Presidents and religion - smart enough to lie, or dumb enough to believe?

If you take a look at the official history of the presidents of the USA, you’ll notice that many of the presidents in the 1800s were non-religious, un-affiliated or it was unclear on their religious beliefs. The last president who had evidence of being non-religious was Chester A Arthur, despite (or because of) his father being a Baptist preacher, who ruled in 1881-1885. Ever since then, each president has been officially affiliated in Christianity in one form or another (surprisingly, only one Roman Catholic). Taft had to fight off rumors of being an atheist, so he may be a prime candidate for this thread, but I don’t know enough of his history to comment (wasn’t he the one who hated being president and counted down the days until he could go back to the SCOTUS?).

This gets me thinking…it takes brains (or a father with both brains and power) to successfully get elected as president. Many surveys have shown that in the current state of this country, an athiest or non-religious president is less likely to get elected than anyone else. How can I say this without resorting to name calling? Eh screw it, religious nuts are idiots. There’s a strong mentality of “if you don’t love the baby Jesus, then you’re evil and ain’t fit to serve this country” … that mentality has always existed here, but it wasn’t for the last 100 years or so that the general public was as well informed about what was going on. In a sense, presidents could get away with a lot more back in the 1800s, and likely didn’t need to hide their religious beliefs (or even get questioned about them by the media).

Which brings me to my point - how many of the presidents since Arthur do you think actually believed in their religion, and how many faked their religion in order to get elected?

As a non-religious person myself, it really baffles me that somebody could be smart enough to be running the country, and still believe in 2000 year old fairy tales and an old man sitting on a cloud watching your every move. And making up a faith (and sticking to it enough to make it believable to public eyes) or exaggerating your involvement in it is something I definitely wouldn’t put past most of them. Obama himself has a pretty sketchy religious history (first everybody hated the priest at the CHURCH he attended, and then everybody decided he was a Muslim, and right now he isn’t a member of any congregation), so I could definitely buy him putting on a show while in private not believing in any of that mumbo-jumbo. He’s definitely not a president who leads based on the bible rather than the constitution either.

Yes, I’ve come to accept that I will never be president. This probably isn’t the only SDMB thread that would remove me from the race…I do hope to live long enough to see an openly-non-religious president welcomed with open arms by this country, but I doubt it will ever happen.

I don’t think that religious beliefs are necssarily incompatible with innate intelligence. I think it takes a certain level of compartmentalization, yes, but one can be smart, even genius level smart, and believe in God (Isaac Newton - indisputably one of the most brilliant minds in western history - was not only devoutly religious but believed in alchemy as well).

As for how many Presidents since Arthur have been secretly atheist - I would guess that very few (leaning towards none) were out right cynical atheists mouthing completely phony statements of faith, but the ones I suspect at least had private doubts and/or indifference to the metaphysical claims of religion would include Nixon, Bush the Elder and Obama. I actually think Clinton was/is a sincere believer.

Well, are they smart enough to run the country? Incompetence is a common feature of Presidents; Reagan was even going senile. And of course they can simply be smart but irrational.

You remember way back when homosexuals weren’t allowed to serve in the army? The only way you could get in was to lie about your sexual orientation. I think it’s like that. Only that instead of an Army, it’s a Chippendales party.

I disagree about Obama. I’ve always pegged him as a fairly devout Liberal Evangelical in the Rick Warren mode.

A President wouldn’t have to claim to be religious unless there was a substantial number of Americans who were genuinely religious. And if there are a substantial number of genuinely religious Americans, why shouldn’t we assume the President is among their number?

Remember when Sarah Palin first got the nomination for VP and so many people were going ape-shit over her, because they finally had one of “their own kind” running for president (yeah, a moron like you). Reagan and W may have had a couple of screws loose, but they certainly weren’t average joes (you couldn’t even have a beer with W, because of his alcoholism). Contrast that to Al Gore, who picked “one of them dirty Jews” for VP. For some reason, that never seems to get talked about much, but I always had the impression that this was a big part of what did him in in 2000…

I’m at a loss to understand what this has to do with the OP. Can you clarify?

I think Obama is genuinely religious. He’s made it too much a part of his life to be faking it. Reagan, I think, might have be religious in a very general sense, but he didn’t seem to particularly care much for organized religion as part of his personal life.

There is a clear positive correlation between educational level and atheism/agnosticism. Since Presidents on average are more educated than the average population, you could argue that they are also more likely to be atheists or agnostics.

There are also very strong social incitaments for faking religiosity, just as there are for faking heterosexuality. Even if you’re not running for office. And there are practically zero positive incitaments for becoming an atheist, and often massive negative ones.

But I also have to admit to the same sort of discrimination. If someone said they were devoutly religious, that would stop me from voting for them. In fact, when our previous prime minister for some reason made a deal about being religious it felt a bit embarrasing. I was thinking “Keep that stuff to yourself, shesh.”

But he wasn’t saying “God wants me to do this or that” or “My religious belief strongly influences how I think and made decisions”, so he didn’t make himself un-votable for me (the fact that he didn’t represent the party that I identify with made him un-votable for me).

Then we should basically demand that he is white and heterosexual as well. And that he is a woman more than half the time.

Where did he say “demand”? He just said we shouldn’t be surprised.

And while religion is a strong informer of our political stances, race and sexual orientation are not so much. However, we should not be surprised if most presidents are white and heterosexual. Nothing about demands.


Give me a fucking break. You don’t have all the answers. Nobody does. For that matter, that smarmy self-righteousness espoused by so many atheists is a position held by a small and practically insignificant percentage of the population.

Most people in this country have some degree of religious faith. You are not smarter than the average bear. You are not enlightened. You have resolved certain issues in your own mind, but you fail to understand that rational people can come to differing opinions.


I don’t believe it is necessarily likely that Presidents are dramatically “smarter” than the average American. One of my great grandfathers told me when I was very young, that success in life isn’t about how smart you are but how much you do with what you were given.

I think that rings true.

There have been, by my count, 20 Presidents since the beginning of the 20th century. Dividing them up into quartiles, my personally ranking of their intelligence (1st Quartile is lower intelligence, 4th is highest, ordered alphabetically within quartile)

1st Quartile

Eisenhower, Harding, Johnson, Reagan, Truman

2nd Quartile

Bush, G.H.; Bush, G.W.; Coolidge; Ford; McKinley

3rd Quartile

Carter; Kennedy; Nixon; Roosevelt, F.; Roosevelt, T.

4th Quartile

Clinton, Hoover, Obama, Taft, Wilson

Something to keep in mind about such things, we’re talking about people who have risen to the top of the political system in a very large democracy in which many vie for such a spot. Even Warren G. Harding’s life prior to the Presidency is significantly more successful than the average man of his day, all the way back to the beginning of his career. By the age of 24 Harding was successful in the newspaper business.

Most Presidents have not had their IQ tested, and even if they had, IQ tests measure IQ and that doesn’t perfectly map with “intelligence.”

In making the list I tended to discount anything based on familial affiliation. So both Bush Presidents I don’t give them much credit for going to Ivy League schools, both were sons of powerful men who were well connected and had strong connections with the schools. Kennedy and the two Roosevelts likewise don’t get any special credit for the academic background. The 2nd and 3rd Quartiles are hard to rank, but I’m pretty firm on the 4th and the 1st.

If you look at Clinton’s personal background to do the things he did, even before becoming a politician, you had to have genuine intellect. While it is true he got started in life in a trailer park, his mom eventually married a fairly successful local businessman so he didn’t grow up destitute. But nonetheless, those sort of connections don’t get you into Harvard, don’t get you a Rhodes Scholarship et cetera, for a hick from Arkansas you have to be genuinely smart for those things.

Here’s the thing though, on that whole list how many are scientists? How many are philosophers? How many defined themselves by their academic backgrounds?

The answer is, essentially none. Hoover is probably the closest to being a scientist. Wilson was the closest to being defined by his success in academia.

What is one thing you can generalize about every President on that list? Well, pretty much all of them wanted to fit in. They were all good at forging personal relationship, they were all strong members of whatever community they came from. Politicians aren’t loners and they typically aren’t skeptics. Why? Because skeptics have a hard time going with the flow and keeping their mouth shut when people say things they have doubts about. That kind of behavior makes it harder to integrate in with a community. Presidents, and all high level politicians, have one skill that they universally tend to be good with and that is the forging of interpersonal relationships.

Many of the Presidents on this list had their quirks that might undermine my claim. However, when you dig deeper you’ll note that say, the quirks Johnson had that were off putting were the kind of quirks that were perfect for his life back in Texas.

Likewise, being successful in politics doesn’t require traditional “intellect.” You tend to need to be well educated because that makes you more presentable, it opens avenues of communication with polite society, it makes you more polished in your use of words and your manner. However, none of that matters if you can’t make friends, and people that are overly skeptical don’t make friends as easily as people that can get along with everyone. I think people like Presidents, who spend their whole lives being part of various organizations and communities, are probably so extroverted that most of them probably have not taken serious effort to systematically analyze their relationship with God. Like most Americans, they were more or less raised in a religion and they stuck with it because their strong desire to make and form attachments meant they remained very naturally connected with religion and church because those are important parts of being part of the community.

G. W. Bush and Obama are two men who I think probably “lost religion” and then became more attached to it later on. Bush had his serious bout with alcoholism and became born again. Obama has talked about how he got into cocaine use and et cetera, but based largely on his life for the past 15-20 years I think it highly unlikely Obama is a closet atheist. I think Obama loved the community aspects of religion, the strong foundation it built in his relationship with his wife and daughters.

After Bush and Obama, I’ve seen some evidence that Clinton and Carter both took religion “fairly seriously.” Aside from that, my impression is religion wasn’t something the rest of the Presidents on this list “wore on their sleeve.” I think they were more in the mold of “go to church on Sunday to shake everyone’s hand, make my presence known, and focus on other stuff the other 6 days of my life.” I don’t think that made them atheists, it just made them people who accepted Christianity at face value, didn’t put much of their life into thinking about it, and focused more on other aspects of life.

Nixon was probably of the right mindset to outright fake religion. However, in real life Nixon just seemed disinterested with religion entirely, even Nixon though I don’t feel would qualify as an atheist. He was just a person that probably didn’t think about religion more than once or twice a year aside from how it mattered politically.

You can be intelligent without being an introverted thinker, and I think people with high level personal skills who are extroverts will not ponder much the mysteries of the universe. It doesn’t make them stupid or unintelligent, it does make them unsuitable to be research scientists, but those are only a small portion of our population.

Quoth Little Nemo:

I’m not sure that’s right. For a lot of people, religion just serves as a way to separate the in group (which I’m a member of, thereby proving that I’m inherently superior) from the out group (which consists of all of those clearly inferior damn dirty heathens). In short, you could have a church that consisted entirely of folks who didn’t actually believe anything, but who all claimed to, so as to fit in with all the other church members who also claim to believe. I mean, you can say the same thing of college fraternities, or members of the Masons or the Elks or whatnot, and those groups don’t even have the leavening of a few genuine True Believers to get things started.

Quoth Stoneburg:

There’s certainly a correlation between education and admitted atheism/agnosticism, but I often suspect that the rates are actually about the same at all education levels, and it’s just that educated folks tend to be more exposed to an environment where it’s socially acceptable to admit it.

I was clarifying my point in the OP about how in order to win votes, you need to cater to the “god bless the baby Jesus crowd”, and the dumber you look doing it, the more it helps. On the one hand, you have folk like Al Gore (who’s much smarter than you) and Joe Lieberman (who murdered the baby Jesus!) and then on the other end of the spectrum you have Sarah Palin, who would likely be president right now if Obama had said “screw my crazy priest. I only went to church to keep up appearances when I was a community organizer in Chicago. No, that doesn’t mean I’m a Muslim. It means I got bigger things to worry about than which superfriend I want to side with”.

Did John McCain die when I wasn’t paying attention?

And I don’t think Gore is smarter than I am. I’ve seen his GPA.

And I don’t think Obama is faking his religion.

By the “god bless the baby Jesus crowd” what do you mean?

If you mean Christian fundamentalists, by and large the only President we’ve truly had that “catered” to them was George W. Bush–of course he was one of them.

Reagan had some mingling with the likes of the Moral Majority, but I have always said their importance was primarily exaggerated by two parties, on one hand members of the Moral Majority had obvious reason to exaggerate their own importance. On the other, people like yourself who care far more about religion than do most Americans, exaggerated the importance of the Moral Majority because it aligns nicely with your world view (that pandering to fundamentalist Christians is essential to be President.)

There’s a big difference between a polite nod and catering. Everyone makes polite nods to everything when running for President. That’s why John Kerry was shown in blaze orange hunting vest. As President you need to pay lip service to pretty much every single cause, and any super contentious issue you want to try and establish one side that will strongly support you and then do vague things that might make you seem favorable to the other side. It’s a dangerous game because if you’re say, avowedly pro-Choice you can’t afford to alienate the pro-Choice supporters because the pro-Life people by and large will never vote for you. But you’ll still say things here and there to try and pay lip service to the other side, because maybe you’ll make yourself seem just slightly less objectionable and maybe it gets you a few more votes. Moves like that are about maximizing your potential supporters by making yourself at least moderately appealing to as many people as possible.

I think maybe uninformed atheists such as yourself think all Christians in America are part of the “bless baby Jesus” crowd, this means you do not have a very informed or particularly nuanced view of religion in America. If you did, I might view this thread as being based on reality, but you’re really just making broad, sweeping assumptions and doing nothing to back them up. Do you really have anything to debate at all?

I think if John Mccain HAD been sworn in, he’d be dead by now. He didn’t look very healthy on the campaign trail (he ESPECIALLY didn’t look very healthy in the last month or so before the election), and having that job can’t be good on the heart.

“God bless the baby Jesus” = watch Tallendega Nights. But just long enough to see what I mean. I’m talking about those people who would automatically eliminate any candidate from their vote who didn’t appear to be as religious as they are.

I bring up the point of pandering to them more so than the other causes simply because I’ve seen surveys over and over showing that a non-religious (i.e. someone who does not believe in or pray to a god…ANY god.) candidate would be least likely to get voted for. Even lower than a homosexual candidate. I would provide a cite if I had one handy, but it was an issue I just started thinking about again this morning.

There is a fairly big difference between being devoutly religius in the 17th century, when atheism was all but unthinkable and something most people would never in their lives had been exposed to in any way, and today, when atheism is pretty common and you don’t go to prison for it (at least in the USA.)

Well, since we’re debating here, that’s a pretty weak argument. I think he would be just fine.

Your cite is a Will Ferrel Movie? Tell me you’re kidding. McCain was one of the least religious Republican candidates we’ve had in awhile. I actually could see him being a crypto-atheist.