Consistency is something of an American tradition – at least as far as our presidents are concerned. Forty-four individuals have served as Commander-in-Chief. (Grover Cleveland held two non-consecutive terms.) They came from 18 states, have all been male, and almost all claimed to be Christians. Only three were religiously unaffiliated: Jefferson, Lincoln, and Andrew Johnson. But who have been our most religious presidents?
Six stand out.
Famous for being a Baptist Sunday School teacher, 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, and I’m here to talk to you about Jesus Christ.” Carter read the Bible and prayed daily throughout his time in office, yet he would ultimately be rejected by the emerging evangelical right.
George W. Bush
This second-generation president was one of the most comfortable when it came to talking about his faith, as he courted religious leaders, and used overtly religious language to justify policy decisions. Bush once 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 public life.”
A proud Methodist, McKinley avoided drinking, swearing, and smoking. 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, “Goodbye, goodbye all. It’s God’s way. His will, not ours, be done. Nearer my God to thee, nearer to thee.”
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, 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.
Though he often struggled with faith and even doubted the divinity of Jesus Christ, Lincoln often utilized 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 any 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 his presidency, perhaps due to the conditions under which he served.
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 in order to better understand the New Testament.
About the Author
Jonathan Merritt writes and blogs on issues pertaining to faith and culture.