Which U.S. Presidents were the most religious?

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- Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart (1797), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (http://bit.ly/19oDCtk)

- Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart (1797), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (http://bit.ly/19oDCtk)

- Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart (1797), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (http://bit.ly/19oDCtk)

Only three American presidents have claimed no religious affiliation. – Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart (1797), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (http://bit.ly/19oDCtk)

Consistency is something of an American tradition–at least as far as our presidents are concerned.

Forty-three individuals have served as Commander-in-Chief (Grover Cleveland held two non-consecutive terms). Based on birth and residence, they hail from only 18 of the 50 states. All have been male and, with the exception of Barack Obama, all have been white. And almost all claimed to be Protestant Christians. Only three were religiously unaffiliated–Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Johnson–though these men were spiritual in their own right.

British writer G.K Chesteron referred to America as “a nation with the soul of a church” and our country has always expected our president to be something of a moral guide. As the 20th Century journalist Theodore White noted, “The Presidency hovers over the popular American imagination almost as a sacerdotal office, a priestly role for which normal political standards are invalid.”

But which U.S. presidents were the most religious?

It’s an admittedly difficult question given the high religiosity among presidents in general. So for this, I reached out to Randall Balmer, a historian of American religion at Dartmouth College and author of God in the White House and Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter. In his opinion, the following five commander-in-chiefs must be considered among the most religious. Each name is followed by some contextual information and my commentary:

Jimmy Carter: Famous for being a baptist Sunday School teacher (even after his term), Jimmy Carter is recognized as the first “born again” president. Prior to serving, Carter took a missionary journey in which he knocked on strangers doors and said, “I’m Jimmy Carter, a peanut farmer. Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior?” He read his Bible and prayed daily throughout his time in office, yet Carter was ultimately rejected by the emerging evangelical right.

George W. Bush: This second-generation commander-in-chief was certainly one of the most comfortable when it came to talking about religion, courting religious leaders, and using overtly religious language to justify policy decisions. Bush even famously remarked, “I believe God wants me to be president.” So intense was his spiritual fervor that Steven Mansfield concluded, “Whatever else the presidency of George W. Bush imprints on American history, it will at least have granted the nation an opportunity to rethink the role of religion in its public life.”

William McKinley: A proud Methodist, President McKinley avoided drinking, swearing, and smoking and other “sins.” He was a regular church attender while in office and according to eyewitnesses was quite an enthusiastic hymn-singer. He also believed that the government had a duty to spread both democracy and the Christian religion abroad. McKinley’s last words before death were reportedly, “Good-bye, good bye, all. It’s God’s way. His will, not ours, be done. Nearer my God to Thee, nearer to Thee.”

James Madison: President Madison was a faithful Episcopalian who signed a federal bill to appropriate funds for Bible distribution. Madison served on the Congressional committee that established and selected Congressional chaplains and he encouraged all public officials to openly declare their faith. Later in life, president Madison retracted many of his beliefs–arguing that government-paid chaplains and president-led prayers were unconstitutional–but he is still one of America’s most religious heads of state.

Abraham Lincoln: Though he often struggled with faith and even doubted the divinity of Jesus Christ, he often utilized in religious language and quoted the Bible in public speeches. Many of Lincoln’s friends attested to his personal conversion, but Lincoln never explicitly declared it. He was not a formal member of a church, but only about a quarter of Americans were in 1860. Even still, Lincoln’s faith has been intensely felt among Americans since the time of presidency, perhaps due to the conditions under which he served.

Honorable Mention: President James A Garfield was the only clergyman to serve as commander-in-chief. He “was lauded for his skill as a preacher, and he learned Greek—the original language of the New Testament.”

  • I’m rather surprised Ronald Reagan did not make the list. To see why, you can read an excerpt from Paul Kengor’s book, “God and Ronald Reagan,” on BeliefNet: http://www.beliefnet.com/News/Politics/2004/02/Reagans-Penchant-For-Prayer.aspx

  • Greg

    Hmmm. I wonder what their gauge was? Easily, Washington, Jefferson, John Q Adams, John Adams, Grover Cleveland, among others heavily included God in their formal writings.

  • Jim

    Always surprised me that Carter was rejected by the Christian right, while Reagan, a divorced man from Hollywood who rarely attended church and did not espouse Jesus’ lifestyle, was embraced by the Christian right.

  • I would have expected to see Eisenhower on the list. He was an ordained Elder in the Presbyterian church and is held in high esteem in reformed circles.

  • Greg

    I think it probably has to do with his endorsements of Democrat candidates who were/are rabidly Anti-Life. One has to wonder what kind of Faith puts politics before God. That said, our current president is one who will never make the list of religious presidents. He has used religion as a political tool to get elected, but is about as far from God as it gets.

  • Nick

    “anti-life”? Carter is able to boast that not one bomb was dropped or one bullet fired by the US military during his presidency. That seems very pro-life and WWJD to me

  • Larry

    The key word is “Right” with Christian right. You are talking about ultra-conservatives. Religion and party politics being entangled with such a group.

    Jesus Christ could return to the Earth and run for office as a Liberal democrat, and they would vote for the other guy. 🙂

  • Larry

    Greg means Carter didn’t support forced pregnancy, wars and capital punishment. 🙂

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  • Minorkle

    I would add William Jefferson Clinton to this list

  • Minorkle

    Of course, conversely, Jesus could return as a Tea Party Republican and my Democrat friends would not vote for him

  • Geraard

    “Bush even famously remarked, “I believe God wants me to be president.”

    This is an indicator of lunacy, not religion.

  • Dave

    Jefferson respected the philosophy of Jesus but denied any supernatural aspects of him being a deity.

  • Sandy Kasper

    The Southern Baptist Convention endorsed the Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade. The anti-abortion crusade was a right-wing evangelical attempt to find something religious on which to oppose Jimmy Carter for reelection. Baptists and other religious sects were for legal abortion in the 60’s and early 70’s because wealthy women could always get them, and the anti-abortion laws only forced poor women to the back alleys.

  • The alternative to ‘forced pregnancy’ is dismembering unborn children and soaking them in caustic brine. Acting as press secretary to Kermit Gosnell is about your speed, Larry.

  • List of what? America’s top Lounge Lizard?

  • Why? Or is it your contention that people not impersonating an atheist are lunatics?

  • Part of what surprises you is derived from ignorance.

    Mr. Reagan was the defendant in a divorce suit brought by Jane Wyman. She did not have grounds. She just wanted out. Jane Wyman contracted five civil marriages to four different men. Reagan was the only one who managed to stay married to her for more than four years at a stretch and the father of all of her children. Mr. Reagan re-married in 1952 and remained married to Nancy Davis for the rest of his life If you do not have a sacramental conception of marriage (and, as an adherent to the Disciples of Christ, he did not), this presents no scandal. Even if he did, her two previous marriages would likely have been grounds for a declaration of nullity.

    As for ‘rarely attended church’, this was a meme planted by Tip O’Neill in 1984. It simply is not true that he ‘rarely attended’. Reagan’s church attendance at that time was truncated because he had a clanking security cordon and because he had spent the previous three months doing a great deal of traveling. All of this was explained at the time, but partisan Democrats have their story and they’re sticking to it. We have it from none other than his son that church-going was standard in the Reagan household when he was growing up.

    I find it interesting that partisan Democrats decry sectarianism out of one side of their mouths and then complain out of the other side that evangelicals are insufficiently sectarian (re Reagan and Romney). I think somewhere there is a partisan Democrat not given to fraud and striking attitudes. I just never encounter such people.

  • Larry

    I don’t think Jesus would ever be so ignorant. I haven’t seen a single TP politician who wasn’t either a raving lunatic or a double talking corrupt self-interested thief.

    The other difference is the democrats don’t identify themselves by religious politics. Republicans are under the delusion that they own God.

  • Noah172

    The inclusion of Madison is odd. Historians seem to think he was a deist, or at least not very public with his religious beliefs.

    Lincoln’s religious views are a matter of dispute; were he alive today he would not fall into the neat categories of religious right or Dawkinsian secularist. He should not be on this list.

    Bush and McKinley are an instructive pair. McKinley could be thought of as a proto-neocon, proto-Bush: starting a war on false pretenses; using American arms to impose political messianism on benighted brown people; managing the project incompetently; saddling our Republic with oh-so-vibrant money-pit diversity (a Philippine colony, Puerto Rico); exploiting Christianity for his personal political gain. BTW, I’m not the first person to think of this analogy: no less than Karl Rove has fancied himself as a latter-day Mark Hanna, McKinley political guru, and thus Bush as a latter-day McKinley.

    For the commenters questioning Carter’s piety in light of his left-leaning politics, I would point out that Reagan: signed a rather liberal abortion legalization statute as Governor of California, six years before Roe v. Wade; signed the nation’s first no-fault divorce law; and appointed Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court knowing that she was pro-choice (it wasn’t a secret). I don’t really care what Reagan’s private religious views were.

    Carter was feckless, but not a malicious disaster like Bush. It was Carter who had the guts to appoint Volcker and stick by him, at fatal political cost, to slay the inflation dragon. Carter managed, also at fatal political cost, to bring all the hostages from Iran home alive, without starting a dumb war. (The failure of the special ops rescue mission was an accident, not Carter’s fault.) Unlike some other former Presidents, he has not used his office to enrich himself. His politics are not my cup of tea, and I find the man often gratingly self-righteous, but I also think he is an honorable gentleman who has been unfairly demonized, whatever legitimate criticism may be leveled against him.

  • Noah172

    I would say hubris, not lunacy.

  • Noah172

    Obama has had to tread carefully on using religiosity to woo voters, what with the embarrassment of Jeremiah Wright and the rumors of Obama’s alleged Islamic faith, in addition to his core voters not really cottoning to political piety.

    No President in recent decades has exploited religion for political gain more than Bush.

  • Noah172

    I am also surprised at the absence of Wilson.

    That’s got me thinking: McKinley, Wilson, Bush. For all three you had ostentatious religiosity; messianic, utopian ideology; disastrous wars sold on propaganda.

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