Listening to the, in general, very good coverage of pre-inauguration commentary, I realize that there is something I need to explain that has been kind of purged out of public school education. So this is in particular directed toward the young people so they can appreciate even more their own historic and faith heritage.
On FOX news they commented, correctly, that American Presidents have typically had a Protestant faith background and belief system. They also correctly pointed out that Catholics were a minority in American faith history and government until relatively recently. However, one could draw the wrong conclusions from these two facts so this is why I want to give you the brief history.
Remember that humans have not shopped around for the “correct” religion until the past forty years. But that does not mean that mean old religion was “forced” on individuals either. Like a heritage one’s religion was loved and passed along to the next generation, like an inheritance. Thus entire countries tended to have the same religion, not because it was imposed on them, or because they all “chose” the same “most correct” religion, but because each family generation after generation passed along their faith, and that tended to be along the lines of countries or large regions since, obviously, that’s how cultures group at the largest scale.
Thus when you look at America you are both correct to say that it was “mostly Protestant” in its founding, but you are incorrect if you are referring to the landscape, the actual land mass, of America. The English and the Dutch brought along Protestantism, their historic faiths. But the Spanish and the French brought along Catholicism, their historic faith. Wherever in American the French and Spanish settled, those were Catholic areas, not Protestant. The Spanish settled the west of America, much of the south, all of Mexico and all of the countries of what would be central and South America, and that is why they are Catholic. So, actually, in terms of land mass, and in terms of millions who converted to a Christian faith, Catholicism is the “invisible” majority in terms of North, central and South America and was even during the Revolution. Remember: the American Revolution was against England, where the English colonies broke away. So of course it was all Protestant (and legacy Dutch, who were the earliest settlers of regions such as New York City). It’s not like the Spanish colonies joined in with the English colonies to declare independence from England because the Spanish colonies “reported to” Spain, obviously. So while the Revolution of the states was taking place, under its faith umbrella of its heritage of Protestantism, it’s not like Catholics weren’t here. They were here, of course, in the millions, in the Spanish and French (such as around New Orleans) colonies that were never part of the English colonies, obviously!
So it’s not like America was founded by the Americans who “picked” the ‘best’ religion. America was founded by English subjects rebelling against English rulers and they were all Protestants. The Dutch were Protestants by choice; they, as a culture, embraced Protestantism. The English, however, had Protestantism forced upon them by King Henry VIII. He, wishing to divorce his wife and marry another, and not getting permission from the Pope, wrested the entire country away from Catholicism. England used to be devout Catholic, like Ireland. King Henry VIII, in order to “have an heir” wanted to put aside his first wife, contrary to Catholic doctrine. So he established a Protestant church, called the Church of England, which is the origin of the Anglican and Episcopal denominations. So everyone who runs around today worshipping in Anglican and Episcopal churches does so because Henry VIII forbade Catholicism, burning down churches and monasteries, killing priests, and forcing conversions. It’s not like people sat down with Protestant and Catholic doctrine side by side and “made a choice” “which was the one for me” or “which was the most ‘correct’” or “most liberal.” That is why in doctrine and liturgy there is still much of the Catholic within the Anglican and Episcopal and why the churches have a special relationship regarding their core Christian theology, despite the introduction of secular sexual and social agenda into segments of the Church of England.
So yes, the American Presidents and Founding Fathers had deep faith, all of it manifested in Protestant denominations, but you need to understand it is precisely because they were English subjects rebelling against English, all of whom were forced to convert to Protestantism nearly two hundred years previous to the American Revolution. The Spanish colonies of the west and south, and the French colonies of the north (Quebec most notably) and the south (New Orleans, and areas of the Caribbean) were all numerous and matter of fact Catholics, based on their over one thousand years of Catholicism in their cultures and families. But the structure of the new United States was formulated by English subjects against English rulership; hence it is rooted in Christianity of the Protestant denominations and viewpoint. Thus it took years of new immigrants who were Catholic, the Irish, the Germans, the Polish, for example, to bring grassroots Catholicism into the eastern and Midwestern part of the growing America. President John F Kennedy, the first and only Catholic president, was the son of the line of Irish Catholics who became mainstreamed into the Protestant power structure of the United States. But that doesn’t mean this was when “Catholics” “arrived” and “were tolerated” by Protestants. Um, all of the west of the United States that was under Spanish influence were already Catholic and were there before many of the Protestant explorers and settlers.
George Washington: Episcopalian
John Adams: Unitarian
Thomas Jefferson: none declared but a Christian believer
James Madison: Episcopalian
James Monroe: Episcopalian
John Quincy Adams: Unitarian (like dad, John Adams)
Andrew Jackson: Presbyterian
Martin Van Buren: Dutch Reformed (see, he, the 8th President, is scion of the very early Dutch
Protestant heritage in the Dutch colonies)
William Henry Harrison: Episcopalian
John Tyler: Episcopalian
(So now you’ve had ten Presidents, where five of the ten were Episcopalians and it’s not like each President sat down like moderns seem to assume and went, “Hmm, which is the ‘best religion.’” This continues to be the legacy of English colonies having rebelled against an English rulership that was Protestant by culture and history, not by having “selected” the “best” “religion.” I mean you all have watched the great “John Adams” miniseries and seen how President 2 John Adams, Unitarian, raised son who became President 6 John Quincy Adams, in their family Unitarian faith!)
James Knox Polk: Presbyterian
Zachary Taylor: Episcopalian
Millard Fillmore: Unitarian
Franklin Pierce: Episcopalian
James Buchanan: Presbyterian
Abraham Lincoln: None declared but a Christian believer
Andrew Johnson: None (became President after Lincoln assassinated and had opposed all of Lincoln’s agenda, including racial equality)
Ulysses S. Grant: Methodist (The 18th President is the first one who was not Episcopalian, Presbyterian or Unitarian).
Rutherford Birchard Hayes: Methodist
James Abram Garfield: Disciples of Christ
(So you can see that it is not until the second half of the 1800’s that there was much diversity among the Protestant denominations themselves as represented by the Presidents. It’s not like the Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Unitarians were working to “keep out” the other Protestant denominations, say nothing of the Catholics. American government continued to be comprised of the descendants of those English colonists who rebelled against English rulership).
Chester Alan Arthur: Episcopalian
Stephen Grover Cleveland: Presbyterian
Benjamin Harrison: Presbyterian
William McKinley: Methodist
Theodore Roosevelt: Dutch Reformed, Episcopalian
William Howard Taft: Unitarian
Thomas Woodrow Wilson: Presbyterian
Warren Gamaliel Harding: Baptist (First Baptist! Yeah! Notice the first Baptist President did not happen until 1921).
John Calvin Coolidge: Congregationalist
(So you can see that the third set of ten Presidents, even with the first Baptist, was still very reflective of the traditional culture in power and in numbers, the Episcopalians and Presbyterians with touches of Unitarian and Dutch Reformed. It’s now been one hundred and fifty years since the American Revolution).
Again, you can see just by looking at the facts that it’s not like each President sat down as a young lad in college and said, “Hmm, which religion is the ‘right one’ because that’s the one I am going to be.” Religion is the legacy and treasured inheritance passed along in their family within the community, cultural and national context of people with the same heritage and thus values.
Herbert Clark Hoover: Society of Friends (Quaker)
Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Episcopalian
Harry S. Truman: Baptist (Yeah! The nation’s second Baptist President).
Dwight David Eisenhower: Presbyterian
John Fitzgerald Kennedy: Roman Catholic
Lyndon Baines Johnson: Disciples of Christ
Richard Milhous Nixon: Society of Friends (Quaker)
Gerald Rudolph Ford: Episcopalian
James Earl Carter: Baptist
Ronald Wilson Reagan: Baptized Disciples of Christ, later attended Presbyterian churches (according to Wikipedia)
(The fourth set of ten Presidents again demonstrates that the faith of the Presidents is not a cynically chosen one, but the legacy of their families’ heritage and cultural context and upbringing).
George Herbert Walker Bush: Episcopalian
William Jefferson Clinton: Baptist
George Walker Bush: Methodist
I hope as we celebrate the inauguration of President Barrack Obama that everyone uses this as an opportunity to have a more accurate and less factionalized view of the secular and faith history of the United States. It is only in the past forty years that people have come to think of faith as a “choice” of the “most correct” and “best ‘for me’” “decision,” and fine, think that way if you want, though that misses the whole point of families passing on witness to their faith, but don’t look back on the “role” of faith in the United States in that context, because that is simply factually wrong. The United States was founded on principles and belief in God because that is the spine-the backbone-of the people who comprise the country in the first place: people of faith.
Thus when people select, for example, inauguration speakers and so forth according to their faith they totally miss the point of the faith heritage of the United States. For example, it doesn’t matter if President Elect Obama has a Catholic there or not: many Catholics voted for him and all Catholics, including the Pope, pray for him and his success. This assignment of mouths and fanny occupying seats as statements of some sort of agenda is so bogus and contrary to the authentic history of the United States. I mean, I’m a Roman Catholic and you don’t see me whining that most of the Presidents were Episcopalian. It’s not a bingo score card, folks. Pray that whatever the President’s faith is, that it is orthodox and sincere.
I hope that you have found this helpful. I call this a case study because I am also showing to you how to take an assumption that you have and use some simple visual and research tools to make the facts and context more understandable. In this case all you needed was to hear from me what used to be taught in schools (the facts about how culture and faith migrated around the world) and a tool, which is to look at the denominations of each President in groups of ten as a way to clump meaningful groups of time since the American Revolution. Organizing like this is an easier way to analyze, learn and even memorize, if that is your intention.