Separation of Church and State: Ranking the Presidents

Bill Lehto

The founders had every opportunity to create religious creeds, mottos, and pledges, but they didn’t. In fact, they explicitly added the Establishment Clause to the U.S. Constitution to prevent the mingling of government with religion. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …” reads the beginning of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1791. But despite their intentions, it’s obvious that religion still plays a big role in the U.S. government. Every president swears the oath of office with one hand on the Bible. Witnesses in court swear to tell the whole truth “So help me God.” The Supreme Court opens its sessions after the bailiff has asked God to save the Court and the United States. Congress starts its daily sessions with a prayer from a chaplain whose salary is paid with tax money. Schoolchildren invoke God on behalf of our nation when pledging allegiance to the flag. Our currency even announces “In God We Trust.” What gives? The truth is that despite the Constitution having the separation clause—as well as no mention of religion—politics and religion have often intermingled in our history, and the U.S. presidents get a mixed review on upholding separation. Throughout our relatively short history, American presidents have taken various interests in upholding this part of the First Amendment, some holding it with reverence, others interpreting it loosely or wanting to ignore it.

Here are the five U.S. presidents who were the staunchest advocates for the separation of church and state:

5. James A. Garfield (1881)

“The divorce between Church and State ought to be absolute. It ought to be so absolute that no Church property anywhere, in any state or in the nation, should be exempt from equal taxation; for if you exempt the property of any church organization, to that extent you impose a tax upon the whole community.”
—James A. Garfield, Congressional Record, 1874

Garfield was assassinated only one hundred days after taking the oath, but in his short time in office he proved to be one of the fiercest advocates of the separation of church and state. A deeply religious man who converted to Christianity in 1850, joining the Disciples of Christ Church, he actively preached until he became a member of Congress in 1863. Upon becoming president, he left his position as an elder in the church. In his inaugural address in 1881, he spoke of the danger the Mormons posed, having established what he considered a theocracy in the Utah territory:

The Constitution guarantees absolute religious freedom. Congress is prohibited from making any law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The Territories of the United States are subject to the direct legislative authority of Congress, and hence the General Government is responsible for any violation of the Constitution in any of them.

4. John F. Kennedy (1961–1963)

“It is my firm belief that there should be separation of church and state in the United States—that is, that both church and state should be free to operate, without interference from each other in their respective areas of jurisdiction. We live in a liberal, democratic society which embraces wide varieties of belief and disbelief.”
—John F. Kennedy, Letter, 1959

In 1961, Kennedy became the first Roman Catholic to win the presidency. Due to the controversy around his religion during the presidential campaign, in 1960 he gave a speech in Houston directly addressing the issue:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

In 2012, GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum, also Catholic, said Kennedy’s 1960 speech made him want to throw up. Santorum said, “The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country.” When your views on church and state make Rick Santorum want to throw up, you earn a spot on this list.

3. Ulysses S. Grant (1869–1877)

“Let us labor for the security of free thought, free speech, pure morals, unfettered religious sentiments, and equal rights and privileges for all men, irrespective of nationality, color, or religion; … leave the matter of religious teaching to the family altar, the church, and the private school, supported entirely by private contribution. Keep church and state forever separate.”
—Ulysses S. Grant, Address, 1875

Known primarily as the Union general who won the Civil War, during his presidency, Grant was a staunch advocate for the separation of church and state. He was also one of the least outwardly religious presidents we’ve had. He was not a member of a church nor was he baptized. In his youth he had a negative experience with organized religion, and at West Point he got into trouble for missing religious services. During his presidency, Grant argued for a strict separation of church and state. In a speech in 1875 he called, unsuccessfully, for a Constitutional amendment that would mandate free public schools and prohibit the use of public money for religious schools. The failed amendment read:

No State shall make any law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; and no money raised by taxation in any State for the support of public schools, or derived from any public fund therefor, nor any public lands devoted thereto, shall ever be under the control of any religious sect; nor shall any money so raised or lands so devoted be divided between religious sects or denominations.

In the 1870s Grant fought, successfully, against an evangelical Protestant effort to seek a constitutional amendment that affirmed the existence of God, confessed Christ as savior, and acknowledged “true religion” as the basis for civil government.

2. James Madison (1809–1817)

“The experience of the United States is a happy disproof of the error so long rooted in the unenlightened minds of well-meaning Christians, as well as in the corrupt hearts of persecuting usurpers, that without a legal incorporation of religious and civil polity, neither could be supported. A mutual independence is found most friendly to practical Religion, to social harmony, and to political prosperity.”
—James Madison, Letter to F. L. Schaeffer, 1821

No other person did more work to assure religious liberty in the United States than James Madison. A religious man who was baptized in the Anglican Church, Madison was deeply concerned with religious persecution by the state. In Virginia, Madison led the fight for guaranteed religious liberty, making his case in his Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments: “We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man’s right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance.” In 1786, due to Madison’s efforts, Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom finally passed in Virginia. In 1787, Madison served as the primary architect of the U.S. Constitution, and, following Virginia’s model, the Constitution gave the federal government no authority over religion. And after prodding from Jefferson, Madison successfully supported an amendment to the Constitution to guarantee religious freedom.

1. Thomas Jefferson (1801–1809)

“I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibit the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”
—Thomas Jefferson, letter to the Danbury (Conn.) Baptists, 1802

While Madison was the workhorse in terms of the separation of church and state, Jefferson was the trailblazer, making the defense of religious liberty one of the hallmarks of his career. The term separation of church and state can be traced back directly to him. Like many of the “Founding Fathers,” Jefferson was considered a Deist who valued reason over revelation and rejected traditional Christian doctrines, including the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus. He saw Jesus not as divine but as a teacher of morals. In 1776, Jefferson introduced to the Virginia Legislature the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, and in 1787, he convinced his friend James Madison to amend the U.S. Constitution to include a guarantee of religious freedom. He won the presidency in 1801 after a vicious campaign in which he was vilified as an atheist. Even after his presidency, he continued to advocate religious liberty. From 1814: “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own. It is error alone that needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.” A man of contradictions, even today the slaveholding Jefferson is seen as an icon of individual liberty.

And here are five U.S. Presidents with the worst records for upholding the separation of church and state:

5. Ronald Reagan (1981–1989)

“The First Amendment was written not to protect the people and their laws from religious values, but to protect those values from government tyranny.”
—Ronald Reagan, 1979 rally

Though not a regular churchgoer, Reagan openly encouraged and supported Christianity as president. In a 1982 letter, he wrote: “My daily prayer is that God will help me to use this position so as to serve Him. Teddy Roosevelt once called the presidency a bully pulpit. I intend to use it to the best of my ability to serve the Lord.” That same year, Reagan supported a constitutional amendment to allow voluntary school prayer. A year later he awarded the Rev. Billy Graham the Presidential Medal of Freedom and proclaimed 1983 the “Year of the Bible.” He asked Americans to join him: “Let us take up the challenge to reawaken America’s religious and moral heart, recognizing that a deep and abiding faith in God is the rock upon which this great nation was founded.”

4. Abraham Lincoln (1861–1865)

“The will of God prevails. … He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest—Yet the contest began—And having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day—Yet the contest proceeds.”
—Abraham Lincoln, Meditation on the Divine Will, 1862

Lincoln had a lot on his plate as president (more than any other) and keeping God out of government was not a priority. In fact, Lincoln did a lot of putting God into government. It was under his watch that in 1864 Congress passed an act to allow, but not require, the addition of the phrase “In God We Trust” to currency. Known as the theological president, Lincoln’s speeches and writing became more and more religiously toned as he tried to get the nation, and himself, through the Civil War. This culminated in his second Inaugural Address in 1865, which would be his final address to the American people. A work of political theology now known as America’s Sermon, the second Inaugural addresses the nation’s relationship to God in great depth; within 701 words, Lincoln mentions God fourteen times, quotes the Bible four times, and invokes prayer three times. In it, Lincoln gave the Civil War sacred meaning and created an American scripture of sorts, suffusing the very idea of the United States with religious significance. Widely considered Lincoln’s greatest speech, its weaving of religion into our nation has had a lasting impact.

3. George W. Bush (2001–2009)

“I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn’t do my job.”
—George W. Bush, during 2004 campaign

Bush, one of the most openly religious presidents in our history, seemingly sought to undermine the separation of church and state at every turn during his presidency. He claimed he was on a mission from God when he launched the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. He promoted “faith-based” initiatives, federal programs that provided religious organizations and other faith-based institutions with federal funding to deliver government-mandated social services. He advocated religious-school vouchers and praised the teaching of Intelligent Design in public schools. He also chose John Ashcroft as his attorney general; in a 1999 speech at Bob Jones University, Ashcroft said that America recognizes “the source of our character as being godly and eternal, not being civic and temporal. And because we have understood that our source is eternal, America has been different. We have no king but Jesus.”

2. Donald J. Trump (2017–present)

“We’re going to protect Christianity, and I can say that. I don’t have to be politically correct. We’re going to protect it.”
—Donald J. Trump, 2016 campaign speech

Since his presidency is only a month old at the time of this writing, it might seem unfair to include Trump in this list. His legacy is hardly complete. But his record on separation thus far is so atrocious, especially when including his campaign language and promises, that he nevertheless deserves the number two spot on this list, and only doesn’t receive the top spot because the courts have so far been successful in blocking his most egregious attempts at violating the establishment clause. During his presidential campaign, Trump called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country and also the creation of a Muslim registry. While his actual attempts at the travel bans have not explicitly named Muslims, they did call for temporarily barring travelers from Muslim-majority countries, and he stated that the U.S. government would give Christians priority over other refugees seeking to enter the United States. Trump also recently called for the abolishment of a statutory barrier between politics and religion called the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits tax-exempt organizations such as churches and other places of worship, charities, and educational institutions from directly or indirectly participating in any political campaign in favor or against a political candidate. The Trump administration is also expected to push for taxpayer-funded vouchers that could be used toward private religious schools, and his appointment of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education is a strong step in that direction.

1. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953–1961)

“Our form of government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious belief.”
—Dwight D. Eisenhower, a month before his inauguration in 1952

A deeply religious man, Eisenhower was the first and only president to write and read his own prayer at his inaugural ceremony. With the Cold War in the background, in 1954 Eisenhower signed a bill to add the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. At the bill-signing ceremony he said:

From this day forward, millions of our schoolchildren will daily proclaim … the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty. To anyone who truly loves America, nothing could be more inspiring than to contemplate this rededication of our youth, on each school morning, to our country’s true meaning. … In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource, in peace or in war.

Two years later, Eisenhower signed a law officially declaring “In God We Trust” to be the nation’s official motto (replacing “E Pluribus Unum”) and also mandating that the phrase be printed on all American paper currency.

Bill Lehto

Bill Lehto is the publisher at Freethought House press and editor of Atheist Voices of Minnesota.

Five U.S. presidents whose grasp of church-state separation was exemplary.

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