Not all American presidents are created equal, and that’s certainly true in the realm of religion.
As Pew recently reminded its readers, all American presidents except Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson have a formal affiliation with Christianity, but the degree to which they practiced their religion is as varied as their politics.
So which presidents were the most religious? Well, that’s not an entirely fair question, since religious conviction is different from religious expression. Just because one does and says what religious people do and say doesn’t mean anyone can be sure of where their beliefs reside.
We can, however, attempt to analyze the outward expression of all past chief executives. And three seem to stand out most among the crowd.
George W. Bush (2001-2009)
The second Bush administration was widely known in the press for its reliance on faith and religiosity.
What The New York Times’ Ron Suskind called “the faith-based presidency,” George W. Bush's administration became famous (notorious to some) for open expressions of Christian devotion. Fundraisers and rallies were “filled with prayers and blessings,” according to Suskind.
Bush’s religiosity was apparent early on in his presidential career. When asked which thinker or philosopher he admired most during the Republican primary debate in Iowa in 1999, Bush responded “Christ” without hesitation.
“He changed my heart,” Bush said during the debate, further explaining his view that “when you turn your heart and your life over to Christ, when you accept Christ as your Savior it changes your heart. It changes your life, and that’s what happened to me.”
Summing up the president’s faith, author Stephen Mansfield described George W. Bush as “a man seeking fulfillment in faith.”
But Bush wasn’t always that way. His late-in-life conversion to evangelical Christianity is well-documented. And that conversion, according to Mansfield, influenced his approach to national leadership seen seldom — if ever — in other administrations.
James Garfield (1881-1881)
James A. Garfield has the distinction of being the only president who was a clergy member prior to his political service.
Famously deemed “the preacher president” during his brief tenure in office (Garfield was assassinated only six months into his presidency), he may hold the distinction of being the most theologically minded man to occupy the Oval Office.
Garfield gained notoriety as a teacher and preacher before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1863. His sermons were passionate examinations of the New Testament, and Garfield looked to the other prominent Christian thinkers of his day, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, with admiration. Like many abolitionist Northerners, Garfield believed the institution of slavery to be a sin in need of cleansing.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, in which Garfield served as a major general in the Union army, the former preacher argued vigorously that God would turn his back on the nation if the newly freed slaves were not accepted and protected by the country.
“In the great crisis of the war,” Garfield said in a speech to the House of Representatives in 1866, “God brought us face to face with the mighty truth, that we must lose our own freedom or grant it to the slave.”
Garfield’s political speeches were infused with religious rhetoric far beyond what his predecessors had employed, relying on biblical stories to help warn of what might become of the nation if justice were to be defeated.
“We have passed the Red Sea of slaughter; our garments are yet wet with its crimson spray,” he said in that same address to Congress. “We have crossed the fearful wilderness of war. We have heard the voice of God amid the thunders of battle commanding us to wash our hands of iniquity, to 'proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.’ ”
Jimmy Carter (1977-1981)
In the history of 20th century politics, no name is as ubiquitous with religion as Jimmy Carter.
“His frequent declarations that he was a born-again Christian proved difficult to ignore,” religious historian Randall Balmer wrote in his biography of Carter, “Redeemer.”
“For evangelicals he was speaking our language, and the fact that he did so openly and without shame or apology made the statements even more striking.”
Carter’s administration preceded what historians call the rise of the religious right, a conservative movement closely tied to the political influence of Baptist minister Pat Robertson that would help propel Ronald Reagan — a candidate with a decidedly more vague relationship to his faith than Carter, who nevertheless invoked God frequently in his public statements — to arguably one of the most consequential presidential wins of the 20th century.
Carter did, however, enjoy the support of his fellow evangelicals early in his administration and allowed himself to be defined by his faith. As president, he ruffled feathers by supporting the Roe v. Wade decision as good politics, but he opposed abortion personally (and vocally) because he believed it conflicted with his religious views.
Carter even taught Sunday School during his term in the White House.
“Jimmy Carter not only fit the definition of evangelical, he embodied a particular, activist strain of evangelicalism called progressive evangelicalism,” Balmer wrote, which he describes as interpreting “the prophetic calls for justice as a mandate for racial reconciliation and gender equality.”
After losing re-election to Ronald Reagan in 1980, Carter continued to speak out on political issues, claiming his faith to be the driving force behind his activism.
To date, he has written eight books that overtly discuss his religious beliefs, including a collection of his Sunday School lessons intended to aid Bible study groups.
Carter’s progressive evangelicalism remains the defining element of his legacy. After he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for “his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts” and his devotion to human rights, Carter spoke of his work in terms of a divine gift.
“The bond of our common humanity is stronger than the divisiveness of our fears and prejudices. God gives us the capacity for choice,” he said.
“We can choose to alleviate suffering. We can choose to work together for peace. We can make these changes — and we must.”
JJ Feinauer is a writer and Web producer for Deseret News National.