The Course of Reason

Top Four Presidents That Probably Shouldn’t Have Sworn in on the Bible

November 10, 2011

Buzz over the 2012 presidential campaign is growing more every day, and I’m all aflutter witnessing the shit storm that is the Republican primary unfold.  Watching “Rock-You-Like-A-Herman Cain” craftily dodge opportunities to refute cult slams on Mormon “Mittens” Romney got me thinking recently about the ambiguous religious affiliations of some of our past presidents.

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President Obama being sworn in by the Hulk.

The number of openly atheist elected officials in our country is flat-out pitiful. California seems be a secular haven in politics, being home to one of the lone shining stars, U.S. Representative and all around badass Pete Stark. Turn-of-the-century-badass Culbert Olson, governor of California from 1939-1943, actually became President of the United Secularists of America following his term. Jatheist-badass Lori Lipman Brown deserves some props here too, as does Jesse “The Body” Ventura. The list pretty much ends there.

The importance of religious belief in our leaders, while ever-present, seems to have come in waves throughout history. These waves have peaked depending on our country’s proximity to war, economic troubles, or other fear-inducing social contexts. For example, in the late 20th Century, the Cold War brought fear of nuclear Armageddon into the hearts of Americans, and all things associated with the Soviet Union were feared like nothing else, atheism unfortunately being one of them. Phrases similar to, “What are you, some kind of pinko atheist?” were used quite frequently.

But no matter the time period, one beautifully unifying concept has remained true for American voters: No atheists in the White House.

I would be hesitant to say we’ll ever see a non-religious, let alone openly atheist, U.S. president in our lifetime. Most polls still put atheists near or on the top of the list for people Americans don’t trust, but more promising polls show an ever-growing number of “nones” in the U.S (although these “nones” are not as irreligious as one might hope). Things looked pretty dreary for the possibility of a black president 50 years ago, and look at us now. So who’s to say we won’t eventually put an atheist in the white house?

Or, the more interesting question: Have we already done so?

Here’s my list of U.S. presidents most widely considered to be closet atheists, and my personal take on the possibility it’s true.

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President: Thomas Jefferson

I learned recently that Jefferson wore silly clothes (see above) in an attempt to mask his crippling phobia of public speaking.

Run-Down:

Jefferson’s unorthodox religious beliefs are likely the most well-known of any U.S. President. A lifelong philosopher and theologian, Jefferson is known for cutting and pasting together his own version of the New Testament, removing all references to Jesus’ divinity and supernatural abilities. Throughout all this, however, Jefferson still claimed to admire Jesus as a moral teacher. Generally, Jefferson cited a belief in “nature’s God,” a common way to refer to the idea of deism back in the day.

Jefferson holds the esteem of being one of the few presidents who was actively accused of being an atheist by their opponents, mostly as a campaign strategy. One newspaper wrote on Jefferson, “Should the infidel Jefferson be elected to the Presidency, the seal of death is that moment set on our holy religion, our churches will be prostrated, and some infamous ‘prostitute’, under the title of goddess of reason, will preside in the sanctuaries now devoted to the worship of the most High.” Whoa.

In perhaps the best summary of his religious beliefs, in 1819 Jefferson wrote, “I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know.”

Potentially Blasphemous Quotes:

Where to start?

“History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government.”

“Christianity is the most perverted system that ever shone on man.”

“Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason than of blindfolded fear.”

Final Verdict:

Deist, freethinker, awesome.

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President: Abraham Lincoln

Just look at that beard. Definitely an atheist.

Run-Down: 

Like Jefferson, I could devote many moons to the topic of Lincoln and his religious beliefs, or lack-thereof. There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the topic, with both the nonreligious and Christians alike quote-mining like there’s no tomorrow. Many from his time, such as wife Mary-Todd, claim he leaned this way and that, becoming more pious in office and with age. Others, including close friends and acquaintances, deny ever witnessing a change in his views. As many in grief are wont to do, he supposedly turned more fervently towards God following the death of his young son, who had ambitions to one day become a minister.

Considered Lincoln’s closest acquaintance, William Herndon attempted to describe the sheer complexity of Lincoln’s religious views, stating Lincoln was “at times, an atheist.” He also claimed Lincoln was a follower of Darwin (before it was cool). But Lincoln’s many speeches often contained references to the lord Almighty, providence, and all that jazz. Was it just a front?

Lincoln’s admiration of deists Thomas Paine and Voltaire are generally considered evidence of his similarly held viewpoints. He reportedly authored a manuscript challenging orthodox Christianity, based off Paine’s book The Age of Reason. A friend supposedly burned the essay to protect Lincoln from ridicule.

Potentially Blasphemous Quotes:

Sadly, many of Lincoln’s sassier anti-religion quotes have been deemed misattributed. But some fun ones still remain.

“The only person who is a worse liar than a faith healer is his patient.” Zing!

“The Bible is not my Book and Christianity is not my religion. I could never give assent to the long complicated statements of Christian dogma.”

(Another supposed quote from Lincoln on the Bible: “In regard to this Great Book, I have but to say, it is the best gift God has given to man. All the good the Saviour gave to the world was communicated through this book.” This was cited as false by his partner in law/crime, however. Abe, why must you tease us so?)

Like Jefferson, Lincoln’s political opponents used his ambiguous religious views against him, and his infamous wit doesn’t help make his responses any clearer. Lincoln was once asked by an opponent if he planned on going to heaven or hell. Lincoln replied, “...I intend to go to Congress.”

Oh, thanks. Smartass.

Final Verdict:

It’s hard to say whether Lincoln was actually quite pious, or just had a lot of well-meaning people in his life claim him to be. As much as I would like to throw my man Lincoln in the faces of snarky believers, he, while not a Christian, was probably a deist more than anything else. Damn.

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President: Ulysses S. Grant

Run-Down:

History tends to pity Grant. He lived a generally sad life, ended by a short struggle with cancer. He is one of the few presidents who was not affiliated with any specific church, and while believed by many to be a Methodist, he was in fact never even baptized (at least with his consent—apparently, a Reverend that hung around Grant once performed the rite without his permission while he slept). He attended church occasionally, although it is generally accepted that he only did so to appease his very religious wife. He was also a rather disobedient cadet while at West Point; he once failed to attend chapel, and was given eight demerits and put under arrest. Grant was also a firm advocate of the separation of church and state, and fought to have church property taxed equally to all other property.

Grant refused to admit to any religious leanings even while on his deathbed (Side-note: People being interrogated about this on their deathbed is a disturbing trend I found in my research. Like, if there was ever a time to leave someone the hell alone, this is it.) When questioned, he replied that “he had not given it deep study, and was unprepared to express an opinion. He intimated that he saw no use of devoting any special thought to theology at so late a day, and that he was prepared to take his chances with the millions of people who went before him.”

You tell ‘em, Ulysses!

Potentially Blasphemous Quotes:

I’m not sure how to cut down this giant hunk of text, as it is literally one ginormous gem of secular suck-it (Copyright Melanie Cornell 2011). On the topic of religious interference in public schools:

“The free school is the promoter of that intelligence which is to preserve us as a nation. If we were to have another contest in the near future of our national existence, I predict that the dividing line will not be Mason’s and Dixon’s, but between patriotism and intelligence on one side, and superstition, ambition and ignorance on the other. Let us all labor to add all needful guarantees for the more perfect security of FREE THOUGHT, FREE SPEECH AND FREE PRESS, pure morals, unfettered religious sentiments, and of equal rights and privileges to all men, irrespective of nationality, color or religion. Encourage free schools, and resolve that not one dollar of money be appropriated to the support of any sectarian school. Resolve that neither the State nor nation, or both combined, shall support institutions of learning other than those sufficient to afford every child growing up in the land the opportunity of a good common education, unmixed with sectarian, pagan or atheistical tenets. Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the Church, and the private schools, supported entirely by private contributions. KEEP CHURCH AND STATE FOREVER SEPARATE.”

Concerning the pressure he faced to attend church, he wrote in a letter to his cousin, “This is not republican.” Oh Grant, if you only knew how things have changed.

Final Verdict:

Despite his promisingly non-theist leanings, a note to his wife was found in Grant’s pocket following his death that, in addition to his expression of decidedly humanist hopes for his children’s future, bid her farewell until they “meet in another and, I trust, a better world.” While this might not bode well for his atheism, it is also a known fact that he attended church to appease his wife, so it wouldn’t be significantly out of the question to think that he may have written this for her as well. So, considering we only have one piece of sketchy evidence of Grant’s belief, I feel comfortable including him within our atheist ranks. Holla!

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President: William Howard Taft

Run-Down:

A self-described “Unitarian,” Taft dealt with criticisms on his religion throughout his career for letting his liberal faith show a little too much. While on the Republican ballot, he received many letters asserting that a Unitarian atheist like himself should not be allowed in the White House. One such letter claimed Taft viewed the savior as a “common bastard and low, cunning impostor,” which seems to me an oddly specific opinion to attribute to someone else. Taft’s beliefs were definitely the subject of some controversy, and in 1908 he found it necessary to refute a rumor that he was (gasp!) an atheist.

Before becoming president of the country, Taft was offered the presidency at Yale University, which was at the time affiliated with the Congregationalist Church. Taft shot them down, claiming in a letter “I believe in God. I do not believe in the divinity of Christ.” Sure you do, big guy.

Potentially Blasphemous Quotes:

“There is nothing so despicable as a secret society that is based upon religious prejudice and that will attempt to defeat a man because of his religious beliefs. Such a society is like a cockroach—it thrives in the dark. So do those who combine for such an end.”

“I do not believe in the divinity of Christ, and there are many other of the postulates of the orthodox creed to which I cannot subscribe.”

Final Verdict:

Relative to all our presidents, I would venture to say that Taft has the definite potential to be all up in the closet. I’m tentatively ready to assert that his embrace of Unitarianism was a thinly veiled attempt to hide his slightly secular ways and save face for the American people. Considering the politically-tenuous nature of his theistic proclamations, I have reason to doubt the validity of these statements. But that’s just a hunch.

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Other Honorable Mentions—

William Henry Harrison: Reportedly did not own a bible until the age of 68. Goddamn heathen.
John Tyler: Tyler was a strong supporter of religious tolerance and separation of church and state. He’s another president I am likely to lump in the closeted pile, but unfortunately not enough information exists to say one way or the other.
Rutherford B. Hayes: No labels, please, for this confused rebel. From a letter to his cousin: “I find myself using the word Christian. I am not a subscriber to any creed. I belong to no church. But in a sense, satisfactory to myself and believed by me to be important, I try to be a Christian, or rather I want to be a Christian and to help do Christian work.”
Chester Alan Arthur: Another candidate for closeted atheism, in my opinion. His only recorded statements on religion include him taking the Lord’s name in vain, which along with “I may be president of the United States, but my private life is nobody’s damn business,” sounds like a lot of secular people I know.
John F. Kennedy: Technically Catholic, but literally would not shut up about his love for the separation of church and state. Probably because he was, ya know, Catholic, so he pretty much had to.
Richard Nixon AND Herbert Hoover: Both Quakers who disobeyed Quaker law by swearing into the Presidency.
Ronald Reagan: While a lover of conservative values, Ron never attended any services while in office, claiming it was a security risk for those at the church. When questioned on why he didn’t pull a Carter and invite a minister to the White House every week for his family, Reagan had no response. Awkward.
Bill Clinton: Oh, you’re a “Southern Baptist”, Bill? Really? Color me skeptical.
Finally, Barack Obama: Our only Muslim president. But hey, at least he believes in something right?

God bless America.

 

 

About the Author: Melanie Cornell

Melanie Cornell's photo
Melanie is a senior at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. She's finishing her degree in Environmental Science this fall and starting her masters in Political Science this spring, after which she plans to pursue environmental law. This is her third year with the Illini Secular Student Alliance, and she currently serves as secretary.

Comments:

#1 gbus on Tuesday November 15, 2011 at 9:08pm

I tend to look at the centre for inquiry on the basis of "know thine enemy." Occasionally, though not too often, submissions rise above the polemical and provide thought provoking arguments. Unfortunately, Melanie's article does not, indeed it is hardly an undergraduate essay.

Her thesis, inasmuch as she has one, is based on the claim that a number of Presidents may have been closet atheists. Although she accepts Jefferson was a Deist, she overlooks his comment, "I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die an Unitarian." Jefferson's writings make it clear he thought organised Christian religion had perverted the teaching of Jesus.

This makes two of Melanie's "blasphemous" comments irrelevant as they refer to organised religion not theology. The third is not blasphemous either as it does not argue against the existence of God but in favour of the use of reason rather than fear in dealing with theological questions.

She claims, "Lincoln’s admiration of deists Thomas Paine and Voltaire are generally considered evidence of his similarly held viewpoints." Using this logic my admiration for Lincoln would presumably turn me into a Deist. Lincoln held no church affiliation, so what?

Melanie's potentially "blasphemous" quote attributed to Grant is a restatement of the principle of the separation of Church and State. She overlooked his desire to, "Resolve that neither the State nor nation, or both combined, shall support institutions of learning other than those sufficient to afford every child growing up in the land the opportunity of a good common education, unmixed with sectarian, pagan or atheistical tenets." Not much evidence of a commitment to atheism in that passage!!!

As befits those committed to a cause rather the use of reason, Melanie ignores all the evidence that Taft was a Unitarian in an effort to reconstruct him as an atheist. Yet she is left grasping at straws providing a conclusion based on a hunch rather than reason.
Ironic really.

Her list of "Honourable Mentions" have little to offer by way of reason. For example, William Henry Harrison, "Reportedly did not own a bible until the age of 68." Where's the facts? Where's the reason?

Similarly with Chester A Arthur whose support for the prohibition of alcoholic beverages could classify him as a fundamentalist.

Then again, "Richard Nixon AND Herbert Hoover: Both Quakers who disobeyed Quaker law by swearing into the Presidency." The Constitution of the United States has always permitted the President-elect to swear or affirm. Franklin Pierce (an Episcopalian) affirmed while the question of what Hoover did has never been satisfactorily answered.

Naturally I am aware that Melanie wrote "tongue in cheek" but the naivety of her contribution was so apparent that it's difficult to take anything else on the site seriously. If Melanie's essay represents the sub-standard quality of secularism in the United States we can rest in the knowledge that "We have met the enemy and (s)he has been smashed" - Tom Paxton.

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