Forty-five percent of American Presidents were either Presbyterian or Episcopalian. Other faith traditions included evangelical churches, Deists, and one Catholic.
The role of religion in American politics has always affected voters and this is particularly true regarding the nation’s Presidents. In some cases, religion played some part in campaigns: John Quincy Adams, a Unitarian, was accused of being an atheist in 1828; in 1928 Alfred Smith’s Catholicism was an issue. Forty Presidents affiliated with the Protestant tradition; three claimed no affiliation and John F. Kennedy was the only Catholic. Whether subtle or overt, religion has always been important in national politics.
Religious Affiliations of American Presidents
There were eleven Episcopalians, beginning with George Washington, and nine Presbyterians. In some cases there was cross-over. Rutherford B. Hayes identified with the Episcopal, Presbyterian, and the Methodist traditions. James K. Polk was both a Presbyterian and a Methodist, baptized on his deathbed by a Methodist bishop.
Several Presidents claimed no official affiliation with any particular church, although they attended services. Martin Van Buren worshiped at Episcopal and Dutch Reformed churches; Andrew Johnson had no affiliation but frequently attended the Catholic Church, which he vigorously defended against Know-Nothingism in the 1850s.
Both Thomas Jefferson and John Tyler subscribed to Deism. Deism rejected an active God who intervened in his creation. While President, Jefferson, in 1804, authored The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, a work he revisited and enlarged in 1820. Jefferson’s Christ was the Enlightenment “historical Jesus” who, like Socrates, was a great moral and ethical teacher, but nothing more.
The Presidents and Non-Mainline Religious Affiliation
Running for the presidency in 1980, Jimmy Carter, a Baptist and a Sunday School teacher, stated that he was a “born again” Christian, introducing a phrase many Americans were unfamiliar with. Carter was one of four Presidents of the Baptist faith tradition that included Warren Harding, Harry Truman, and Bill Clinton (Southern Baptist; his wife was a Methodist).
During the 2008 presidential election, Barak Obama’s membership in the United Church of Christ caused controversy after his Chicago minister made several inflammatory remarks. President Obama, no longer a member of that church, has not yet settled on another church. James Garfield, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan were members of the Disciples of Christ while Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon were affiliated with the Society of Friends or Quakers.
Only one President, Teddy Roosevelt, was a member of the Dutch Reformed church and it was Roosevelt who, while President, endeavored to have the phrase “In God We Trust” removed from the nation’s coins. John F. Kennedy was the only Roman Catholic and Calvin Coolidge the only Congregationalist.
Religious Affiliation in Political Families
Only two related Presidents, John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams, followed the same religious tradition; both were Unitarians. George Bush was an Episcopalian but his son, George W., belonged to the Methodist faith. Benjamin Harrison attended the Presbyterian Church although his Great Grandfather, William Henry Harrison, was an Episcopalian.
Presidents Affiliated with the Episcopal Church
- George Washington
- James Madison
- James Monroe
- William H. Harrison
- John Tyler (also a Deist)
- Zachary Taylor
- Franklin Pierce
- Rutherford B. Hayes
- Chester A. Arthur
- Franklin D. Roosevelt
- Gerald Ford
- George Bush
The Continued Effect of Religion
Although John Quincy Adams was the first President to quote scripture in his inaugural address, it was not until Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural that the practice became normal. Prior to the enunciation of “separation of church and state” by the Supreme Court, Presidents, indirectly, promoted religious concerns.
Harry Truman initiated the first “day of prayer” in 1952; Dwight D. Eisenhower began the tradition of White House prayer breakfasts. Numerous presidential speeches have ended with, “God bless America.” If history is a guideline, religion will continue to play a role in the political campaigns and personal lives of American Presidents.
- William A. DeGregorio, The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents (Gramercy Books, 2001)
- Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries (Yale University Press, 1985)