In a great little historical flight of fancy, Slate.com has just published an article entitled “Who Was the Most Religious President of All Time?” The answer: Jimmy Carter. Close behind him was James Garfield (actually a clergyman).
Deciding who is most “religious” is, of course, a rather subjective thing. In order to come to any conclusion, religion must be defined in a certain way that may exclude certain parts of what it actually means to be “religious.” Outward professions and observable facts are and must be favored in this kind of analysis over inner states and relationships. Are we, after all, talking about spirituality here, or adherence to a specific set of Christian beliefs and practices? For the purposes of discussion, is a religious person one who “paints within the lines” of orthodox Christianity, or someone for whom “faith seeking understanding” is predominant?
These are just some of the issues implicitly raised by an article like this and, more regularly, historians of religion. Understanding the place and importance of faith in a person’s life is akin to deciding “how much” someone loved their wife. At times, it is an effort to quantify the qualitative. We can make some very educated guesses, but there is a sense in which–things like private journals and other direct comments from the historical actor notwithstanding–we may have a difficult time. The author of the article on Slate tips his hand to the complications involved in a postscript: “While Thomas Jefferson was called an atheist—he rejected the virgin birth, called the Book of Revelation the ‘ravings of a maniac,’ and described the Trinity as a ‘hocus-pocus phantasm’—in his private life he was still a religious man who went to church and prayed.” Complicated matters indeed.
For fun, the article also attempts to identify the “least religious presidents”: Ulysses S. Grant and James Monroe. Very interesting. Neither Jimmy Carter (widely understood to be a failure) nor Ulysses S. Grant (successful general but possible alcoholic with an administration accused as corrupt) are generally seen as overwhelming successes. Interesting, then, that neither being very “religious” nor “irreligious” seemed to help them make the top tier of American leaders.* A word of warning, perhaps, in this and any election year.
All of which, of course, brings us to Abraham Lincoln, a man for whom the inner questions of faith percolated but who in practice may have been considered less than religious. He is an American cipher:
…it may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether…” (Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, 1865)
*Monroe, though, would seem to rank higher than Grant. But then I guess winning the Civil War does get your face on the 50 dollar bill.