Over at GNXP, Razib Khan points out the errors1 some media commentators have made when they’ve claimed that if Mitt Romney wins the 2012 presidential election, he would be the first non-Christian president in the United States, or least the first president outside of “orthodox” Christianity.2 3 Razib points out that this is simply not true – we have had non-Christian presidents before, and cites President Taft (a Unitarian) as an example.
Well, as it turns out, we have had a lot of Presidents whose religious beliefs placed them outside of orthodox Christianity – including Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln – and other presidents whose devotion to Christianity are highly doubtful – including Eisenhower.
I’m not interested in the debate about whether Mormons are Christians or not; frankly, I find that debate to be fruitless and boring. But I do think it is very interesting to see just how many of our presidents have been irreligious or held non-traditional religious beliefs. It is nice to help dispel people’s ignorance about American history and about the purported orthodoxy and piousness of our forefathers, especially when people who are historically misinformed try to justify their religious prejudice on the basis of ignorant misunderstandings of American history. Some of these presidents were closer to traditional Christianity than others, but likely none of them would meet the strict definitions for orthodoxy being bandied about by commentators and conservative Christians. So, without further ado, the following is my list of America’s irreligious and non-Christian presidents:4
Washington did attend church, but not regularly (for example, attending just sixteen times in 1760 and fourteen times in 1768).5 Ministers at the churches where he attended mentioned that he did not take communion.6 After he had died the minister at one of the churches Washington frequently attended was asked about Washington’s religious beliefs, to which the minister replied,
“Sir, Washington was a Deist!”7 Deists generally rejected the divinity of Jesus and rejected the idea of a personal god who intervenes in the affairs of humankind. They were definitely not traditional Christians.
Benjamin Franklin was one of the Founding Fathers and a genius. He helped create the American system of government. However, he never served as president.
His age, when George Washington became the first President of the United States in 1789, Franklin was 83 years old
Ezra Stiles (1727–1795), the Calvinist president of Yale College, was curious about Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) and his faith. In 1790, he asked the nation's senior statesman if he would commit his religious beliefs to paper. Franklin agreed. He was nearing the end of his life - he died six weeks later - and possibly believed this was as good a time as any to summarize the religious creed by which he lived.
"Here is my Creed," Franklin wrote to Stiles. "I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by His Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we render to him, is doing Good to his other Children. That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this ... As for Jesus of Nazareth ... I think the system of Morals and Religion as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw ... but I have ... some Doubts to his Divinity; though' it is a Question I do not dogmatism upon, having never studied it, and think it is needless to busy myself with it now, where I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble."
The narrative was classic Franklin, witty and to the point. Religion was worthless unless it promoted virtuous behavior. Jesus was the greatest moral teacher who ever lived,
but he was not God.
John Adams was a Unitarian.8 Unitarians reject trinitarianism, and are thus not traditional or orthodox Christians.
Jefferson rejected the divinity of Jesus, the resurrection, and the miracles of the New Testament.9 He also rejected the doctrine of the trinity.10 His beliefs seemed to have incorporated elements of
Deism11 and Unitarianism.12
Deism / Unitarianism.13
At least one scholar, Franklin Steiner, has concluded that it was doubtful he had religious beliefs,14 and others have classified him as a
John Quincy Adams
Historian Mark Noll explained that “Lincoln never joined a church nor ever made a clear profession of standard Christian belief.”19 Wikipedia explains that
William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner, stated that Lincoln admired
deists Thomas Paine and Voltaire, and had read and knew of Charles Darwin before most. “He soon grew into a belief of a universal law, evolution, and from this he never deviated.”20
Some people claimed that Lincoln converted to Christianity after his son died and as the Civil War raged on. Several of his close associates, however, denied this. Lincoln’s private secretary, Colonel John G. Nicolay, stated in 1865 that “Mr. Lincoln did not, to my knowledge, in any way change his religious ideas, opinions, or beliefs from the time he left Springfield to the day of his death.”21 Judge David Davis , Lincoln’s lifelong friend and executor said that Lincoln “had no faith in the Christian sense of the term.”22 And finally, Wikipedia explains:
His biographer, Colonel Lamon, intimately acquainted with him in Illinois, and with him during all the years that he lived in Washington, says: "Never in all that time did he let fall from his lips or his pen an expression which remotely implied the slightest faith in Jesus as the son of God and the Savior of men." Both Lamon and William H. Herndon published biographies of their former colleague after his assassination relating their personal recollections of him. Each denied Lincoln’s adherence to Christianity and characterized his religious beliefs as deist or skeptical.23
Ulysses S. Grant
He was unbaptized and was never a member of any church, but he did accompany his wife to her Methodist church.24
William Howard Taft
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Until he became president, he did not belong to any church and had never been baptized. He was baptized as a Presbyterian only after he was elected president.26
The following presidents were not members of any church:27
William Henery Harrison
Rutherford B. Hayes
The following presidents have been classified as most likely being unbelievers:28
Martin Van Buren
Chester A. Arthur
So, by my count, out of the United States’ forty three presidents, eighteen were non-believers or unorthodox. That means 42% of the Presidents were not “traditional Christians.” If the next president is not a Christian, he will be joining a distinguished body of some of our country’s best leaders, a body that includes close to half of our presidents!
Update: Honorable Mentions
Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon were both Quakers. The Quakers are a religious group which has no set dogma, and there is a variety of belief amongst Quakers. Many, if not most, Quakers would self-identify as Christians.
Some conservative Christians, however, have accused the Quakers of not being Christian (much like they have done with Mormons). If you include Hoover and Nixon on our list, the number of non-Christian presidents rises to 20.
10 Holmes, David Lynn (2006). The Faiths of the Founding Fathers. US: Oxford University Press. pp. 225 pages. ISBN 0195300920; Clark, J. C. D.. The language of liberty, 1660-1832. p. 347. (letter to J.P.P Derieux, July 25, 1788, Papers vol 13, p 418)
11 Thomas Jefferson (1803). H.A. Washington (1861). ed. April 9, 1803 letter to Dr. Joseph Priestley; Albert Ellery Bergh, ed (1853). May 5, 1817 letter to John Adams.