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Sunday Reflections

What about the religious faith of presidents?

By Rev. Dai Morgan

Did you see or read any of the media coverage of the recent Republican and Democratic national conventions? If so, did you happen to notice any references to God or religious faith?

Oh yeah! Both events supplied plenty of invocations, benedictions, times of prayer and addresses by notable clerics—representing a variety of religious demographics. During the main stage programming, the GOP was far more conspicuous in referring to God. But, the Democrats were not without their own religious references.

Though the Republican approach was more in-your-face during the convention, both parties made an effort to appeal to the religious sensibilities of Americans.

Some of this—from my own jaded perspective—was simply political showmanship. However, I also believe that much of it was driven by sincere motives and cannot be easily dismissed. Whatever opinion one might have about the mixing of religion and politics—which is not the same as mixing church and state—in America the two are thoroughly blended. For better or worse, like it or not, the blending of religion and politics is part of our cultural character.

This leads to an observation: Americans are not likely to elect a candidate to a major political office who claims to be an atheist, or even an agnostic. Professing a religious belief is perceived to be an indication of good character. Candidates who ignore this are not likely to have upwardly mobile political careers.

Be this as it may, a question arises: Does a president’s religious faith really matter in how he governs? In an interview with CNN, Darrin Grinder, author of "The Presidents and Their Faith," answers this question by saying, “I don’t think so.”

Grinder makes the following observation, “If I asked George W. Bush what he thought about torture, I think outside the presidency he would say he hates it. But he’d do it for the country if he thinks it’s right in terms of American security.”

Andrew Jackson provides evidence of how faith is not likely to be a factor in how a president governs. 

Jackson was a devout Presbyterian who read the Bible daily. Yet, he was also known for his violent temper and as a slaveholder. Jackson’s attitude and treatment of Native Americans was reprehensible. As president, he was responsible for the Trail of Tears forced displacement of the Cherokee from their homelands in the southeastern United States, a cruel action that cannot be justified by Christian teaching.

As perhaps the ultimate example, Grinder points to Richard Nixon. Nixon referred to himself as a “life-long Quaker and church-going Christian.” He played piano in church and taught Sunday school. His family and friends thought he would become a missionary or a preacher. As it turned out, he became “Tricky Dick,” paranoid and corrupt, brought down by the Watergate scandal, the only president to resign from office.

These cases, involving Christian presidents, represent the abandonment of the Christian ideology of love. In these examples, faith did not matter—and was probably forgotten.

Those who profess religious faith can be said to exist with one foot standing on the precepts of that faith and the other foot in the messy reality of the world. I image that the president of the United States is hip deep in the world. The challenge to honor one’s religious faith in the performance of that job must be excruciating difficult.

An example of a specific incident where a president was guided by the values of his faith, at least in part, is President John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Against the urging of his cabinet and military advisors, Kennedy refrained from offensive military action. His desire for a peaceful resolution and respect for the concerns and interests of his enemy averted an armed international incident and possible nuclear war.

John F. Kennedy was not an exemplar of Christian virtue. His faults and foibles have been well documented. Kennedy rarely discussed his faith—apparently, for political reasons. But, those who knew him well report that Kennedy never missed Sunday Mass, prayed on his knees every night and attended confession regularly.

On some matters he showed skepticism, but he was a lifelong follower of the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. Kennedy was a cultured and articulate man. That he would be unaware and uninfluenced by the highest ideals of his faith, during this time of crisis, would be impossible. It was part of his intellectual mix.

The question as to whether a president’s religious faith matters is more an invitation to think about the matter than a question that can be definitively answered. It seems to me that one can probably find examples to support answers of both “yes” and “no.”

Jimmy Carter, for example, would claim that his decision-making was highly dependant on his religious faith. However, Darrin Grinder’s assertion that a president’s religious faith does not really matter is intriguing and challenging. Both of the presidential candidates in this year’s election have been open and clear about their own religious practice, Barack Obama as a Christian, Mitt Romney as a Mormon.

Do you agree or disagree with Mr. Grinder’s observation that a president’s religious faith really doesn’t matter in how he governs? Should a president’s religious faith matter? Is it important to know a presidential candidate’s religious faith? How will knowledge of any candidate’s religious faith influence your vote?  

The Rev. Dai Morgan is pastor of Living Spirit Ministry-

Susan C Schwartz September 09, 2012 at 09:48 PM
Like the article. I think I would be interested in knowing the candidates actual practice. Does Romney attend worship? How often? How about Obama? I think that practice speaks louder than words.

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