Presidents and religion

It is interesting. At least once upon a time, the United States was a very religious country, yet few of its presidents, at least those in the last century, have been at all religious. Several have had the loosest religious affiliation if any.

Warren G. Harding, Herbert Hoover, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton never allied themselves with any specific congregation, at least as president, but all identified themselves as Christians. This is true of Barack Obama, as well.

Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush were on the rolls of their congregations, but among them the only regular churchgoers were Wilson, Kennedy and Carter.

Possibly religious conflicts in their families had an effect. Eisenhower’s mother was a Jehovah’s Witness. She seemed to have been the more religious of his two parents, but the future president never associated himself with her religion. Harry Truman was reared a Baptist. His wife, Elizabeth “Bess” Wallace Truman, was a lifelong committed Episcopalian.

Richard Nixon’s mother, again the more religious parent, was a Quaker. He never formally connected with any Quaker congregation, and actually spoke publicly of the difference between his views about the military and warfare and Quaker pacifism. Nixon’s wife, Patricia Ryan Nixon, was the daughter of an inactive Catholic, whose sister was a nun, and a Protestant mother. Apparently, however, she was never baptized a Catholic, nor did she ever associate herself with the Catholic Church.

Ronald Reagan was the son of an inactive Catholic and active Protestant, but Reagan was never baptized a Catholic, nor did he ever practice the religion. His first wife, actress Jane Wyman, was a Catholic, and Reagan allowed their two children to be raised as Catholics.

Wilson nursed some hostile feelings for Catholics, it would seem, but anti-Catholicism was not a problem for the other presidents of the past 100 years, if their writings and actions are to be believed.

For example, when Truman’s nephew was married to a Catholic, the president wrote Bess Truman that it was fine with him. As far as Catholics were concerned, Truman had served in the First World War in a unit in which he was about the only soldier who was not Irish-American and Catholic. The Catholic chaplain became Truman’s friend for life. Indeed when this priest visited Washington between 1945 and 1953, he usually was the Trumans’ guest in the White House. Truman, an amateur pianist, loved Gregorian chant.

The most intriguing figure in this discussion is Lyndon Johnson.

Nominally a member of the Disciples of Christ, with an Episcopalian wife, he had a fascination for the Catholic Church. He said that it dated to his days when he taught Mexican immigrant children. Johnson retired in 1969 and returned to his boyhood home in Texas where he eventually died. In his last years he often attended Sunday Mass, and it was not rare for him to go to weekday Mass.

When he died, the local Catholic pastor with whom Johnson developed a friendship officiated at his burial. Johnson’s daughter, Luci, converted to Catholicism while her father was in the White House. It made news around the world.

Coincidentally, when Johnson took the presidential oath in Dallas a few hours after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, he held a Catholic missal. In that frenzied moment, no one could find a Bible, but somebody found Kennedy’s missal with which he traveled.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.