sought and found religious freedom. By blood and conviction I stand for religious tolerance both in act and in spirit. The glory of our American ideals is the right of every man to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience."

Smith's religion, however, was likely a deciding factor in Hoover's landslide victory; Hoover received 444 electoral votes to Smith's 87 and carried all but eight states. Because his Quaker faith prevented him from swearing the inaugural oath of office, Hoover elected to take an affirmation of office instead. He is one of only two U.S. presidents to do this.

During his presidency, Hoover helped organize the building of a Quaker meetinghouse in Washington, D.C. He remained relatively private regarding his own religious practice but did not hesitate to invoke religious imagery during his speeches. In an Oct. 22, 1932, speech, he declared that America "has survived thus far because it was founded in the favor of God by men and women who were more concerned with His will than they were with selfish aggrandizement and material acquisitions." Hoover firmly believed America was founded on Christian principles. He wrote of the Bible: "As a nation we are indebted to the Book of Books for our national ideals and representative institutions. Their preservation rests in adhering to its principles."

Source: Library of Congress
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
1933-1945Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Roosevelt was born on Jan. 30, 1883, and christened two months later at St. James Episcopal Church in Hyde Park, N.Y. Roosevelt would remain a communicant in the Episcopal Church his entire life, and would later be elected a vestryman and eventually senior warden.

As a teenager he participated in missionary work organized by his boarding school, including on multiple occasions playing organ at rural church services. In his adult life, however, Roosevelt seldom attended church -- a source of aggravation to his wife, Eleanor. In a 1918 diary entry, she noted that his recent attendance two weeks in a row was surely a "great sacrifice to please me." According to Eleanor, Roosevelt was more likely to go out golfing with his friends on Sunday morning than he was to be found in prayer.

Despite his lack of church attendance, Roosevelt maintained a personal inner faith. According to Eleanor, he "had a strong religious feeling and his religion was a very personal one. I think he actually felt he could ask God for guidance and receive it. ... He never talked about his religion or his beliefs and never seemed to have any intellectual difficulties about what he believed." Although less inclined to publicly invoke religious imagery than some of his predecessors, Roosevelt did reference Christian concepts in many of his speeches. He mentioned God in all four of his inaugural addresses, asking for divine guidance through difficult times.

Roosevelt asserted the importance of the Bible in American history, declaring: "We cannot read the history of our rise and development as a nation, without reckoning with the place the Bible has occupied in shaping the advances of the Republic. Its teaching, as has been wisely suggested, is ploughed into the very heart of the race." In his famous 1941 State of the Union address, Roosevelt included freedom of religion as one of the essential "four freedoms" that he felt were becoming increasingly threatened by the turmoil abroad.

A year later, in the 1942 State of the Union address, delivered less than one month after the United States entered World War II, Roosevelt framed the conflict in religious terms: "Our enemies are guided by brutal cynicism, by unholy contempt for the human race. We are inspired by a faith that goes back through all the years to the first chapter of the Book of Genesis: 'God created man in his own image.' We on our side are striving to be true to that divine heritage. We are fighting, as our fathers have fought, to uphold the doctrine that all men are equal in the sight of God."

Source: Harry S. Truman Library & Museum
Harry S. Truman
1945-1953Harry S. Truman

becoming a member of the First Baptist Church in Grandview, Mo. He would remain a member of the church his entire life, though his attendance at Sunday services became increasingly rare as he grew older.

As president, Truman made frequent references to religion and Christianity in his public speeches. On April 16, 1945, in a statement before a joint session of Congress, Truman asked God for guidance, saying, "I ask only to be a good and faithful servant of my Lord and my people." Truman repeatedly referred to America as a "Christian nation" and declared that it "was established by men who believed in God. You will see that our Founding Fathers believed that God created this nation. And I believe it, too."

But Truman also believed in the importance of religious freedom and displayed respect for all faiths. In a letter written after his time as president, he stated: "Jews, Mohammedans, Buddhists and Confucians worship the same God as the Christians say they do. He is all seeing, all hearing and all knowing. Nothing, not even the sparrow or the smallest bug escapes His notice."

Truman viewed the Cold War, which escalated in intensity throughout his time as president, as essentially a moral conflict. He believed that communism was "a tyranny led by a small group who have abandoned their faith in God. These tyrants have forsaken ethical and moral beliefs." Truman saw religion as instrumental in combating communism's spread, and so he attempted to start a global "Campaign of Truth." In a 1947 letter to his wife, Truman explained his plans: "We are talking to the Archbishop of Canterbury, the bishop at the head of the Lutheran Church, the Metropolitan of the Greek Church at Istanbul, and the pope. I may send him to see the top Buddhist and the Grand Lama of Tibet. If I can mobilize the people who believe in a moral world against the Bolshevik materialists, who believe as Henry Wallace does 'that the end justifies the means' -- we can win this fight."

Privately, Truman's views on religion were somewhat idiosyncratic. In a 1911 letter to his wife, he wrote that Baptists "do not want a person to go to shows or dance or do anything for a good time. Well, I like to do all those things and play cards besides. So you see I am not very strong as a Baptist. ... I believe in people living what they believe and talking afterwards."

Truman once stated outright that he was "not a religious man." When he met with the evangelist the Rev. Billy Graham in 1950, he cut the meeting short in response to being told by Graham that he needed "faith in Christ and His death on the Cross." Truman would later denounce Graham as a "counterfeit" in his autobiography, Plain Speaking.

Born into a Baptist family in Lamar, Mo., on May 8, 1884, Truman attended church from a young age. He later claimed to have read the entire Bible twice through before starting school. He was baptized at age 18,

1953-1961Dwight D. Eisenhower

"I am the most intensely religious man I know," Dwight Eisenhower, former commanding general of the American forces in World War II, stated after returning to civilian life. "Nobody goes through six years of war without faith. That doesn't mean that I adhere to any sect. A democracy cannot exist without a religious base. I believe in democracy."

Deeply religious, Eisenhower's mother and father were both members of the Brethren in Christ Church, a Mennonite offshoot in Kansas, and were later involved in the "Bible Student" movement, a forerunner of Jehovah's Witnesses. Eisenhower recalled that his parents "believed the admonition 'the fear of God is the beginning of all wisdom.' Their Bibles were a live and lusty influence on their lives." At home and in town, his childhood revolved around religion. Eisenhower wrote of his childhood hometown, Abilene, Kan.: "The schools were three in number; churches abounded. From memory alone I can identify seven and everybody I knew went to church. (The only exception were people we thought of as the toughs -- poolroom sharks, we called them.) Social life was centered around the churches. Church picnics, usually held on the riverbank, were an opportunity to gorge on fried chicken, potato salad, and apple pie. The men pitched horseshoes, the women knitted and talked, the youngsters fished, and everyone recovered from the meal."

Though Eisenhower was not a member of a church when elected president in 1952, he became the first and only president to write and read his own prayer at his inaugural ceremony in 1953. "I did not want my Inaugural Address to be a sermon, by any means; I was not a man of the cloth," he explained. "But there was embedded in me from boyhood, just as it was in my brothers, a deep faith in the beneficence of the Almighty. I wanted, then, to make this faith clear without creating the impression that I intended, as the political leader of the United States, to avoid my own responsibilities in an effort to pass them on to the Deity. I was seeking a way to point out that we were getting too secular."

As the Cold War loomed, Christian leaders encouraged Americans to turn to God and away from secularism. Eisenhower agreed, saying, "Our form of government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious belief, and I don't care what it is." Eisenhower showed his commitment by joining the Presbyterian Church, in which his wife, Mamie, had been a longtime member, just weeks after taking office. He became the first president to be baptized while in office.

The following year, Eisenhower went further, signing a bill to add the phrase "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance. At the bill-signing ceremony on Flag Day in 1954, he said, "From this day forward, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural school house, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty. To anyone who truly loves America, nothing could be more inspiring than to contemplate this rededication of our youth, on each school morning, to our country's true meaning. Especially is this meaningful as we regard today's world. Over the globe, mankind has been cruelly torn by violence and brutality and, by the millions, deadened in mind and soul by a materialistic philosophy of life. Man everywhere is appalled by the prospect of atomic war. In this somber setting, this law and its effects today have profound meaning. In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America's heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country's most powerful resource, in peace or in war."

1961-1963John F. Kennedy

In 1960, John F. Kennedy became the second Roman Catholic to run for the presidency. The first, New York Gov. Al Smith, ran in 1928 and was the target of anti-Catholic bigotry.

By 1960, nativist and anti-Catholic sentiments in America had tempered somewhat, though a special committee, the Fair Campaign Practices Committee, met to issue a "Special Statement on Religion in the 1960 Campaign." Chief among its recommendations was that "no candidate for public office should be opposed or supported because of his particular religious affiliation."

Kennedy agreed: "Whatever one's religion in his private life may be, for the officeholder nothing takes precedence over his oath to uphold the Constitution and all its parts -- including the First Amendment and the strict separation of church and state," he told Look magazine.

But the controversy swirling around his religion forced him to confront the issue head-on in a 1960 speech in Houston: "I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish -- where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source -- where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials -- and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all."

He continued: "If I should lose on the real issues, I shall return to my seat in the Senate, satisfied that I had tried my best and was fairly judged. But if this election is decided on the basis that 40 million Americans lost their chance of being president on the day they were baptized, then it is the whole nation that will be the loser, in the eyes of Catholics and non-Catholics around the world, in the eyes of history, and in the eyes of our own people."

Source: Lyndon Baines Johnson Library & Museum
Lyndon Johnson
1963-1969Lyndon Johnson

After Kennedy's assassination, Johnson was sworn into office aboard Air Force One with his hand on Kennedy's copy of the Catholic Missal rather than a Bible. After being sworn in Johnson addressed the nation: "I will do my best. That is all I can do. I ask for your help -- and God's."

Johnson was born into a family that had deep Baptist roots on one side and a mixture of various beliefs on the other. His father's religious beliefs varied over time, as his brother Sam recalled: "He was deeply committed to certain ideas that you might consider religious. He was certainly a believer in the dignity of all human beings regardless of race or creed, and some of that rubbed off on all of us."

Johnson chose to join the Disciples of Christ Church, which emphasized good works. Though Johnson is not remembered for his personal piety, he made clear in his commitment to expanding civil rights and creating welfare programs that he believed that Christian duty required following Christ's message of compassion and mercy. In 1964, he said, "From our Jewish and Christian heritage, we draw the image of the God of all mankind, who will judge his children not by their prayers and by their pretensions, but by their mercy to the poor and their understanding of the weak. We cannot cancel that strain and then claim to speak as a Christian society."

Johnson's belief in helping the weak shaped how he viewed the war in Vietnam, which became a drain on his popularity as president, and his vision of building a "Great Society." He chose not to run for re-election in 1968. While he was still in office, Johnson asked the Rev. Billy Graham to preach at his funeral; Graham did so, officiating at Johnson's burial in 1973.

Source: Library of Congress
Source: National Archives & Records Administration
Richard Nixon
1969-1974Richard Nixon

Nixon was born into a devoutly religious Quaker family in Yorba Linda, Calif. His family attended an evangelical Quaker meetinghouse every Sunday, prayed silently before each meal, and observed strict prohibitions on drinking, gambling and swearing. While in middle school, Nixon played piano for Sunday school services and sang in the church choir. He taught Sunday school services throughout the majority of his undergraduate years in college. According to Nixon, in his youth he accepted the "literal correctness of the Bible, the miracles, even the whale story."

In 1933, while an undergraduate at Whittier College, which was founded by Quakers at the turn of the 20th century, Nixon attended lectures on "The Philosophy of Christian Construction" by Dr. J. Herschel Coffin. The course -- and the death of Nixon's elder brother, Harold, that same year -- had a profound effect on the young man's religious beliefs. In a series of essays written for the class, he declared that many of his childhood religious ideas had been "destroyed but there are some which I cannot bring myself to drop. ... I still believe that God is the creator. ... I still believe that He lives today, in some form, directing the destinies of the cosmos. ... For the time being I shall accept the solution offered by Kant, that man can only go so far in his research and explanations; from that point on we must accept God." While Nixon professed that he no longer accepted as fact many of the miracles mentioned in the Bible, he still expressed admiration for Jesus' message and noted that it would be his purpose in life "to follow the religion of Jesus as well as I can."

While president, Nixon regularly attended Key Biscayne Presbyterian Church and reportedly told H.R. Haldeman, his chief of staff, that he prayed every night. Nixon also maintained a close relationship with the Rev. Billy Graham. The evangelical preacher acted as Nixon's spiritual adviser and became a White House regular, preaching on several occasions at White House worship services instituted by the president. Nixon would occasionally mention God and religion in his public speeches, although not with the same frequency as some of his successors.

In a speech at the 1974 National Prayer Breakfast, Nixon discussed the necessity of tolerance, stating that it was imperative to "recognize the right of people in the world to be different from what we are. Even some may have different religions. Even some, we must accept, may not have a religious belief, as we understand a religious belief, to believe."

Despite this appeal, Nixon himself has been accused of intolerance. Since 1996, the National Archives has periodically released taped conversations between Nixon and his aides in which the president is heard making a variety of anti-Semitic remarks.

Source: Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library & Museum
Gerald Ford
1974-1977Gerald Ford

Ford grew up in Grand Rapids, Mich., and was raised in the Episcopalian Church. He would retain this affiliation throughout his life. Although his family attended Sunday worship services, Ford's religious upbringing was not particularly strict. He later noted that on Sundays he would "just go out and play baseball," something many of his friends in the more conservative Dutch Calvinist Church were not allowed to do.

While serving as a member of Congress, Ford attended weekly Bible study meetings with colleagues in the House of Representatives. There he met Billy Zeoli, the head of a large evangelical organization, and the two quickly became good friends. Starting in 1973, when Ford was serving as vice president under Richard Nixon, Zeoli began sending him weekly devotional notes, each containing a Bible verse and a short prayer. Zeoli acted as Ford's spiritual mentor throughout his time in the White House, and the two met frequently for Bible study.

Ford framed the contentious pardon in religious terms, declaring: "The Constitution is the supreme law of our land, and it governs our actions as citizens. Only the laws of God, who governs our consciences, are superior to it. ... I do believe, with all my heart and mind and spirit, that I, not as president but as a humble servant of God, will receive justice without mercy if I fail to show mercy."

Although Ford considered himself a religious man, he avoided using his spiritual convictions as a political tool. In the 1976 presidential election, which pitted Ford against the self-declared "born-again" Christian Jimmy Carter, Ford refused Billy Zeoli's advice to publish a book on his faith. He later stated: "I have always felt a closeness to God and have looked to a higher being for guidance and support, but I didn't think it was appropriate to advertise my religious beliefs."

Source: Library of Congress
Jimmy Carter
1977-1981Jimmy Carter

In the 16 years after John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, asked the American public to disregard the personal religious preferences of political candidates, the voting public had shown a general indifference to the religious beliefs of the presidential candidates. That changed when Jimmy Carter proclaimed himself a "born-again" Christian in the 1976 presidential primaries in North Carolina. A combination of disillusionment with public morality during the Nixon and Ford years and a kinship they felt with a candidate who spoke their language led millions of evangelical Christians to vote for Carter in 1976.

Describing his beliefs at the 1978 National Prayer Breakfast, Carter said, "For those of us who share the Christian faith, the words 'born again' have a very simple meaning -- that through a personal experience, we recommit our lives as humble children of God, which makes us in the realest possible sense brothers and sisters of one another."

As an 11-year-old growing up in Plains, Ga., Carter had accepted Christ as his savior and was baptized in the Baptist Church the following week. He later recalled that being born again was a process, not a moment: "Rather than a sudden flash of light or a sudden vision of God speaking, it involved a series of steps that have brought me steadily closer to Christ."

Thirty years later, when Carter's pastor preached a sermon in which he asked the congregation, "if you were arrested for being a Christian, ... would there be enough evidence to convict you?," Carter realized the answer would be no. Though he'd begun what would be a lifelong study of Christian theology after the death of his father, he felt he had drifted from his personal relationship to Christ. This sermon led him to recommit his life to Christ.

Following his presidency, Carter returned home to Georgia, resumed teaching Sunday school classes and wrote two books explaining his religious beliefs. When the Southern Baptist Convention, to which he belonged, came to espouse an increasingly conservative Christianity, Carter said, "I feel a threat in my own church from Baptist fundamentalists." He joined the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship when they broke away from the Southern Baptist Convention in 1993.

1981-1989Ronald Reagan

Though divorced and not a regular churchgoer, Reagan, not his born-again opponent Jimmy Carter, received the support of the newly mobilized religious right in the 1980 presidential campaign. Christian conservatives responded enthusiastically to Reagan's belief, expressed in a 1979 rally, that "the First Amendment was written not to protect the people and their laws from religious values, but to protect those values from government tyranny."

Raised and baptized in the Disciples of Christ Church, Reagan did not shy away from encouraging Christianity as president. Early in his presidency, he wrote a letter saying: "My daily prayer is that God will help me to use this position so as to serve Him. Teddy Roosevelt once called the presidency a bully pulpit. I intend to use it to the best of my ability to serve the Lord."

An unsuccessful 1981 assassination attempt caused Reagan to re-evaluate and deepen his faith. One of the Secret Service guards protecting Reagan, John Barletta, recalled Reagan reflecting: "God knew I needed a nudge. God wanted that assassination attempt to happen. He gave me a wake-up call. Everything I do from now on, I owe to God."

In 1982, Reagan supported a constitutional amendment to allow voluntary school prayer. A year later he awarded the Rev. Billy Graham the Presidential Medal of Freedom and proclaimed 1983 the "Year of the Bible." He called on Americans to join him: "Let us take up the challenge to reawaken America's religious and moral heart, recognizing that a deep and abiding faith in God is the rock upon which this great nation was founded."

Reagan disappointed some leaders of the religious right by putting domestic social issues on the back burner to economic initiatives and foreign affairs. Nor did Reagan deliver on his promises to reinstitute school prayer and outlaw abortion. Nonetheless, he left office in 1989 with overwhelming approval from his evangelical supporters.

Source: George Bush Presidential Library & Museum
George H.W. Bush
1989-1993George H.W. Bush

Born into a New England Episcopalian family, Bush did not enjoy the embrace of the religious right like his predecessor did. Unlike Reagan, emotional expression did not come naturally or easily to Bush. His reluctance to speak openly about what he considered private personal beliefs led some leaders of the religious right and conservative Christians to question his sincerity and depth of heartfelt Christianity.

Another point of mistrust from conservative Christians stemmed from Bush's adopting Reagan's pro-life platform when he became Reagan's running mate in 1980. This about-face from a candidate who had previously publicly espoused pro-choice views gave the impression that Bush was perhaps an opportunist who allowed his religious convictions to be swayed by political expediency.

In a speech given a few years after he lost his 1992 re-election campaign, Bush summed up the difficulties he had convincing the American public of his religious sincerity: "I felt uncomfortable, very honestly, talking about the depth of my religion when I was president. I'm an Episcopalian. I'm kind of an inward guy when it comes to religion. I felt it strongly. I think Lincoln was right: you can't be president without spending some time on your knees professing your faith and asking God for strength, and to save our nation. But I believe strongly in the separation of church and state. I don't believe a president should be advocating a particular denomination, or particular religion. And yet, I can tell you in direct response to your inquiry that we, in our family, say our prayers every night -- Barbara and I do, we say the blessing. And it's more than rote."

Source: U.S. Department of Defense
William J. Clinton
1993-2001William J. Clinton

In contrast to his predecessor, Clinton spoke evangelicals' language easily and often. Baptized at age 9 in the Park Place Baptist Church in Arkansas, Clinton was at home talking with church congregations. He recalled attending one of the Rev. Billy Graham's revivals as a child and describes it as a turning point in the history of the American South: "So here we were with neighborhood after neighborhood after neighborhood in my state on the verge of violence, and yet tens of thousands of black and white Christians were there together in a football stadium. And when he issued the call at the end of this message, thousands came down holding hands, arm in arm, crying. It was the beginning of the end of the Old South in my home state. I will never forget it."

During the 1992 presidential campaign, Clinton elaborated on his beliefs: "My faith tells me that all of us are sinners, and each of us has gone in our own way and fallen short of the glory of God." Though some conservative Christians never forgave Clinton for his affair with Monica Lewinsky, he spoke the following year of the glory of Christian grace: "I have been profoundly moved, as few people have, by the pure power of grace, unmerited forgiveness through grace -- most of all to my wife and daughter, but to the people I work with, to the legions of American people and to the God in whom I believe. And I am very grateful to all of you who have had any role in that."

Clinton did not have to face re-election after the Lewinsky scandal, but his actions while in office gave the 2000 Republican candidate for president, the born-again Christian George W. Bush, the opportunity to pledge to bring morality back to Washington.

2001-2009George W. Bush

Raised in an Episcopalian household, Bush attended both Episcopalian and Presbyterian churches with his family but did not at the time find his own faith. By 1984, he had a reputation as a frat-boy partier with a young wife, two daughters and a drinking problem. That year, he met an evangelist in Midland, Texas, and became a born-again Christian. But the conversion experience did not immediately change his life or solve his drinking problem.

In 1985, his parents asked the Rev. Billy Graham for help in guiding their son. Their conversations led Bush to rededicate his life to Christ, a pledge that led him to a Bible study class and eventually to give up alcohol entirely. Bush himself recalls: "There is only one reason that I am here in the Oval Office and not in a bar. I found faith. I found God. I am here because of the power of prayer."

When he ran for the presidency in 2000, Bush offered himself as a candidate who promised to restore honor and Christian morality to the White House. He won the support of evangelical and conservative Christians with his openness and willingness to discuss his faith, including a memorable exchange during the Republican primaries. Candidates were asked to name their favorite philosopher, and Bush answered simply, "Christ, because he changed my heart." The moderator responded, "I think the viewer would like to know more on how he's changed your heart." Bush replied: "Well, if they don't know, it's going to be hard to explain. When you turn your heart and life over to Christ, when you accept Christ as a savior, it changes your heart and changes your life. And that's what happened to me."

In his first executive order, Bush created the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, saying, "When we see social needs in America, my administration will look first to faith-based programs and community groups."

Bush's response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks showed a faith in a God who distinguishes and chooses between good and evil. "Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty have always been at war," he said. "And we know that God is not neutral between them." He also made a public plea for tolerance of Muslims and their faith: "The face of terror is not the truth faith of Islam. That is not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace."

Source: Library of Congress
Barack H. Obama
2009-presentBarack H. Obama

Raised in a secular household, Obama embraced Christianity after a spiritual awakening during his 20s. The sermons of Pastor Jeremiah Wright combined scriptural lessons with a call to social activism, which appealed to Obama, who was at the time a community organizer. Obama joined Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ.

Obama later described his decision: "I came to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world and in my own life. It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity one day and affirm my Christian faith. It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn't fall out in church, as folks sometimes do. The questions I had didn't magically disappear. The skeptical bent of my mind didn't suddenly vanish. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt I heard God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth and carrying out His works."

Obama's personal religion became a topic of debate and speculation during the 2008 election campaign, when opponents suggested that Obama was either a Muslim because of his father's heritage or a racist Christian, based on some of the Rev. Wright's controversial sermons. During the campaign, Obama was ultimately forced to separate himself fully from the pastor, and he resigned his 20-year membership at Trinity.

As a candidate, Obama delivered the keynote speech at a conference organized by the liberal evangelical minister Jim Wallis. "Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square," he said. "Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King -- indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history -- were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their 'personal morality' into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition."

In the same speech, Obama criticized the religious right and their argument of political issues. "I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons," he said, "but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all."

  • Sources:
  • The Religious Beliefs of Our President: From Washington to F.D.R. by Franklin Steiner (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1995)
  • The Faith of America's Presidents by Daniel J. Mount (Chattanooga, TN: Living Ink Books, 2007)
  • God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush by Randall Balmer (New York: HarperCollins, 2008)
  • American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation by Jon Meachem (NY: Random House, 2006)

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Published October 11, 2010

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