Religion and the Presidents
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, February 20, 2005
Happy Presidents Day to you all tomorrow! Not one of our more evocative holidays, is it? And I’ve never been clear if, on Presidents Day, were are supposed to be remembering all U.S. Presidents—or just Lincoln and Washington, those for whom we used to have special, separate February holidays back in “the old days”. (Frankly, it wouldn’t bother me one bit, especially given the present configuration of our national government, if we reverted back to the old ways and just called the third Monday in February “Washington’s Birthday” once again. Then, those who wanted to could observe George W. Bush’s birthday on July 6 (or George H.W.’s—whom my dear mother refers to as “Papa Bush”—on June 12 [did you know that the elder Bush was born just up the road a piece in Milton, back in 1924? His son is the real “southerner”—he was born in New Haven, in 1946.]). Or, instead, some of could celebrate Bill Clinton’s birthday on August 19 (that would be some party!), or (this would be my favorite) we could fry some chicken and boil some peanuts for Jimmy Carter’s birthday on October 1st (I might just do that anyway.)
But the point is that, however we feel about whomever happens to be our President at a particular time, we don’t usually get too worked up about “Presidents Day”, do we? While I can remember preaching a sermon on “The Faith of Abraham Lincoln” some years back, I don’t believe I have ever, in 23 years in the ministry now, preached a “Presidents Day” sermon. Until now. Somehow, the current state of our nation, or the current political situation, or something, has moved me to do so. There just seems to be too much talk in the air about the President’s faith—his religious views and how they impact public policy—his belief in federal funding for faith-based social organizations—his relationship to various conservative Christian groups and individuals, and the influence that the Religious Right holds over his administration—to ignore the question of religion and the presidency on this particular Presidents Day.
But I also decided to cast the question in a somewhat wider frame of reference, and to take a look at the religion of all of our Presidents (or at least the interesting ones) and how it has impacted our nation’s history down through the years.
Let’s start at the very beginning (as Maria tells the Von Trapp children in The Sound of Music), a very good place to start. What about George Washington? What can we say about the religion of our first President?
I think it’s safe to say that if Washington were alive today, his religious beliefs would be at least as controversial as those of President Bush—but for very different reasons, indeed.
Back in 1788, when Washington first ran for President, he was unopposed, of course; no other candidate ran against him. But there were a few people nonetheless who didn’t believe Washington was fit for the office because they thought he was “irreligious”—that he was not devout enough to be President. You see, even though Washington was a vestryman at the Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Virginia, he seldom attended services. His supporters argued that—look, the church was a two hour carriage ride each way from Washington’s beloved Mt. Vernon, and that hey, Washington was a busy man; he had lots going on. So, he preferred to stay at home, and worship with a private service there. But that didn’t make his “irreligious” or an “unbeliever”.
There seems little doubt from his public statements that Washington believed in God. In 1778, in the midst of the American Revolution, he wrote: “The Hand of Providence has been so conspicuous in all this, that he must be worst than an infidel who lacks faith.” Speaking to a group of elders of the Indians of Delaware a few years later, Washington said: “You do well to learn our arts and our ways of life and, above all, the religion of Jesus Christ.” Then, he added: “These will make you a greater and happier people.” (Can you imagine a political leader today advising a minority group that they would have to embrace Christ in order to become “greater and happier”?) Without “our blessed religion” Washington said in his farewell address in 1796, “we can never hope to be a happy nation.”
So, the case for Washington’s piety (and a pretty traditional piety at that) would seem to be clear. But then, a generation later, an evangelical clergyman disparaged once again the religious beliefs of the “Father of Our Country”. Rev. Dr, Wilson wrote:
Washington, like so many of our Founding Fathers, was a Deist, many more traditional Christian believers sadly concluded. He believed that the world had been created by the Hand of God, but that God had then walked away, leaving human beings in charge of things. Certainly, there seemed a great deal of ambiguity as far as the faith of Washington was concerned.
Not so with John Adams (nor with his son, John Quincy Adams). The elder Adams, especially, was a committed Christian, in the sense that he was a firm believer in the life and teachings of Jesus. But he was also an ardent Unitarian, who sided time and again with the liberals against the Calvinists in the battle that was then splitting New England congregationalism (and which would lead to the formation of the American Unitarian Association some years later, in 1825).
“My religion is founded upon the love of God and my neighbor, on the hope of pardon for my offenses; upon contrition; upon the duty as well as necessity of supporting with patience the inevitable evils of life; in the duty of doing no wrong, but all the good I can,” Adams wrote.
Adams believed that although Jesus was a great and good man whose example of piety, love, and universal compassion was the ideal that all people and nations should emulate, he was, after all, still a human being—not the Son of God, nor the Word made flesh.
Adams attended and supported his home church in Quincy faithfully (indeed, both he and his son, as well as their wives, are buried in the crypt of the First Parish Unitarian in the center of Quincy.) But Adams had little patience with the trappings and pretense of most organized religion. He once told a friend that he saw in most members of the clergy the “pretended sanctity of some absolute dunces.” In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, he wrote: “Twenty times in the course of my late reading, have I been upon the point of breaking out, ‘this would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it.’” He called the Cross “the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has produced,” and declared in signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1797, “The government of the United States is not in any sense founded upon the Christian religion.”
The Religious Right would have John Adams tarred and feathered for such statements today! So, three cheers for John Adams, our first Unitarian President. And three more for his son, John Quincy, our second.
This may be as good a time as any to look at those other members of our household of faith who have filled our nation’s highest office. The next “official” Unitarian to hold the Presidency was none other than the illustrious Millard Fillmore. Fillmore was an active member of the First Unitarian Church of Buffalo, New York, where his memory is, apparently, still held in high esteem. (You don’t laugh at Millard Fillmore in Buffalo!) Fillmore enamored himself to many fellow Unitarians early in his career when, as a young lawyer, he argued in favor of overturning a New York state law which required all witnesses in court to swear an oath saying they believed both in God and in the existence of a hereafter. But Fillmore also angered many fellow Unitarians later on (including abolitionists like Theodore Parker) when, as President in 1850, he signed the notorious Fugitive Slave Act which required runaway slaves in the North to be returned to their Southern masters.
Likewise, the next Unitarian President, William Howard Taft, faced controversy within our own denomination. In 1917, Taft, a former President by then, was serving as Chief Justice of the United States, and was also the Moderator of the American Unitarian Association at its annual meeting in Boston. At that gathering, Taft locked horns with John Haynes Holmes, minister of the Community Church in New York City, and an ardent pacifist, over American entry into the First World War. Largely through Taft’s insistence, a resolution by Holmes opposing the war was defeated by the delegates present. (So, differences of opinion on important social issues like war and peace are nothing new in our religious movement.)
There has never been a Universalist President of the United States. There has, as far as I know, been only one nominee of a major party who was Universalist, and that was Horace Greeley, the Democratic nominee against Ulysses S. Grant in 1872. Greeley, a well-known journalist, who had coined the phrase “Go west, young man!” was overwhelmingly defeated by Grant; he then died even before the Electoral College met (the only candidate ever to do so), so that his electors (paltry as they were) were split among four other individuals.
The last Unitarian nominee for President (so far) was Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate against Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. Some people attacked Stevenson for his Unitarian faith. They said that because he wasn’t a “real Christian”, Stevenson was unfit to be President. When asked by a reporter if a non-Christian could be President, Stevenson replied, a little tongue-in-cheek, “The problem with democracy, you see, is that anyone can become President.”
So, officially, there have been four Unitarian U.S. Presidents. Of course, as is our way, sometimes we claim others as well (those who were “like us”, even though they were never officially “one of us”). The most notable of these, perhaps, is Thomas Jefferson.
Thomas Jefferson was, officially at least, Episcopal, or Anglican. But like Washington, he seldom attended Anglican services, and made no pretense that this was just because the church was too far from his home in Monticello or that he was just too busy. Jefferson was very clear about the deep theological differences he had with the mainstream Christianity of his day.
Like Adams, Jefferson had a deep appreciation for the moral example of Jesus of Nazareth. He called the teachings of Jesus “the sublimest system of morality that has ever been taught.” But Jefferson steadfastly rejected the Virgin Birth, all the miracles credited to Jesus, as well as the entire supernatural structure which the years had appended onto what he called “pure Christianity”.
“I have examined all the known superstitions of the world,” Jefferson wrote to a friend, “and I do not find in our particular superstition of Christianity one redeeming feature. They are all alike founded on fables and mythology. Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined and imprisoned. What has been the effect of this coercion? To make one half of the world fools, and the other half hypocrites; to support roguery and error all over the world.”
To counter this, Jefferson wrote a short book, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (sometimes known as The Jefferson Bible), which presented Christ as a kind and gentle moral sage, freed from all dogma and superstition. An historian describes the process Jefferson used in producing his “Bible”:
“…Jefferson did most of his work [on the Jefferson Bible] while sitting in the old White House. Late into the night, he sat pouring over the gospels with a razor and a glue pot, physically splicing out miracles and pasting together a non-supernatural account of Christ.”
Indeed, as the same observer has written:
There is little doubt, though, that Jefferson was an ardent Deist, who looked for evidence of God’s handiwork not in the pages of scripture, but in the works of nature. The references to “Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence which Jefferson authored were not mere turns of his literary pen. They were, rather, clear statements of what Jefferson and most of our other founders believed.
While he never became a Unitarian officially (indeed, there was no official Unitarian organization until two years after Jefferson’s death), Jefferson did hold Unitarian beliefs and practices in high affection. In a very interesting letter to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse in 1822, Jefferson wrote:
Well, about the prospects for Unitarianism in the New World, Jefferson was a bit overly optimistic. But about his hopes for our new nation, and his faith in its liberty and freedom, he was not.
We should rejoice, it seems to me, that our Presidents have approached matters of faith from such a diversity of directions. For it is in this diversity of belief that our strength as a nation truly lies. “Religion is a matter which lies solely between [a] man and his God,” Jefferson wrote, “He owes account to none other for his faith or his worship.”
As it is for each of us, so it should be for our President. His faith is his own, and may it guide him ever toward justice and wisdom. May we judge our government’s policies not on the basis of creed, but on the basis of their fairness, and efficacy, and whether they serve the cause of human need, and help to usher in a better and more peaceful world.
When, back in 1960, some people questioned whether John F. Kennedy could be President because of his Catholic faith, Kennedy responded: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be a Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote.”
It is the separation of Church and State which keeps our state free and our churches strong.
And it is the workings of the mystery of faith within each one of us, as private individuals and as public servants, which make us complete and whole.
As President, Harry S. Truman would regularly recite the following prayer:
There are certainly worse prayers that a President—or any of us-- could pray.