Does the faith of our presidents matter?

To date, all U.S. presidents have labeled themselves Christians of some sort, and it is speculative and uncharitable to question their claims or sincerity.

Nevertheless, a number of presidents have provided abundant evidence in their writings or behavior that their faith was heterodox, at best. At worst, we may have serious reason to doubt whether they confessed anything at all like the historic Christian faith.

Take, for example, the first three presidents: George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Gregg L. Frazer, author of The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders, argues that though all three believed in an outwardly Christian God, their orthodoxy and practice were seriously deficient. He characterizes their views as “theistic rationalism,” a religious view midway between deism and orthodoxy.

Soon after his death, Washington was lionized as a great Christian leader — and still is today — leading to an abundance of dubious stories which should at best be characterized as mythological. These stories create a veneer of Christian faith which continues to give the impression of Christian piety ungrounded in fact.

For instance, the famous painting of Washington on his knees at Valley Forge, praying in the darkest hour of the American Revolution, is almost certainly false. The story originated from Parson Weems’ Life of Washington, and was based on the eyewitness claims of the owner of the farm where it purportedly took place, Isaac Potts. Unfortunately, Potts didn’t live on this farm until after the Revolutionary War, and he was nowhere near Valley Forge in 1777.

Washington was clearly a theist, and had a certain kind of piety which viewed God as actively intervening in history as moral governor, provider and protector for the good of man. But he never claimed to be a Christian. In looking at his own words, we find that Washington never spoke of a personal, saving faith in Jesus Christ. In over 20,000 pages of his life’s writings, the name of Jesus Christ is found only once — and that in a public proclamation not written in his own hand.

Washington’s religious practice is even more revealing. It is often noted that he sat on the vestry of his local Episcopal church. While this is true, it is important to note that this was a primarily civic role that was expected of leading citizens of his community. While Washington attended services on average once a month, it was his unvarying practice to leave early on those Sundays when communion was served, exiting prior to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. When he was publicly rebuked for this practice during a sermon, he agreed the reproof was just and responded by henceforth avoiding services entirely when he knew communion would be served. As far as we know, Washington never once communed at the Lord’s Supper.

Our second president, John Adams, is reputed to be one of the more orthodox founders, largely because he grew up in a Congregationalist home where Calvinist roots ran deep. In fact, however, Adams explicitly rejected the faith of his fathers. He denied the deity of Jesus Christ and his atoning death, viewing him instead as a great moral teacher, not a savior from sin. He said “placing all religion in grace, and its offspring, faith” was “Antichristianity.”

Like many others of the founding generation, Adams believed that the forgiveness of sins actually undermined the moral force of the Christian religion. Ironically this faith retained many Christian trappings, including belief in the resurrection, which was retained to preserve the fear of eternal punishment and the hope of rewards for “Christian morality.”