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In this presidential election year, the public often looks at what a candidate says he believes, and this seems like a good thing to do, but did you know that historically the religion a president professes doesn’t seem to predict his behavior or success in office?

Hi, I’m Rex Rogers and this is episode #146 of Discerning What Is Best, a podcast applying unchanging biblical principles in a rapidly changing world, and a Christian worldview to current issues and everyday life.



This is a presidential election year, and a raucous one at that, so perhaps we should pause at least once and think about whether the ultimately elected president’s religion even matters.

Let’s begin with the best. Abraham Lincoln is near universally considered the greatest president in American history. Many scholars also regard Lincoln as America’s greatest “civil theologian.” Lincoln remains the only president who used the name Jesus Christ rather than simply God in his public utterances. His Second Inaugural Address delivered March 4, 1865, stands as one of the most impressive theologically infused orations in American political history. 

However, Christian historian Mark A. Noll said, “Considerable uncertainty arises…when Lincoln’s own religion is examined. On the one hand, it is obvious that Christianity exerted a profound influence on his life…On the other hand, Lincoln never joined a church nor ever made a clear profession of standard Christian beliefs. While he read the Bible in the White House, he was not in the habit of saying grace before meals…(yet) Lincoln's speeches and conversation revealed a spiritual perception far above the ordinary. It is one of the great ironies of the history of Christianity in America that the most profoundly religious analysis of the nation's deepest trauma came not from a clergyman or a theologian but from a politician who was self-taught in the ways of both God and humanity.”

Yet if Americans had looked simply to Lincoln’s record of church affiliation and public professions of spiritual rectitude, they never would have elected him.

So, does a president’s religion matter?  Yes and No. Yes, if religion is defined as personal convictions, attitudes, behaviors, and character based upon theological understanding. No, if religion means denominational affiliation, spiritual posturing, a capacity for quoting Scripture or using its phrasing in slogans for political objectives—think Bill Clinton’s “New Covenant”—or even having the “right” view on litmus test political issues. In recent American decades the electorate and certainly the “Christian community” have focused more on the latter than the former.

Let’s look back at a few presidents. President Harry S. Truman was a gifted leader who made it to the White House on talent, hard work, common sense, and FDR’s untimely death. Truman’s presidency proved momentous, and his leadership is gaining respect as decades pass. He claimed to be a Baptist, but his penchant for cursing during radio addresses and his “Give ‘em hell, Harry” approach disillusioned many of his Christian supporters.

In 1960, pundits predicted Democrat JFK would never win the nomination much less the presidency because he was Catholic. Then Kennedy won the primary in heavily Protestant West Virginia by landslide.  After that, not many people talked about whether a President Kennedy would be subservient to the Pope. As it turned out, Kennedy’s Catholicism was in little evidence during his presidency, while his sexual adventurism with Marilyn Monroe and others took more of his time, coming to light years after his assassination in 1963. 

Following the unpopular and morally crude LBJ, a member of the Disciples of Christ, and an even more unpopular war, Republican Richard M. Nixon won the presidency on a second try in 1968.A Quaker, his presidency, reputation, and legacy bowed to resignation in 1974, the victim of his actions in the Watergate cover-up. The “law and order” President left office a lawbreaker. 

In 1976, Democrat Jimmy Carter was embraced by Christians and appreciated for declaring himself “born again.” He taught Sunday School even as President. In the 2000s, Republican George W. Bushexperienced much the same, acceptance by Christians and appreciation for his saying “Jesus Christ” was his favorite political philosopher. There’s little doubt both Carter and Bush are genuine believers. Yet their political views are dramatically different, and both experienced degrees of rejection by Christians for what some consider ineffective presidencies. 

During the 1980s, Ronald Reagan was regarded as deeply religious, but he rarely went to church. Reagan’s religious convictions and certainly his spiritual life are variously even contradictorily described by members of his own family.     

During the 1990s William Clinton’s administration enjoyed a good economy and is remembered for positive accomplishment. But Baptist Clinton, who claims Christian faith and discusses religious matters knowledgeably, conducted a White House affair with Monica Lewinsky, then lied about it under oath.       

Former president Barack Obama repeatedly said he is a Christian, yet some still express concerns about his religious heritage, i.e., his Muslim father and his education in Muslim schools.    

Donald Trump has a record of no real church attendance, earlier lived a promiscuous life with multiple marriages, and said he never asked God for forgiveness because he didn’t know of anything for which he needed forgiveness. Yet while President, Mr. Trump held up the Bible in a photo-op in front of a Washington, D.C. church and he has consistently defended religious liberty. 

President Joe Biden makes a show of being Catholic, crosses himself publicly, but some American bishops say he should be denied the Eucharist because of his views of reproductive rights. Biden promotes abortion on demand to birth, calls it a constitutional right, pushes this view on other nations of the world as a requirement to qualify for US foreign aid. He is also known for roaring temper, a filthy vocabulary, and questionable financial ethics.

Have you heard the expression, “Americans get the President they deserve”? What this means is that Presidents are often more a symptom than a cause. Yes, who they are is important and can influence the course of the nation’s future. But who elected them in the first place is what’s key.

For example, about 68% of Americans consider themselves Christians, but only 6% of Americans hold a biblical worldview. Less than half of those who self-identify as Christians actually “born again.” And when you look deeper at biblical worldview, well, beginning with older generations down to the youngest, biblical worldview understanding falls off a cliff:

65+           8% have a biblical worldview.

50s-64      5%

30s-40s    3%

30-under, 1%

Christian social researcher, George Barna, says, “The biblical worldview is shuffling toward the edge of the cliff.  As things stand today, biblical theism is much closer to extinction in America than it is to influencing the soul of the nation.” 

If this is the population electing our presidents, is it then any wonder we get presidents who are not necessarily paragons of virtue?

The US has had effective Presidents whose religious inclinations were seemingly of little consequence in their lives. And we’ve had ineffective Presidents whose faith meant a great deal to them, as well as Presidents with glaring personal issues whose religious identity was promoted. It is, therefore, difficult to escape the conclusion that professed religion doesn’t predict much about political leaders’ actions.

So, what really matters in terms of a President’s spiritual quality? The same thing that matters for the rest of us—character, founded upon worthy values. Is the political leader honest, truthful, humble, respectful, gracious, trustworthy, diligent in work, and moral? This may sound like the political leader is running for Boy or Girl Scout. But give the Scouts credit, they figured out a long time ago what makes a person a better person, and leader.  

Pay less attention to candidates’ religious identity and scripted photo-ops and more attention to the pattern of their lives.     

Scripture reminds us—“In the Lord’s hand the king’s heart is a stream of water that he channels toward all who please him. A person may think their own ways are right, but the Lord weighs the heart.”  Prov 21:1-3

“Righteousness,” we are told, “exalts a nation Prov 14:34, not only a president’s but more importantly our own, the people’s values, attitudes, and behaviors.  

But either way, we should not worry, “for the kings of the earth belong to God; he is exalted” Ps 47:9.


Well, we’ll see you again soon. This podcast is about Discerning What Is Best. If you find this thought-provoking and helpful, follow us on your favorite podcast platform. Download an episode for your friends. For more Christian commentary, check my website, r-e-x-m as in Martin, that’s 

And remember, it is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm.

© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2024     

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