Thursday, December 28, 2006

Presidential religions

Classes start in just over a week, so I'm starting to think about getting ready for them. One of my Spring classes is on the history of American religious life, and this semester I'm having my students read David L. Holmes's new book, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers.

The innovative thing about Holmes's book is that he looks not only at the words of the Founding Fathers, but at their actions as well. George Washington, for example, was an Anglican (Episcopalian), but after the American Revolution, when he no longer attended church with his mother, he "avoided the sacrament of Holy Communion." His habit was to leave after the regular service, then send the carriage back to pick up his wife, Martha. When the minister preached a sermon in which he lamented "the unhappy tendency of . . . those in elevated stations who invariably turned their backs upon the celebration of the Lord's Supper," Washington simply quit going to church on "Sacrament Sundays."

Of the nine Founding Fathers that Holmes discusses, five--Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe--were also presidents. In class, we sometimes talk about presidential religions, in part using information from the website. Of the 42 presidents (George W. Bush is number 43, but Grover Cleveland gets counted twice), half were Episcopalian or Presbyterian, denominations that today count fewer than 5% of Americans among their members--a ratio of roughly 10 to 1. Methodists, the third largest presidential religion, are also over-represented, but not by nearly so large a margin: 12% of presidents compared to 8% of the population.

Here's an interesting question: Which presidential religions are most over-represented? Answer: Unitarians (four presidents, or 9.5%, compared to .2% of the population) and, the biggest surprise, Dutch Reformed (two, 4.8%, versus .1%). Today, the Reformed Church in America (formerly Dutch Reformed) has only about 300,000 members, but keep in mind that New York, before the English took over, was a Dutch colony, and the Dutch influence was still strong enough to account for Martin Van Buren and Theodore Roosevelt. (TR later attended Christ [Episcopal] Church in Oyster Bay with his wife).

Catholics are the most under-represented: a quarter of the American population, and just one president (John F. Kennedy).

John Adams was the first Unitarian president. According to one biographer, "Adams was raised a Congregationalist, but ultimately rejected many fundamental doctrines of conventional Christianity, such as the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, becoming a Unitarian." Could such a person be elected president today? I don't think so, despite the recent election of Muslim Keith Ellison to the House of Representatives--or, I should say because of the backlash to Ellison's election.

A look at these tables of presidents' religious affiliations shows why studies like Holmes's are so important. Jefferson is often listed as an Episcopalian, but his views on Christianity were far from mainstream. Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, among others, also pose certain problems of categorization.

One more interesting president: Dwight Eisenhower's parents were members of the River Brethren, a small Mennonite group, but they joined the WatchTower Society (Jehovah's Witness) when he was a boy. Ike, who took the presidental oath of office with his hand on a WatchTower bible, joined a Presbyterian congregation during his first term as president.

Incidentally, the River Brethren, a foot-washing church, split in the nineteenth century over an important theological question: Should the same person who washes the feet also dry them? Or should those responsibilities be handled by two different people? Hence was created the One-Mode River Brethren (one person handles both jobs) and the Two-Mode. I don't know to which group Eisenhower belonged as a boy.