The American presidency contains a number of puzzles concerning religion. The country is ever more diverse and secular, but many citizens still say they want the president to be a person of faith. Yet aside from any personal religious commitments, the president is a functionary in the country’s robust civil religion, the set of national and official commemorations, rhetoric, and events that symbolize the nation. As opposed to parliamentary systems in which the head of government is elected locally and elevated by a party or coalition, the American president is head of state, head of government, and the leader of his or her political party—one of only two parties that must appeal as broadly as possible across religious lines.
The presidency is a de facto universalist institution. It is not well suited to a strong sectarian or to anyone who holds exclusivist beliefs, even privately. A consideration of the unique aspects of the American presidency shows why successful candidates from across the Christian landscape have espoused a faith that is providential but universalistic, and devoid of the kind of exclusivist doctrines and truth claims that are arguably foundational to Christianity. The Constitution forbids religious tests for public office, of course, but while parties are free to nominate—and voters are free to elect—a strong sectarian, it tends not to happen.
Taken together, the constraints and demands imposed upon the presidential office essentially require that even strongly religious presidents translate their personal faith into universalist language. Most presidents have governed and politicked in this style, and surprisingly few have squelched deeply held sectarian beliefs in order to do so. The expression, or even profession, of highly exclusivist religious beliefs can quickly become problematic for federal officials.
The founding fathers set the tone for subsequent presidential rhetoric about religion with a deeply providential outlook that was avowedly nonsectarian and not explicitly Christian. Washington and Jefferson championed religious liberty and tolerance, and also famously expounded views that were more Deist or agnostic than Christian. Lincoln, who as an adult never joined any church, continued this tradition by speaking of the United States as under the guidance and judgment of divine providence, using Christian language and Scripture without attaching specific Christian claims or beliefs.
Presidents have often employed religious imagery, but more in service of rhetoric and symbolism than a specific wish for a Christian state. One example is Theodore Roosevelt, who ended his 1912 Republican convention speech with a rousing line: “We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord!” But no one worried that Roosevelt had theocratic sympathies. It simply was, and remains, common practice to employ religious imagery in political speech. And while each party had a religious base, with oldline Northern Protestants aligning with Republicans and Southern Protestants along with Northern urban and immigrant communities forming the Democratic coalition, neither party was incentivized to prioritize dogmatic religious beliefs.
After World War II, religion was often seen as a unifying force, and ecumenical and interfaith impulses carried the day against fears of “godless communism.” Dwight Eisenhower typified this religious universalism in numerous comments, none more famous than a speech he gave after his election in 1952 at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, in which he said, “In other words, our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” Eisenhower was baptized and received into the membership of the National Presbyterian Church in Washington ten days after his inauguration in 1953.
By this point, Americans had become accustomed to presidents who held to a bland, white Protestantism of some variety or other, but without strong or, significantly, exclusivist religious beliefs. In his 1955 book Protestant, Catholic, Jew, sociologist Will Herberg argued that American religious traditions reflected ethnic and cultural divisions but pointed toward a coherent national identity and commitment to a religiously plural public square. Of course, these discussions often excluded many expressions of non-white Americans’ faith. Nevertheless, politicians so frequently spoke of “the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man” that the phrase took on an acronym, FOGBOM. As it turned out, FOGBOM liberalism accommodated even the controversial election of a Roman Catholic, John F. Kennedy, in 1960. Richard Nixon, a Quaker, was sensitive to white (mostly Protestant) Christians’ sense of loss of cultural hegemony, but even he kept religious leaders at some distance.
The arrival of Jimmy Carter on the national scene brought attention to his evangelical faith, and the movement of conservative Southern Protestants from the Democratic Party was endlessly observed and discussed as the most consequential religious and political shift of a generation. Subsequently, reporters began scrutinizing presidential aspirants’ religious beliefs. Some elements within the Republican coalition began actively expecting that the nominee be a person of strong outward faith. To bolster his relatively weak religious bona fides, Ronald Reagan found it useful in 1980 to say to a gathering of evangelical pastors in Texas, “You are not allowed to endorse me. But I endorse you.”
After Reagan, evangelicals regularly contested for the GOP nomination, even as nominal mainline Protestants generally continued be the quadrennial Republican standard bearer. George W. Bush was a slight exception, though Bush is still a typical mainline Protestant—in spite of a midlife conversion experience, personal acquaintance with the Rev. Billy Graham, and the fact that evangelicals were a significant part of his political coalition. Bush has remained a member of the nation’s largest mainline denomination, the United Methodist Church. Significantly, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Bush spoke warmly of Islam, resisted Christian exclusivism, and generally met the demands of universalistic American civil religion, even as elements within his coalition, and to a lesser degree within his own administration, veered closer to Christian exclusivism. Bush’s presidential universalism was even rebuked by televangelist Pat Robertson, who said the president is not “theologian-in-chief.”
Democrats, who had a more diverse party coalition, mostly did not face intense demands from primary voters or interest groups about their religious views. But they still generally had to prove they were religious enough. Following Jimmy Carter, all Democratic presidents have spoken of their religious convictions and how their faith informs their policies. Bill Clinton, a Southern Baptist, was comfortable speaking of faith and showed a familiarity with the Bible and the rhythms of church life. Barack Obama, an adult convert to Christianity, knew theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s work and typified a liberal Protestant approach to ethics and politics. President Joe Biden, a devout Roman Catholic, has not shied away from making his faith a part of his political persona.
Even as presidents have had to prove religious bona fides to elements of their electoral coalitions, these commitments have been, almost without exception, easy to align with the demands of the office, of American civil religion, and of an ever more diverse country. The theological principle underlying this synthesis is universalism. In Christian theology, universalism refers to the belief that all people will ultimately be saved and brought into relationship with God. Specifically, universalism departs from orthodox Christian teaching on eternal reward or punishment in the afterlife, proposing that all souls await the same fate (or lack of fate) after death. Liberal Catholic theology and liberal Protestantism can more easily be accommodated to de-emphasize religious difference. Conservative Protestantism, and more traditional expressions of other faith traditions, are inherently exclusivist: They differ over specifics in the economy of salvation, but they simply teach that some are saved while others are not.
A majority of Americans believe in Hell, and at least a plurality belong to religious traditions that espouse exclusivist teachings. And yet, presidents ideally must navigate the demands of American civil religion, the legal realities of a secular state, and the needs of an increasingly diverse country.
Presidential universalism poses more challenges, real and hypothetical, for the Republican Party. In every presidential nominating contest since at least 1988, around the time the Christian Right political movement became a significant force in GOP politics, there has been at least one candidate who personally hewed closer to a more exclusivist vision of Christianity. When Pat Robertson challenged Vice President George H. W. Bush for the nomination in 1988, he mainstreamed the “turn America back to God” language that would remain popular with a subset of Republican primary voters in the cycles to follow. Pat Buchanan continued this trend in his GOP campaigns in 1992 and 1996. In 2008, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee took the mantle of the conservative Christian candidate even as the religiously moderate John McCain secured the nomination. By 2012, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum joined Huckabee in competing for the most religiously exclusivist votes in the nomination fight. In 2016, Santorum and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who launched his campaign at Liberty University, heavily courted religious conservatives.
Donald Trump was in many ways an improbable victor in the 2016 nomination contest, having vanquished a number of traditional Christians. Trump pushed the boundaries of employing Christian exclusivist language and rhetoric, even as barely a quarter of Americans thought he was religious at all. Perhaps his rhetoric was less threatening because his sincerity was so widely doubted. He denigrated non-Christian faiths and mainly focused on conservative Christian priorities on the campaign trail and in office. But he avoided charges of theocracy that Cruz or Santorum would have elicited had they used the same language. Trump’s victory may point to why it is unlikely for a Christian exclusivist to win the nomination, and why an exclusivist would have a difficult time being elected or governing even if nominated.
Trump captured all the support a true believer like Cruz would have won without pushing away voters the GOP ticket needed who may have found overt, exclusivist Christian politicking off-putting. Trump made promises to religious conservatives on their key political priorities, but in a way that was transparently transactional. Beyond his core supporters, few feared that he actually believed in any of it. Once in office, Trump delivered on many of his promises to his conservative religious base. Even his bizarre and disingenuous use of religious language and symbols was seen as part of the act, and, though jarring, they did not appear to be the weapons of a true-believing theocrat posing with a Bible in front of the White House.
Trump broke many presidential norms, including the use and abuse of religious language. For most presidents before him, regardless of their personal faith, their public duties and the duty of civil religion have precluded them from emphasizing exclusivist beliefs. They have been called to a higher standard of nonsectarianism.
From the time they secure a major-party nomination, presidential candidates and then presidents are powerful leaders of their political party. Democratic nominees and presidents have to be religiously open enough to attract and retain faith voters without unduly alienating secularists. Republicans must cater to a conservative religious base while also appealing as broadly as possible to less dogmatic and more religiously diverse parts of their coalition.
Our presidential system of government, along with our political culture and civil religion, have evolved to require a certain kind of universalism. With the country becoming ever more diverse and less religious, it may be that the only kind of religious believer who faces de facto disqualification from the presidential office is the strongest believer of all.
Jacob Lupfer is a writer in Jacksonville, Florida.