February 12, 2016

Almost all U.S. presidents have been Christians

Nearly half of all U.S. presidents are Episcopalian or Presbyterian

The U.S. Constitution famously prohibits any religious test or requirement for public office. Still, most of the men who have been president have been openly religious, with many belonging to some of the country’s most prominent Protestant denominations.

A similar dynamic is at work in the current campaign for the White House. With the exception of Democrat Bernie Sanders (who is Jewish), all of the presidential hopefuls are Christians and most are Protestants.

In addition, all of the current presidential candidates have spoken openly about the importance of faith in their lives (again, with the exception of Sanders, who describes himself as “not particularly religious”). Our recent survey shows that many Americans care about their leaders’ faith. For instance, half of all American adults say that it’s important for a president to share their religious beliefs. And more people now say there is “too little” religious discussion by their political leaders (40%) than say there is “too much” (27%).

Historically, about a quarter of the presidents – including some of the nation’s most famous leaders, like George Washington, James Madison and Franklin Roosevelt – were members of the Episcopal Church, the American successor to the Church of England.

The next largest group of presidents were affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, which has roots in Scotland. Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson and Ronald Reagan, all of whom had Scots-Irish ancestry, were among the commanders in chief who belonged to the denomination.

Although Roman Catholicism has long been the nation’s largest religious denomination, John F. Kennedy remains the only Catholic president. And since Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, only one other Catholic, John Kerry, has been a presidential nominee on a major party ticket.

Two of the most famous presidents in American history had no formal religious affiliation. The first, Thomas Jefferson, lost his faith in orthodox Christianity at an early age, but continued to believe in an impersonal God as the creator of the universe. Jefferson famously edited the New Testament by removing references to the miracles and leaving in Jesus’ teachings.

The second, Abraham Lincoln, was raised in a religious household and spoke frequently about God (particularly as president), but never joined a church. Scholars have long debated Lincoln’s beliefs, including the question of whether or not he was a Christian, and some aspects of his faith remain a mystery.

Lincoln is not the only president for whom there is some uncertainty surrounding his affiliation and beliefs. Some presidents were more private than others about their religious leanings and some may have evolved in their beliefs during their life.

For example, Lincoln’s second vice president and ultimately his successor, Andrew Johnson, identified himself as a Christian, but never was formally part of a denomination or congregation. Another 19th century president, Rutherford B. Hayes, sometimes attended Methodist churches, but “moved among Protestant denominations during his life,” according to the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs at Georgetown University.

Barack Obama was raised in a nonreligious household but converted to Christianity as an adult and worshipped at a United Church of Christ congregation – Trinity United Church of Christ – in Chicago. However, Obama left Trinity during his first presidential campaign in 2008 after controversial statements by the church’s senior pastor, Jeremiah Wright, gained widespread attention. Today, Obama calls himself a Christian, but is not a regular churchgoer.

Note: This post was originally published on Feb. 12, 2015, and has been updated. 

Topics: Religion and Government, Religion and U.S. Politics, Religious Affiliation

  1. Photo of David Masci

    is a senior writer/editor focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.

66 Comments

  1. Dan Scott8 months ago

    Christian? That’s not a real denomination. So why didn’t they just put them in the no formal denomination group? Jefferson was a deist, not a Christian. Washington, Madison, Monroe, and Tyler held beliefs that were closer to deism as well. Other notable deists (non-presidents) were Ben Franklin and Thomas Paine

    1. Linda HA8 months ago

      Hi, Dan. Just wanted to direct you to a website. Wallbuilders.com. There you can find info on a great collection of original writings, Washington, Franklin, Jefferson and many of our Founders. You may find it very enlightening. There have been a huge number of rewritten pieces of history to destroy our idea of this being a “Christian” nation. Enjoy and have a great day =-)

  2. dean koljr10 months ago

    The problem with most individuals, presidents especially, is when a person truly experiences the lord’s presence and wants to honor that relationship it can only be a true representation when the Lord is first in your life. You will still be a flawed individual and give in to temptations, we are all guilty of this. You will find as your faith grows, it will be easier to keep the Lord first in your actions. How can anybody claim to have the Lord first in their life, when they allow there situation to separate their beliefs from their decision making process. The Presidency is a position, where it would be difficult to truly honor the Lord. I am not judging the professed religions of the presidents, or any person for that matter. I am only wondering where people actually stand in their quest for a personal relationship with the Lord. It is one thing to seek the Lord, if you choose that route, it is entirely different once you find the “LORD”.

  3. Narendran Cp10 months ago

    And yet the mainstream media in the US have always been busy calling the Indian political party ,BJP, as ‘Hindu nationalist party’ and its leaders as Hindu religious fanatics!

  4. Bill Bruehl10 months ago

    Tell me, why do you call Bernie “Jewish”? Why not say he’s a Jew? You don’t call Kennedy Catholicish? He was a Catholic. etc.

    Does “Jewish” connote something less problematical than “Jew”?

    1. Robert Craven8 months ago

      The term Jew carries a derogatory connotation. Jewish is the proper term. Unless you are Jewish, don’t use the term Jew. Just like certain racial terms.

  5. Brandon Mullins10 months ago

    It’s worth mentioning that President Andrew Johnson was a member of the Knights Templar, a masonic appendant body which requires its members to be Christians. Nashville Commandery No. 1 performed his funeral.

    Here’s a shot of him in his commandery regalia.
    greenevillelodgeno3.org/presiden…

  6. Terry Carriker10 months ago

    The surest sign of a man-made enterprise is that it splits quickly into many different factions. On the other hand, one initiated by a god would be expected to converge into a tight unity. This is because only those groups that aligned correctly with the divine theological blueprint would receive supernatural support and thereby flourish, attract members, and survive the long term. Any wayward factions would lose favor and couldn’t compete for new members.

    There are now approximately 38,000 Christian denominations, many of which have very disparate beliefs and practices. This is a valid clue that Christianity is a man-made concept.

  7. Bob C10 months ago

    “Today, Obama calls himself a Christian, but is not a regular churchgoer.”

    I think Obama is an atheist as was his mother. He won’t admit it for obvious reasons. I’m atheist and I think Jefferson would be an atheist if he lived today.

    1. Bill Bruehl10 months ago

      Athiest is a silly word. It is like saying, “I don’t believe it is raining cats and dogs.” Of course you don’t believe animals are falling from the sky but you do believe in the IMAGE. It tells you it’s a heavy rain. You take cover. It is an image.

      God is an image and that’s all. Its an image for that which is impossible but which might be possible. So why do you take it literally? You don’t with cats and dogs.

      Forget about atheism. It’s silly.

      1. Joe Dubya9 months ago

        Atheism is a real thing. You are silly.

  8. dagger1 year ago

    this country was not founded on Christianity… I hear the laws were made on those beliefs..When? after killing, raping, giving diseases to the first nation people..then torturing if they did not conform to the Christian beliefs..religion does not belong in Government and what is there is rammed down our throats

  9. Sharon Full1 year ago

    I like knowing this information regarding religious affiliations of former presidents.

  10. Doyle Payne1 year ago

    Any man (or woman) who becomes president swears (on a Bible, btw, NOT the Koran) to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution is NOT consistent with the Muslim belief. And, we ALL pledge our “allegiance to one nation, under GOD (not Allah)…” This is NOT tradition. It is our HISTORY. It is who we are.

    1. jc1 year ago

      Under God was added in the 1950’s. Religious extremism is a problem in many Muslim countries and in the US. Atheist signed the constitution, but we are not as tolerant now, we have allowed religious extremist to diminish our constitutional right of freedom of religion.

    2. Ole Olson1 year ago

      Doyle, you really need to do some research on this and be honest with yourself. First of all, there are zero mentions of God, Jesus, Christ, or any religious figure in any part of the US Constitution. It was deliberately designed as a secular document so as to not impede on anyone’s freedom of religion (including those that don’t have any religion).

      Second, putting one’s hand on a bible is tradition, it is not law, and if someone prefers a different book (even an educational one), they can do so.

      Third, the original Pledge of Allegiance said “one nation, indivisible”. It was changed half a century later. The pledge was also written by a socialist, lol.

    3. Mazarine9 months ago

      Speak for yourself.

      I do not recite or perform any rituals whatsoever that cite allegiance or agency through god.

    4. Anonymous6 months ago

      Theodore Roosevelt did not use a Bible when taking the oath in 1901. Both John Quincy Adams and Franklin Pierce swore on a book of law, precisely because they wanted to demonstrate a clear cut separation between church and state, not only based on the Constitution, but numerous other writings of the Founding Fathers as well.

  11. Rose1 year ago

    Thank u for clariifying this because I believe since there is no requirement of a persons belief to b president, a Muslim can and should b considered as any other qualified native American.This has been a hot topic on “Meet the Press.”Carson was wrong saying a Muslim should not b president,as Pres Obamas father was Muslim(not fundamentalist).And, while Pres Obama was converted Christian,he chooses not to practice by attending a church(according to your article).

  12. Ronald lee Vaught1 year ago

    Many Presidents and writers of the constitution were deists but in public claimed to be Christian due to the condemnation of anything else. Thomas Paine wrote about his beliefs then the condemnation was too much from then on some others even might have told him the public wont like it. Secret societies were again affirmed as needed due to reaction. In private several Presidents who attended church condemned christanity as a cause of many wars.

  13. James vaughan1 year ago

    We’re there any of the presidents baptized in Jesus name and according to Acts (2:38) in the Bible?

    1. nunn1 year ago

      Great question!!!

  14. Brian Meadows1 year ago

    From biographical information, Ronald Reagan was brought up Disciples of Christ, not Presbyterian. Obama was nominally United Church of Christ but is all about “Liberation Theology” and is favoring Muslim and showing signs he is to some extent a Muslim on his own terms. However, to declare all there presidents as “Christian” is a stretch just based on there own statements. It has been politically up until recently to claim Christianity in our country and many likely made this claim to be electable.

  15. Rob H.1 year ago

    This list is almost entirely wrong.

  16. John1 year ago

    Even the devil was once in heaven!
    Luke 10 : 18 and he said to them “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven”.

  17. Isaac Torres1 year ago

    This post is unbelievable. It is all wrong. Barack Obama is not a CHRISTIAN

    1. Triscuit1 year ago

      Amen brother

  18. Gary C. Noland2 years ago

    Mr. President, you are welcome in our Presbyterian Church (North Springfield Presbyterian Church, Akron, Ohio ), a church of open hearts and open minds.

  19. Floyd2 years ago

    Nothing new under the Sun. Remember the Catholic Church is the mother that gave birth to the Christian religions. And we all know what kind of track record Christianity has do we not? Nations have been wiped out and genocide against in the name of the Christian lord.
    Madness at its best!

  20. Chris Bieber2 years ago

    Obama killed the highest Muslim leader his first day in office, a accidental air strike in the wrong location!!!!!! So differently not a Muslim. Although he does have a brother in third world country. That he does nothing for.

  21. pete2 years ago

    Perhaps you ought to do some real research… obama is NOT, and will not ever be a christian…he IS a moslim… and if you happen to know anything about islam the two are highly incompatable…
    not from the christian viewpoint, but most certainly from the islamic one.

  22. Mia Boyd2 years ago

    That’s interesting. I think it’s incredible that almost all U.S. Presidents have been Christian. To me, religion is so important to me, so I’m glad it’s important to others. I hope that more Presidents from here on out will also attend some kind of Christian church. chcus.org

  23. Rev. Kent A. Meyer2 years ago

    Thank you for posting this! I can’t tell you how many people I talk to who still believe Pres. Obama is Muslim (and it shouldn’t make a difference anyway!).

    Of the Unitarian Presidents, were any of them “humanistic” Unitarians, in contrast with “theistic” one’s?

  24. Charles Lamb2 years ago

    I believe that Obama is a member of the United Church of Christ, not of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ.) Lyndon Johnson and James Garfield were Disciples of Christ but not Obama. Don’t confuse the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), independent Christian Churches, and the United Church of Christ.

  25. Herbert Fingarette2 years ago

    YOUR HEADLINE AND ARTICLE IMPLY CLEARLY THAT AT LEAST ONE U.S. PRESIDENT WAS NOT A CHRISTIAN. BUT THERE’S NOT A WORD ABOUT WHO THAT IS ! WHO IS HE?

    1. John Stackman2 years ago

      Unitarians are not Christians. We believe in God, but not in the trinity. We believe Jesus was a great teacher and philosopher, but is not God.

    2. Aaron Painter1 year ago

      Thomas Jefferson. It’s speculated he was a deist.

  26. Mary Jo Anhalt2 years ago

    Very interesting. The current POTUS may have briefly attended a Christian church, but his recent actions seem to indicate he is more aligned with those who have Islamic beliefs and traditions.

  27. Beverly Margolis-Kurtin2 years ago

    Often left out is that many of the original founders were NOT Christians but were, to one degree or another, deists.

    Jefferson tossed out the miracles because he was a scholar of what is called the Old Testament and knew that there was not a single mention in all of those books that the messiah would perform ANY miracles.

    George Washington was a deist until he was almost forced to join a church. Benjamin Franklin, although never a president, was a deist and many more of the founders who were nominally Christian were, in fact, not trinitarians.

    The history is there if only people would READ it.

    1. Mazarine9 months ago

      Why would you expect our society already entirely comfortable clamoring through life as low-information citizens to change now? It forces am unwelcome paradigm.

  28. J2 years ago

    Dishonesty by Mr. Masci. Jefferson was an Episcopal (CoE) vestryman and he definitely attended and was part of a church. That said, Jefferson’s private opinions about the nature of God (his belief in God being definite) were at times deist but also promoted Jesus and his teachings. This was common among some Christian practitioners at the time and probably still is. (Jefferson produced a secret edition of the Bible that he edited to show that without any of the miracles in the New Testament, it was the greatest teaching in the history of mankind.)

    Lincoln was Christian, and was a church hopper, growing up as a Baptist, attending Presbyterian churches while in office including New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, where Lincoln had rented a pew. Lincoln was also a constant Bible quoter and God invoker as anyone knows from his speeches. One of Lincoln’s own quotes about the Bible echo Jefferson, regarding the Bible as the greatest gift to man.

    By today’s standards they would be almost be right wing Christian extremists, especially if one considers the positions of some of today’s mainline Protestant Christian churches.

    This is no defense of the individuals (Jefferson or Lincoln). It is also not a statement of my personal agreement or disagreement with their views.

    Rather it is a statement that the writer is part of a trend, i.e. people who are opposed to some tradition (Christianity or whatever) who attempt to de-legitimize or remove the weight of that tradition not by challenging its validity, but by simply lying and being partially or altogether deceitful.

    One assumes the point of it is to promote modern behavior and scrap tradition by claiming the American society has historically been as it is today when we all know it has not.

    ” To the corruptions of Christianity I am, indeed, opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence.. And in confiding it to you, I know it will not be exposed to the malignant perversions of those who make every word from me a text for new misrepresentations and calumnies .” -Jefferson

    Lincoln during his first Inaugural Address- “Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him who has never yet forsaken this favored land are still competent to adjust in the best way all our present difficulty.”

  29. mark2 years ago

    This article forgot about Justice David Davis from 1877:

    “We have not had a Freethinker on the Supreme Court since 1877 – 136 years ago = SHAMEFUL! Nominated by Abraham Lincoln, Justice David Davis “is the only judge of the Supreme Court with no recorded affiliation to any religious sect” (Wiki).”

    freethoughtnation.com/forums/vie…

  30. Pastor Doug joseph2 years ago

    This article’s woefully inaccurate description of Jefferson is utterly irreconcilable with the thousands of letters he wrote and sorely misrepresents him, his actions, and his faith.

  31. Sam Smith2 years ago

    I challenge that. America is a Christian nation due to the fact all of our rules, laws and regulations are based on the bibles interpretation of right and wrong. We built this country on these ideas. It comes as no surprise to me that the further liberals pull us from these principles, the more and more debt, crime, and violence continue to climb.

    1. Jay Leslie10 months ago

      Except that crime and violence are at historical lows in the US, and times of religious fervor historically have been the most violent. Plenty of bible-thumping in the dark ages.

    2. Mazarine9 months ago

      I’m not a christian. I am American however. My America is not a christian nation, as tyranny and religious oppression will flourish in such a climate leaving me no option but to relenquish my citizenship under such conditions.

  32. Tom2 years ago

    It’s silly to try to argue that Lincoln or Jefferson weren’t “christians.” They may not have been devout or supported organized religions, but they were certainly culturally Christians, having grown up in a Christian society, celebrated its holidays, evoked its symbolism and meanings.

    I am not devout nor do I attend church but I still consider myself a “Christian” for the above reason.

  33. Linda2 years ago

    If Obama is a “Christian ” then surely hitler must have been a saint !
    Christians don’t lie every time they open their mouth.
    Christians don’t cover the Crucifix behind them while they speak.
    Christians know that there is NOTHING in the Holy Bible about throwing rocks at glass houses.
    A Real Christian would not make a statement like this : ” The future must not belong to those who would defame the prophet of islam ”
    Christians know one cannot serve 2 masters & there is no other way to heaven other than the Blood of Jesus Christ.
    A Christian president would Not go play golf right after hearing one of our citizens had just got their head cut off, BUT to the Prayer closet perhaps.

    1. Student Branden2 years ago

      Listen here Mr. smarty those are biased opinions. Just because he causes mistakes doesn’t mean he is not a christian. Ok people, die every day big whoop but, understand sum he clearly is christian. Oh and don’t act like your so holy girl. Are you caring a bible around with you everywhere you go? … Honestly, didn’t think so…. I don’t have biased opinions … Im a libertarian do you even know what that is…. Its when you are in the middle and you fight for whats right… Believe it or not Im 16 years old already into politics but one thing i wont allow you to do is dawg the president out! Understand he doesn’t run everything you know.. People so quick to blame him but truth of the matter its the congress fault! That’s not biased or opinionated , you people blame him over stuff that he has to have congress approval of…. and since he the guy that speaks on the mic and you see you guys blame him.. why so? Yes, there are some things I disagree with what he is doing.. Anyways Please respond when you get this my email on here

      1. Helen2 years ago

        Student Branden: It is encouraging to read your comments and it gives me hope for the future generation of our country. For a 16 year old, you have more wisdom and insight than some people much older than you. I hope you will stay interested in politics and contribute your thinking to the process. It’s very important to not get locked into rigid thinking and to keep an open mind as new information unfolds. It’s also important to listen to those who may hold a different opinion from yours and examine in your mind whether their ideas, or at least some of their ideas, may have merit.

  34. Joseph Lowes2 years ago

    One the first Presidents where Deists not Christians. Second so what if they believed in magic sky genie, HE IS MAKE BELIEVE!!!

  35. catteau2 years ago

    Wouldn’t it be nice if – in keeping with the separation of church & state – it were simply considered inappropriate to ask about a presidential candidate’s religious beliefs? The influence of religion and religious identity in US politics is totally excessive.

    Of course it would be nice if, like the French, the personal and sex lives of our candidates (and officeholders) were also considered irrelevant and none of the public’s business (as long as they are consensual).

    Alas, I don’t think we’ll ever get their on either.

  36. Don Caldwell2 years ago

    The header is false.

    Four presidents were Unitarians, which is not a Christian denomination.

    Two were “nones”. Altho Lincoln used Christian nomenclature and Jefferson took part in Christian ceremonies, they revealed privately that they subscribed to few if any Christian beliefs.

    Three (Washington, Madison, and Monroe) were nominal Episcopalians — the church of Virginia — but Washington, while a “political” Christian, refused to be baptized, even on his deathbed. Madison opposed Christian trappings consistently throughout his life. Monroe’s private beliefs are unknown, but he not known to have ever joined a church.

    There’s more interesting material in the comments below, but even if Jackson and Obama are counted as Christians, nine of our 44 presidents were not Christians — that’s a respectable 20%.

    1. Colleen Harper2 years ago

      Many Unitarians call themselves Christians, and no one has the right to apply some religious test, even trinitarian vs. unitarian, to determine who may call themselves a Christian. In the first two centuries, there was continual debate, and uniform consensus was never established. Only might resolved what was to be called orthodoxy, when Constantine put the might of the Roman Empire behind a plurality of opinions.

  37. jeanne fancher2 years ago

    The phase, “Today, Obama calls himself a Christian, but he does not attend…” connotes skepticism to me, similar to labeling someone as “a so-called some-thing-or other” (implying he or she is not what they say they are). Lacking conclusive evidence to the contrary, may I suggest the phrase “Today, Obama identifies himself as a Christian”? And to further neutralize any unintended bias, complete the sentence with “he does not attend church regularly”.

  38. Phineas Phinque2 years ago

    It is one thing to say you are of a certain denomination for political reasons, and it is something else to practice a religion. The number of presidents who actively practiced any religion is much smaller than the number of those who profess to do so. The founding fathers were mostly deists, which is apparent from their letters and other writings.

    1. Don Guizzetti2 years ago

      Statements like that demand references, otherwise they rank as opinion.

    2. Caitlin Woods2 years ago

      This is a bit disingenuous, plenty of the founding fathers were religious, see: John Adams. The “founding fathers” were not a monolithic group. They disagreed on what direction the country should take and they disagreed on matters of religion. Honestly it is a miracle that the US ever became “united”.

      1. John Stackman2 years ago

        Being religious does not equal being Christian. Unitarians and deists are not Christian, but we do believe in a creator, a higher power sometimes referred to as Divine Provenance. We don’t believe in the trinity. We do acknowledge that Jesus was a great man and teacher during the Roman Empire.

  39. Howard Thurston2 years ago

    Actually, both Washington and Jefferson considered themselves to be Deists, not members of any protestant denomination. Although Washington attended services along with his wife at the Episcopal Church. Jefferson was a strict Deist, as was Franklin, as were several of the more intelligent founding fathers. Deism is a theistic position that is, however, not Christian in any way except philosophically, but certainly not dogmatically or theologically.

  40. Tarheel2 years ago

    Andrew Jackson joined the Presbyterian Church and was baptized soon after his time as President. He was not a member of any church before then.

  41. Mikki Mack2 years ago

    Interesting history of our Founding Fathers-they had learned of the mistakes made when a country is a theocracy and pushes religious ideologies on others. What far right conservative “Christian’s” fail to understand. We are not a “Christian” nation – they fail to remember Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Baptists at Danbury, CT and the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli. To be president of this country, it is my opinion the candidate must not only pass a US history test, but also a US Citizenship test and the test will be offered at an unannounced location at an unannounced date. The candidate either passes or fails. If the candidate passes, then they can run for the highest office in the country. They must also have be able to grasp/understand the meaning of separation of church and state and have a legal understanding of the Declaration of Independence, our Constitution and Bill of Rights.

    1. Joyce2 years ago

      Hear Hear!!!!

    2. Glenn Floyd2 years ago

      Amen.

      1. Cary Johnston2 years ago

        If we judge only by actions whether or not one is a Christian, it appears to me that President Obama’s actions classify him as attempting to practice what Jesus preached. Most of Jesus’ instructions to his followers dealt with responsibility to “the least of these.” I don’t care what the specific religious faith of any President is. Does anybody? Personally I am a life long Presbyterian married to a Presbyterian minister. My personal religious views or denomination have nothing to do with whether or not my political views are wise and effective. George Bush may be a very good man, a devout man, but invading Iraq was neither wise nor effective.

        1. Gary C. Noland2 years ago

          Amen .