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Medill Belief and Public Life

Religion in the White House

By Sarah McCann, Lynae Anderson, August 24, 2007

Presidential Timeline

During the 2004 Presidential campaign, Democratic contender Howard Dean, in hopes of reaching faithful voters, said the Book of Job was his favorite New Testament Book. The effort backfired. Big.

Job is an Old Testament book.

According to a recent Gallup Poll, 86 percent of Americans reported believing in God. Presidential candidates have long discussed religion on the campaign trail. Sometimes the stumping is awkward; other times moving or defensive.

Here are excerpts from speeches and statements made by presidents during a campaign or shortly thereafter. The review begins with President Jimmy Carter, a candidate who was open about his evangelical faith.

President Jimmy Carter (1976-1980)

June 27, 1976, Plains, Ga.
Faith and the Presidency, Gary Scott Smith, Oxford University Press, 2006 p. 293

We have a responsibility to try to shape government so that it does exemplify the teaching of God.

The Third Carter-Ford Debate, Oct. 22, 1976, Williamsburg, VA
The American Presidency Project, University of California at Santa Barbara

I believe also that there is some merit to an amendment that Senator Everett Dirksen proposed…An amendment that would change the Court decision as far as voluntary prayer in schools. It seems to me there should be an opportunity-- as long as it’s voluntary—as long as there is no compulsion whatsoever—that an individual ought to have that right.

Inaugural Address, Jan. 20, 1977, Washington, DC
The American Presidency Project, University of California at Santa Barbara

Here before me is the Bible used in the inauguration of our first President, in 1789, and I have just taken the oath of office on the Bible my mother gave me just a few years ago, opened to a timeless admonition from the ancient prophet Micah: ‘He hath showed me, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.

Ours was the first society openly to define itself in terms of both spirituality and human liberty. It is that unique self-definition which has given us an exceptional appeal, but it also imposes on us a special obligation to take on those moral duties which, when assumed, seem invariably to be in our own best interests.

And I join in the hope that when my time as your President has ended, people might say this about our Nation: that we had remembered the words of Micah and renewed our search for humility, mercy and justice; that we had torn down the barriers that separated those of different race and region and religion… and that we had enabled our people to be proud of their own Government once again.”

Remarks and a Question and Answer Session at a Town Hall Meeting With New Hampshire High School Students Feb. 18, 1978, Nashua, NH
The Presidency Project, University of California at Santa Barbara

There was a great deal of doubt in the country when I began my campaign because I am a devout Christian…I've never found that this interfered with my performance of duty as a Governor or as a candidate or as President of our country. I recognize very clearly the prohibition in the Constitution about an unwarranted intrusion of the state or the Government into religion or vice versa.

I worship daily. The last thing I do every evening is to have a private worship service with my wife. We never fail to do this. I pray frequently during the day. I seek God's guidance. I don't try to use the power and prestige of my office to cause other people to adopt the same faith that I happen to have.

In the Constitution of the United States, we recognize God as the guiding leader of us all.

Text of 1980 Campaign Commercial (“Bible”)
The American Museum of the Moving Image “The Living Room Candidate”

Though he carefully observes our historic separation of church and state, Jimmy Carter is a deeply and clearly religious man. He takes the time to pray privately and with Rosalynn each day. Under the endless pressure of the Presidency, where decisions change and directions change, and even the facts change, this man knows that one thing remains constant—his faith. President Carter.

Remarks and a Question and Answer Session, Town Hall Meeting, Sept. 2, 1980, Independence, MO
The American Presidency Project, University of California at Santa Barbara

I believe very deeply as a Baptist and a Christian that there ought to be a proper separation of the church and the state…. I pray more than I did when I was not President, because the burdens on my shoulders are much greater than they were when I was a Governor or when I didn't hold public office.

This Nation is one that's been acknowledged by our Founding Fathers since the first days of the idea to be founded under God. "In God We Trust" is on our coins. It's not a bad thing for Americans to believe deeply in God, but the fact is that the Constitution gives us a right to worship God or to worship as we choose. And the Congress cannot pass any law respecting the establishment of religion.

I believe that there ought to be a place and a time in school for voluntary prayer. The thing that I'm against, as President-and as a Baptist, coincidentally—is the Government telling people they have to worship at a certain time and in a certain way. To me that violates the constitutional separation of church and state. I would not want the Government to tell my children that they would have to worship in a Muslim way, and you would not want the Government to tell your children that they would have to worship just like a Southern Baptist.

Remarks and Question and Answer Session at a Town Meeting Oct. 21, 1980, Miami, FL The American Presidency Project, University of California at Santa Barbara

To me, the Bible doesn't say whether there's one or two Chinas, and the Bible doesn't say how you balance the Federal budget, and the Bible doesn't say what causes pollution, and the Bible doesn't say whether or not we could have a B-1 bomber or whether we could have air-launched cruise missiles.

The Bible says many times that you should respect a manmade government.

And I think to strengthen a nation, a nation under God, so that its own purposes and commitments and ideals and hopes and dreams can be expressed clearly and in substantive terms is good. To alleviate hunger, suffering, deprivation, discrimination, hatred, to me, is compatible with God's teachings.

President Ronald Reagan (1980-1988)

Acceptance of the Republican Nomination for President, July 17, 1980, Detroit, MI
PBS, the American Experience

The major issue in this campaign is the direct political, personal, and moral responsibility of Democratic Party leadership—in the White House and in the Congress for this unprecedented calamity which had befallen us.

I’ll confess that I’ve been a little afraid to suggest what I’m going to suggest. I’m more afraid not to. Can we begin our crusade joined together in a moment of silent prayer?

Remarks at an Ecumenical Prayer Breakfast, Aug. 23, 1984, Dallas, TX
The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library Archives

Those who created our country -- the Founding Fathers and Mothers -- understood that there is a divine order which transcends the human order. They saw the state, in fact, as a form of moral order and felt that the bedrock of moral order is religion.

Religion played not only a strong role in our national life; it played a positive role. The abolitionist movement was at heart a moral and religious movement; so was the modern civil rights struggle. And throughout this time, the state was tolerant of religious belief, expression, and practice. Society, too, was tolerant.

The truth is, politics and morality are inseparable. And as morality's foundation is religion, religion and politics are necessarily related. We need religion as a guide. We need it because we are imperfect, and our government needs the church, because only those humble enough to admit they're sinners can bring to democracy the tolerance it requires in order to survive.

Accepting the Republican Nomination for President at the Republican National Convention, Aug. 23, 1984, Dallas, TX
The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library Archives

If our opponents were as vigorous in supporting our voluntary prayer amendment as they are in raising taxes, maybe we could get the Lord back in the schoolrooms and drugs and violence out.

First Reagan-Mondale Debate, Oct. 7, 1984, Louisville, KY
The American Presidency Project, University of California at Santa Barbara

Well I was raised to have a faith and a belief and have been a member of a church since I was a small boy. In our particular church we didn’t use the term “born again” so I don’t know whether I would fit that…I do resort to prayer. At the same time, however, I have not believed that prayer could be introduced into an election or be part of a political campaign, or religion a part of that campaign.

I have gone to church regularly all my life. And I started to here in Washington. And now, in the position I hold and in the world in which we live, where embassies do get blown up in Beirut… But I pose a threat to several hundred people if I go to church. I know the threats that are made against me. We all know the possibility of terrorism… I don’t feel that I have a right to go to church, knowing that my being there could cause something of the kind that we have seen in other places; in Beirut, for example. And I miss going to church but I think the Lord understands.

Second Reagan-Mondale Debate, Oct. 21, 1984, Kansas City, MO
The American Presidency Project, University of California at Santa Barbara

[Regarding Armageddon] I think what’s been hailed as something I’m supposedly, as President, discussing as principle is the result of just some philosophical discussions with people… And that is the prophecies down through the years. The biblical prophecies of .. The coming of Armageddon and so forth.

But no one knows whether Armageddon—those prophecies—mean that Armageddon is a thousand years away or day after tomorrow. So I have never seriously warned and said we must plan according to Armageddon

President George H.W. Bush (1988-1992)

Acceptance of the Republican Nomination for President, Aug. 18, 1988, New Orleans, LA
American Rhetoric Online Speech Bank

I am guided by certain traditions. One, is that there is a God and He is good, and his love, while free, has a self imposed cost: We must be good to one another.

And should our children have the right to say a voluntary prayer, or even observe a moment of silence in the schools? My opponent says no -but I say yes.

Inaugural Address, Jan. 20, 1989, Washington, DC The American Presidency Project, University of California at Santa Barbara

And my first act as President is a prayer. I ask you to bow your heads.

Heavenly Father, we bow our heads and thank you for your love. Accept our thanks for the peace that yields this day and the shared faith that makes its continuance likely. Make us strong to do your work, willing to heed and hear Your will, and write on our hearts these words: ‘Use power to help people.’ ... There is but one just use of power, and it is to serve people. Help us remember, Lord. Amen.

A President is neither prince nor pope, and I don’t seek a window on men’s souls. In fact, I yearn for a greater tolerance, and easygoingness about each other’s attitudes and way of life.

Remarks at a Prayer Breakfast, Aug. 20, 1992, Houston, TX
The American Presidency Project University of California at Santa Barbara

But anyway, as we meet today, deep in the heart of Texas, we meet deep in the heart of the most religious nation on Earth, too. I'm usually not much for polls, but here's a Gallup poll that makes sense to me. According to this survey, 7 in 10 Americans believe in life after death; 8 in 10, that God works miracles; 9 in 10 pray; and more than 90 percent believe in God. To which I say, thank God for the United States of America.

Thomas Jefferson, Ronald Reagan's friend -- he phrased the first gift best. "The God who gave us life," he said, "gave us liberty at the same time." Today God's gift of liberty is remaking the entire globe..
Over the past 3 1/2 years, bayonets have been no match for the righteousness of God. Look at Bulgaria, where at last people wish Merry Christmas to each other without fear of being labeled religious. Look to Russia, where a cathedral once called the All Union Museum of Religion and Atheism now houses God's apostles, or the former East Germany, where Bible studies are like bluebonnets in the spring, they're busting out all over. In a season of thanksgiving the world says grace. By God's providence, the cold war is over, and America's views prevailed.

Well, each of us turns to God daily to make lives well, and we act through the third and greatest of God's gifts, prayer. If Congress can spend time debating Vanna White's appearance on the Home Shopping Network, surely Congress can find time to pass an amendment allowing voluntary prayer in our classrooms. So let's do what we can to bring the faith of our fathers back to our schools.

You know, I've been President for 3 1/2 years now. More than ever, I believe with all my heart that one cannot be President of our great country without a belief in God, without the truth that comes on one's knees. For me, prayer has always been important but quite personal. You know us Episcopalians. [Laughter] And yet, it has sustained me at every point of my life: as a boy, when religious reading was part of our home life; as a teenager, when I memorized the Navy Hymn. Or how 48 years ago, aboard the submarine Finback after being shot down in the war, I went up topside one night on the deck, on the conning tower, and stood watch and looked out at the dark. The sky was clear. The stars were brilliant like a blizzard of fireflies in the night. There was a calm inner peace

President William Jefferson Clinton (1992-2000)

Speech at the University of Notre Dame, Sept. 11, 1992, Notre Dame, IN
Available via the New York Times Select, ran Sept. 12, 1992

I want an America that values the freedom and the dignity of the individual. All of us must respect the reflection of God’s image in every man and woman. And so we must value their freedom, not just their political freedom, but their freedom of conscience in matters of philosophy and family and faith.

I want America that does more than talk about family values. I want an America that values families.

We all have the right to wear our religion on our sleeves. But we should also hold it in our hearts and live it with our lives. And, if we are truly to practice what we preach, then Americans of every faith and viewpoint should come together to promote the common good.

First Presidential Debate, Oct. 11, 1992, St. Louis, MO
Public Broadcasting

There’s been a lot of talk about family values in this campaign. I know a lot about that. I was born to a widowed mother who gave me family values, and grandparents. I’ve seen the family values of my people in Arkansas. … I think the president owes it to family values to show that he values America’s families …

Remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast, Feb. 4, 1993
The Presidency Project, University of California at Santa Barbara

I am honored that all of you are here not for a political purpose. We come here to seek the help and guidance of our Lord, putting aside our differences, as men and women who freely acknowledge that we don't have all the answers. And we come here seeking to restore and renew and strengthen our faith.

In this town, as much as any place on the face of the Earth, we need that. We need faith as a source of strength.

We need our faith as a source of challenge because if we read the Scriptures carefully, it teaches us that all of us must try to live by what we believe or, in more conventional terms, to live out the admonition of President Kennedy that here on Earth God's work must truly be our own. Freedom of religion doesn’t mean that those of us who have faith shouldn’t frankly admit that we are animated by that faith.

Remarks at the Metropolitan Baptist Church, Dec. 7, 1997, Washington, DC
The Clinton Presidential Center

Ephesians says we should speak the truth with our neighbors for we are members one of another. I believe that. I think that is the single most important political insight, or social insight, in the Bible. And I think it is what should drive us as we behave together.

And I think it is what should drive us as we behave together. We have to decide whether we are members, one of the other; is my destiny caught up in yours… Are we part of the same family of God. It is not enough to say we are all equal in the eyes of God. We are all also connected in the eyes of God.

President George Walker Bush ( 2000-present)

Republican Candidates Debate, Dec. 13, 1999 Des Moines, IA
Des Moines Register, Available via CNN

Christ..He changed my heart. When you turn your heart and you're life over to Christ, when you accept Christ as a savior it changes your heart, it changes your life. And that's what happened to me.

New Hampshire Primary Debate, Jan. 6, 2000 Durham, NH
Courtesy of Project Vote Smart

What I said was, my religion teaches—my religion says that you accept Christ and you go to heaven. That was a statement some interpreted that said I get to decide who goes to Heaven.

Governors don’t decide who gets to go to Heaven. No sir. God decides who goes to heaven ... God decides. And far be it from the politician who tries to play God.

Remarks to NAACP’s 91St Annual Convention, July 10, 2000, Baltimore, MD

In city after city, for the suffering and hurting, the most powerful passageway is the door of the house of God. … As president, I will rally the armies of compassion in neighborhoods all across America.

Third Presidential Debate, Oct. 17, 2000, St. Louis, MO
The Presidency Project, University of California at Santa Barbara

I think that after school money ought to be available for faith-based programs and charitable programs that exist because somebody has heard the call to love a neighbor like you would like to be loved yourself.”

Should I be fortunate enough to become your president, when I put my hand on the Bible, I will sear to not only uphold the laws of the land, but I will also swear to uphold the honor and the dignity of the office to which I have been elected, so help me God. Thank you very much.”

Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People, Sept. 20, 2001
White House News Releases

I ask you to uphold the values of America, and remember why so many have come here. We are in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them. No one should be singled out for unfair treatment or unkind words because of their ethnic background or religious faith.

Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.

Fellow citizens, we'll meet violence with patient justice -- assured of the rightness of our cause, and confident of the victories to come. In all that lies before us, may God grant us wisdom, and may He watch over the United States of America.

Third Bush-Gore Presidential Debate, Oct. 12, 2004 Tempe, AZ
New York Times

Prayer and religion sustain me. I receive calmness in the storms of the presidency. I love the fact that people pray for me and my family all around the country. Somebody asked me one time, how do you know? I said I just feel it.

Religion is an important part. I never want to impose my religion on anybody else. But when I make decisions I stand on principle. And the principles are derived from who I am. I believe we ought to love our neighbor like we love ourself. That's manifested in public policy through the faith-based initiative where we've unleashed the armies of compassion to help heal people who hurt. I believe that God wants everybody to be free. That's what I believe. And that's one part of my foreign policy. In Afghanistan I believe that the freedom there is a gift from the Almighty. And I can't tell you how encouraged how I am to see freedom on the march. And so my principles that I make decisions on are a part of me. And religion is a part of me.

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