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)
Eisenhower, Harding, Johnson, Reagan, Truman
Bush, G.H.; Bush, G.W.; Coolidge; Ford; McKinley
Carter; Kennedy; Nixon; Roosevelt, F.; Roosevelt, T.
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.