Looking back at out nation’s presidents and how they viewed matters of religion and faith
Most if not all of our presidents have believed in God or some sort of Destiny. When faced with challenges to the New Deal in 1936 FDR had an aide provide him with this Lincoln quote: “I do the very best I know –the very best I can; and I mean to keep on doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what is said against me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, 10,000 angels swearing I was right would make no difference.”
John Adams said to his son John Quincy Adams on the eve of the 1796 election: “I look upon the Event as the throw of a Dice, a mere Chance, a miserable, meager triumph to either Party.” Ulysses S. Grant , traveling in Germany after his presidency, received praise for saving the Union during the war and responded: “There are many men who would have done far better than I did under the circumstances in which I found myself during the war. If I had never held command; If I had fallen; If all our generals had fallen, there were ten thousand behind us who would have done our work just as well…”
In 1920 after he was nominated to run for vice president, Coolidge was told by a friend, “All the country is talking about you today, Calvin.” Coolidge responded, “Are they? Well, by tomorrow they’ll have found something else to talk about.” Later, Coolidge as president said: “I am in the clutch of forces that are greater than I am.”
James Polk did not join a church until late in life.
Zachary Taylor , Andrew Johnson and Lincoln never did.
In the area of religion, one of the most interesting US presidents was Rutherford B Hayes who was president from 1877-1881.
Hayes was somewhat of an agnostic and did not belong to any church although his mother was devout. As a young man he read a chapter a day of the New Testament in German to improve his language skills. Throughout his life –from youth, to college, to frontier society in the 1850s, to the Civil War, to politics and to old age Hayes remained outside the orthodox fold.
In 1839 as a student at Kenyon College Hayes was in a minority of students who did not convert during a religious revival. He referred to those who did convert as “gone.” (As a student at Whittier College in California about nine decades later, Richard Nixon who joined many campus clubs did not join one of the most popular, a religious society.)
As a young man in the 1850s in Cincinnati Hayes read a biography of William Ellery Channing the Unitarian minister. He wrote his fiancé: “If ever I am made a Christian, it will be under the influence of views like his. He says the test of Christianity is the state of the heart and affections, not the state of a man’s intellectual belief…. The half of the orthodox creeds, I don’t understand and can’t fully believe.”
To his diary he was blunter: “Most of the notions which orthodox people have of the divinity of the Bible, I disbelieve. I am so nearly infidel in all my views, that…in spite of my wishes…none but the most liberal doctrines can command my assent.” (In this he was much like the older John Quincy Adams.) He wrote at about that time “Providence interferes no more in the greatest affairs of men than in the smallest and… Neither individuals nor nations are any more the objects of special interposition of the Divine Ruler than the inanimate things of the world.”
Hayes heard and met with Ralph Waldo Emerson. He liked Emerson but thought he was self-centered and did not carry his ideas to their logical conclusions. Hayes wrote that Emerson’s “misty notion(s) on religion” which emphasized that all people possessed some sort of “magnetism or divinity” was unsatisfying because it “ intimates or walks around about what he would say but don’t say.”
Death did not change Hayes’ views:
• His response to the death of a beloved cousin: “The mystery of our existence I have no faith in any attempted explanation of it. It is all a dark, unfathomed profound.
• His response in 1856 when his sister died and he was consoled by a religious friend that she was in Heaven: “If there are any Mansions of the blessed, she I know is there and I shall again be with her. But the agonizing doubt or disbelief leaves me with a ‘rooted sorrow’ which will remain.”
So what have our presidents believed? A few have been evangelicals. More stood for some form of Christian monotheism, hoped for an afterlife and made concrete policies for religious liberty
Hayes once told his son: “I hope that you will be benefited by your churchgoing. Where the habit does not christianize it generally civilizes.” Hayes wrote in his diary during the Civil War: “But will I not take refuge in the faith of my fathers at last? Are we not all impelled to this? The great abyss, the unknown future are we not happier if we give ourselves up to some settled faith? Am I not more and more carried along, drifted, toward surrendering to the best religion that the world has yet produced? It seems so.”
He attended the Methodist church with his wife. Hayes’ wife knew that he read the Bible “as he did Shakespeare, for illustration and language, for its true pictures of man and woman nature, for its early historical record.” Hayes called his wife Lucy “the Golden Rule incarnate.” After she died in 1889 Hayes acknowledged that although he longed for a life after death he did not think that “the conscious person …will meet you in the world beyond.” He thought that “we believe, or disbelieve, or are in doubt according to our own make-up to accidents, to education, to environment.”
This seems the final word: Late in life after hearing “a fair sermon” Hayes said: “I am a Christian according to my conscience…not of course by the orthodox standard. But I am content, and have a feeling of trust and safety.”
In all of this Rutherford B. Hayes like Lincoln pre-figured the liberal Protestantism of the twentieth century.
Here are some views of other presidents:
Harry Truman : “I am just an ordinary American citizen but I am also President of the United States. There may be a million other Americans who could hold this office as well as I, but I am holding it and I intend to fill it to the best of my capacity.”
Dwight Eisenhower had a saying that he had taken from his mother: “The Lord deals the cards. You play them.” Barack Obama told a Catholic priest in Chicago in 2005: “I really believe that my plan in life is to be president of United States, and that God has called me to go now.”
Millard Fillmore and William Howard Taft were Unitarians. Jefferson was a figure of the Enlightenment. Polk, Franklin Pierce and Grant were baptized after the presidency. Eisenhower was baptized as he began the presidency as he said “to set an example.” Ronald Reagan didn’t go to church as president but drew great support from evangelical Christians.
So what have our presidents believed? A few have been evangelicals. More stood for some form of Christian monotheism, hoped for an afterlife and made concrete policies for religious liberty.
What about Donald. J Trump? We don’t have commentary at this point.
(for those interested in American history and the fascinating connections between the American Presidents themselves, check out the book: The Forty-Three Presidents: What They Said To and About Each Other)