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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Have we ever had a president who was not a Christian?

Here’s a “fact check.” Four American presidents have been Unitarian.
In the United States Unitarianism evolved out of the liberal wing of the Congregational movement (in New England most Unitarian churches used to be Congregational churches, with King’s Chapel in Boston being the primary exception). Today Unitarianism is predominantly a non-Christian denomination, with about a half and half split between ‘humanist’ and ‘theist’ Unitarians. But in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries Unitarians were generally Christian in self-conception, though they rejected the Trinity as outlined in the Nicene Creed. Thomas Jefferson was never an avowed Unitarian, but his personal correspondence indicates that his views toward religion were in line with more radical Unitarians during his presidency, though he did become more of a liberal Episcopal Christian in his later years. It has to be remembered that Jefferson invited Thomas Paine back to the United States in 1802. Keep in mind that Paine was the Christopher Hitchens of his day when it came to religious opinions (Christian churches would not take his body for burial upon his death because of his reputation).
Jefferson’s religious heterodoxy can be understood best by observing the substance of the Bible he produced by redacting much of the material.
The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth begins with an account of Jesus’s birth without references to angels, genealogy, or prophecy. Miracles, references to the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, and Jesus’ resurrection are also absent from The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth…It does, however, include references to Noah’s Ark, the Great Flood, the Tribulation, and the Second Coming, as well as Heaven, Hell, and the Devil.

Besides Unitarians, a lot of the founders and early Presidents (the Southerners) were formally Episcopalians, which didn’t necessarily mean more than that they were born into an Episcopalian family. The “born again” churches demand an adult personal commitment at some point for someone to become a real member, whereas Episcopals (and Catholics and Lutherans, and probably Orthodox, and maybe Van Buren’s Dutch Reformed) just default people in at birth. This whole infant v. adult baptism controversy really does have some substance to it; it’s not one of those controversies based on an obscure textual quibble.

Besides Episcopal, Unitarian, and Dutch Reformed (Van Buren), most of the early Presidents seem to have vacillated between Methodist, Presbyterian, and sometimes Baptist or Episcopal, or to have declared themselves to be nondenominational Christians. There might have been good political reasons for this vagueness. Many were not communicant members of any church, and Grant was unbaptized — Polk was baptized only on his deathbed.

To the extent that the first 20 Presidents or so were Christians at all, most of them seemed to be exactly the kind of lax conventional / liberal / nondenominational / non-born-again Christians whose Christianity contemporary fundamentalists and evangelicals tend to doubt. Later on Presidents tended to have more denominational identification and McKinley, Wilson, and others seemed to be devout and committed. But there were still plenty of very nominal Christians, like Eisenhower.

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