Nov 04 2011

Meet the 18 non-Christian American presidents

Category: government,history,politics,religion,United StatesJames @ 6:00 pm

Over at GNXP, Razib Khan points out the errors1 some media commentators have made when they’ve claimed that if Mitt Romney wins the 2012 presidential election, he would be the first non-Christian president in the United States, or least the first president outside of “orthodox” Christianity.2 3 Razib points out that this is simply not true – we have had non-Christian presidents before, and cites President Taft (a Unitarian) as an example.

Well, as it turns out, we have had a lot of Presidents whose religious beliefs placed them outside of orthodox Christianity – including Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln – and other presidents whose devotion to Christianity are highly doubtful – including Eisenhower.

I’m not interested in the debate about whether Mormons are Christians or not; frankly, I find that debate to be fruitless and boring. But I do think it is very interesting to see just how many of our presidents have been irreligious or held non-traditional religious beliefs. It is nice to help dispel people’s ignorance about American history and about the purported orthodoxy and piousness of our forefathers, especially when people who are historically misinformed try to justify their religious prejudice on the basis of ignorant misunderstandings of American history. Some of these presidents were closer to traditional Christianity than others, but likely none of them would meet the strict definitions for orthodoxy being bandied about by commentators and conservative Christians. So, without further ado, the following is my list of America’s irreligious and non-Christian presidents:4

George Washington

Washington did attend church, but not regularly (for example, attending just sixteen times in 1760 and fourteen times in 1768).5 Ministers at the churches where he attended mentioned that he did not take communion.6 After he had died the minister at one of the churches Washington frequently attended was asked about Washington’s religious beliefs, to which the minister replied, “Sir, Washington was a Deist!”7 Deists generally rejected the divinity of Jesus and rejected the idea of a personal god who intervenes in the affairs of humankind. They were definitely not traditional Christians.

John Adams

John Adams was a Unitarian.8 Unitarians reject trinitarianism, and are thus not traditional or orthodox Christians.

Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson rejected the divinity of Jesus, the resurrection, and the miracles of the New Testament.9 He also rejected the doctrine of the trinity.10 His beliefs seemed to have incorporated elements of Deism11 and Unitarianism.12

James Madison

Deism / Unitarianism.13

James Monroe

At least one scholar, Franklin Steiner, has concluded that it was doubtful he had religious beliefs,14 and others have classified him as a Deist.15

John Quincy Adams

Unitarian.16

John Tyler

Deist.17

Millard Fillmore

Unitarian.18

Abraham Lincoln

Historian Mark Noll explained that “Lincoln never joined a church nor ever made a clear profession of standard Christian belief.”19 Wikipedia explains that

William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner, stated that Lincoln admired deists Thomas Paine and Voltaire, and had read and knew of Charles Darwin before most. “He soon grew into a belief of a universal law, evolution, and from this he never deviated.”20

Some people claimed that Lincoln converted to Christianity after his son died and as the Civil War raged on. Several of his close associates, however, denied this. Lincoln’s private secretary, Colonel John G. Nicolay, stated in 1865 that “Mr. Lincoln did not, to my knowledge, in any way change his religious ideas, opinions, or beliefs from the time he left Springfield to the day of his death.”21 Judge David Davis , Lincoln’s lifelong friend and executor said that Lincoln “had no faith in the Christian sense of the term.”22 And finally, Wikipedia explains:

His biographer, Colonel Lamon, intimately acquainted with him in Illinois, and with him during all the years that he lived in Washington, says: "Never in all that time did he let fall from his lips or his pen an expression which remotely implied the slightest faith in Jesus as the son of God and the Savior of men." Both Lamon and William H. Herndon published biographies of their former colleague after his assassination relating their personal recollections of him. Each denied Lincoln’s adherence to Christianity and characterized his religious beliefs as deist or skeptical.23

Ulysses S. Grant

He was unbaptized and was never a member of any church, but he did accompany his wife to her Methodist church.24

William Howard Taft

Unitarian.25

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Until he became president, he did not belong to any church and had never been baptized. He was baptized as a Presbyterian only after he was elected president.26

Unaffiliated

The following presidents were not members of any church:27

William Henery Harrison

Andrew Johnson

Rutherford B. Hayes

Unbelievers

Thefollowing presidents have been classified as most likely being unbelievers:28

Martin Van Buren

Zachary Taylor

Chester A. Arthur

Conclusion

So,by my count, out of the United States’ forty three presidents, eighteen were non-believers or unorthodox. That means 42% of the Presidents were not “traditional Christians.” If the next president is not a Christian, he will be joining a distinguished body of some of our country’s best leaders, a body that includes close to half of our presidents!

Update: Honorable Mentions

Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon were both Quakers. The Quakers are a religious group which has no set dogma, and there is a variety of belief amongst Quakers. Many, if not most, Quakers would self-identify as Christians. Some conservative Christians, however, have accused the Quakers of not being Christian (much like they have done with Mormons). If you include Hoover and Nixon on our list, the number of non-Christian presidents rises to 20.

Footnotes

2 "Electing Mitt Romney in 2012 would mean electing, for the first time, a president whose religion is not part of orthodox Christianity.” http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2011/10/mormon_controversy_pastor_robert_jeffress_may_be_doing_mitt_romn.html

3 “[T]heological honesty demands that we recognize that Romney would be the first president to be so far outside the Christian denominational mainstream.” http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-10-24/romney-isn-t-christian-and-that-s-all-right-jeffrey-goldberg.html

4 Most of my sources come from the citations to this Wikipedia article: https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Religious_affiliations_of_United_States_Presidents

5 Ford, Paul Leicester. The True George Washington (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1897), 78.

10 Holmes, David Lynn (2006). The Faiths of the Founding Fathers. US: Oxford University Press. pp. 225 pages. ISBN 0195300920; Clark, J. C. D.. The language of liberty, 1660-1832. p. 347. (letter to J.P.P Derieux, July 25, 1788, Papers vol 13, p 418)

11 Thomas Jefferson (1803). H.A. Washington (1861). ed. April 9, 1803 letter to Dr. Joseph Priestley; Albert Ellery Bergh, ed (1853). May 5, 1817 letter to John Adams.

14 Steiner, Franklin (July 1995) [1936] (Paperback,190pp). The Religious Beliefs Of Our Presidents: From Washington to F. D. R.. Freethought Library. NY: Prometheus Books. ISBN 0879759755.

22 Id.

28 Id.


Oct 16 2011

The 99 Percent of Americans Who are Rich Fatcats

Category: economics,government,politicsJames @ 9:00 am

The Occupy Wall Street (“OWS”) movement has been building up steam. The press has been mentioning it more and more. A popular slogan shouted at OWS is “we are the 99,” implying that the top 1% of Americans have been exploiting the rest of us. Along with that slogan, there is a popular blog / Internt meme called “We Are the 99 Percent” in which people hold up hand written signs describing their struggles since the economic crash.

I must say that I completely agree that Wall Street, the big banks, the government, and greedy CEOs are huge problems, and that their misdeeds have tremendously hurt millions of people and plunged our country into terrible economic problems. I really feel for those who are hurting because of others’ mistakes. I really want the malfeasors to be held accountable.

But from what little I’ve read on the “we are the 99 Percent” blog, it seems like most of the people submitting their stories are complaining because they made poor life choices, and now they’re in a rough spot because the economy tanked. From what I’ve seen of the OWS protesters, I get the same impression. They don’t seem to be really suffering, and most of them seem to be doing relatively well. How many of the protesters at Wall Street have expensive Mac laptops, iPhones, pricey monthly cell phone contracts, and flat screen TVs at home connected up to a full cable tv package? Everything I’ve seen indicates that a significant percentage of OWS-types enjoy many of these perks of the upper-middle-class lifestyle. They hardly seem like people who are really poor.

And even the poorest five percent of Americans are still richer than 70% of the rest of the world. What does that mean? It means that The poorest five percent of our fellow Americans have incomes that would make them upper middle class in most of the world.

Like the OWS protesters, I worry about poverty and inequality, but I worry about REAL poverty and inequality– like people who don’t have clean water to drink and who live in huts with dirt floors. I worry about people who have to helplessly watch their children die of dehydration caused by a bad case of diarrhea (which kills millions of kids in the developing world).

By global standards, nearly all of us Americans are rich fatcats who are skimming undeserved wealth off the top. Nearly all of those OWS protesters are part of the 99 percent of Americans who enjoy unprecedented wealth and prosperity (by global standards). If those protesters really care about inequality and exploitation of the poor, they would look in the mirror and realize that, on a global scale, each of them is guilty as well. It’s easy for them to complain about all the rich people above them on the pyramid, but they don’t seem very willing to recognize the life of undeserved privilege (undeserved, at least, when you evaluated their lifestyles by the same standards they use to evaluate the merits of others’ wealth) that each of them already enjoys compared to the vast majority of humanity who sit below them on the income pyramid. If they don’t want to be hypocrites — if they really want all of the rich to held accountable and forced into a life like all of the “average” people in the world — they should each sell all their fancy first world toys, give the proceeds to the poor, and devote themselves to a lifetime of backbreaking manual labor doing subsistence farming on a small plot of land, or go live in a shantytown in New Delhi or Lagos.


Oct 06 2011

The problem with elections

Category: government,law,politicsJames @ 9:40 pm

Even though the 2012 presidential elections are still over a year away, the news is already saturated with stories about the Republican candidates campaigning. We all take for granted that democracy is the ideal system of government, and that our system of elections is an ideal way to select our country’s leaders. But is it?

Being a politician requires two completely different skill sets: campaigning skills and governing skills. The two skills sets are very different from one another. A candidate’s skill at campaigning tells you very little about their skill at governing, and vice versa.

Someone who is good at governing is a good leader and manager. They are intelligent and able to quickly get up to speed on almost any issue; they have the insight to hire intelligent and competent advisors and subordinates; they listen and consider the opinions and views of the people around them, outside experts, and the opposition; they are able to analyze and synthesize these divergent views and decide on the optimal course of action; they are not afraid to admit they’re wrong, and are willing to change their opinion in the face of convincing evidence; they are good at bringing people together and getting them to agree and reconcile their differences.

The “skills” most politicians have developed to win elections are quite different. Politicians focus on rhetorical ability and convincing people to like them. They are more concerned with appearance than substance. They are good at winning arguments and convincing people that their opinion is right (especially in campaign debates); they are good at criticizing their opponents; they are good at making promises to win votes, even though many of those promises will be impossible to keep if they win; they are good at playacting and projecting their “image”; they are good at marketing and selling themselves; they are good at using all the dirty campaign tactics, but are equally good at distancing themselves from all of that negativity.

It is easy for candidates to talk in broad terms about their policy goals and the like, but that rarely tells you very much about how good they will be at implementing their goals, or even whether they really will try to implement them.

It seems to me that many of the skills required for successful campaigning are antithetical to the skills required for good governing. And unfortunately, most people don’t pay very close attention to how a politician is actually governing. The skills that will propel a person to power, therefore, are usually their campaigning skills.

What is the end result? We get “leaders” who are good at holding fast to their pre-determined positions and who are good at selling themselves, but who lack meaningful leadership skills. I’ll write more later about how we can fix this problem with new ideas about government.