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The notion of religious liberty is one of the most fundamental institutions of the founding of the United States. It is taken for granted today, considered a basic freedom upon which it would be outrageous and nigh-unthinkable for the government to intrude (the concept of a state-sponsored faith, or the official prohibition and purging of particular modes of worship, is difficult for most modern Americans even to fathom). In the past, however, particularly in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the idea has been little heard of or completely unimagined – a fact that has profoundly shaped American history.

For centuries leading up to the American Revolution, the prevailing spiritual theory – to which the vast majority of the population subscribed – was that there was but a single “correct” religion, and that it was the duty of civil leaders to instruct the masses in its identity and proper practice, using force if necessary. This was an important responsibility of government, for tolerating too great an incidence of “heretical” religion was sure to bring God's judgment down upon the entire community, potentially harming the faithful and wicked alike. Attendant to this school of thought was the belief that a given society must have religious uniformity. It is these ideas that led to the widespread persecution in Europe of Protestant Christians, upstarts when compared with the Catholics who had effectively dominated the continent for hundreds of years.

Famously, the European settlers who founded the colonies that would eventually become the United States of America were overwhelmingly Protestant, and this was a direct result of the above described attitudes in Europe at the time. But these people were not, nor did they claim to be, any more religiously tolerant than the Catholics from whom they were fleeing, and history has many examples of Protestant colonists themselves persecuting people in the New World who did not share their Christian faith – and their particular interpretation of it. In fact, the familiar feud from the Old World had crossed the pond, with many Protestants being rigidly intolerant of colonists with a Catholic faith. This wariness persisted well beyond the nation's founding, with any Catholic seeking the office of President facing a difficult uphill battle. It would be nearly 200 years before that battle would finally be won by John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the first (and, so far, only) Catholic President of the United States.

By the time the US Constitution was enacted in 1789, it included strong protections of individual religious liberty. The best-known of these was written into the First Amendment, which admonishes that “Congess shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” But it is to be found deeper within the document as well. Article VI, paragraph 3 stipulates:

"The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

Here the “religious test” mentioned refers to a requirement of office. In other words, it is explicitly forbidden by the Constitution for a specific religious faith to be a necessary qualification for holding a position of public trust – or, by extension, for adherence to a rival faith to be a disqualifying factor. This, of course, was an effort to avoid empowering any one church above any other, thus preventing them from later imposing their particular beliefs upon the nation or its leaders. Freedom of religion was the law of the land.

Whether the enshrining of this then-revolutionary concept in the nation's Constitution can be credited to sheer altruism and love of liberty can be questioned, of course. There have been persistent murmurings throughout history that religious tolerance in an otherwise Protestant Christian nation was insisted upon by and for the benefit of some of the Founding Fathers, several of whom held their own peculiar beliefs. Such influential early Americans as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin are said to have been deists, rather than Christians (of any flavor).

Nevertheless, though no religious requirement for the position exists or constitutionally can exist, the overwhelming majority of US Presidents have counted themselves as Christians. As previously discussed, deism may have had a turn, perhaps even the first and third turns, with Washington and Jefferson – it's unknown for sure exactly what their beliefs were. Abraham Lincoln would probably be the next most well-known president with uncertain religious faith. The beliefs of Presidents Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, and James Madison – among others – are also suspect.

Religion and Presidents
We know the religions of more presidents than those of which we're unsure, however. Listing former White House occupants by faith, we have:


Warren Harding, Harry Truman, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton


John F. Kennedy

Congregationalist (Protestant)

Calvin Coolidge

Disciple of Christ (Protestant)

James Garfield, Lyndon Johnson

Dutch Reformed (Protestant)

Martin van Buren and Theodore Roosevelt

Episcopalian (Anglican)

James Madison, James Monroe, William Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, Franklin Pierce, Chester Arthur, Franklin Roosevelt, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush

Methodist (Protestant)

Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, William McKinley and George W. Bush

Presbyterian (Scottish Protestant)

Andrew Jackson, James Polk, James Buchanan, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, Woodrow Wilson, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan

Quaker (Evangelical)

Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon


John Adams, John Quincy Adams, William Howard Taft and Millard Filmore


George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Jackson

Counting current President Barack Obama, who is a member of the United Church of Christ, all US Presidents who have counted themselves among a formal religion have been Christian. No adherent of another religion is known to have been president, nor has any president been an avowed atheist.

Central Issues

Islam is a religion founded in 610 AD, originally for the benefit of Arabic people in the Middle East. At that time, people living in that region were divided into numerous tribes, each with its own deities and religious traditions. Islam's official theology teaches that Mohammed, whom Muslims (meaning “one who submits to God”, the name preferred by adherents of Islam) venerate as the greatest prophet ever sent to Earth, preached to the tribes that there was but a single God, the Jewish God Yahweh, and that their many gods were heathen and must be abandoned. This makes Islam an Abrahamic religion, or one born of the Jewish faith, as Jews and Muslims in fact worship the same God. It is also considered a descendent of Christianity: Muslims believe that Jesus (as described in the books Christians call the New Testament, which Muslims accept as basically true but changed and perverted by humans into a story of Jesus as a divine being) was one of God's greatest prophets, second only to Mohammed himself, and in fact it is customary in Islamic culture never to speak the name of Jesus without adding the phrase “alayhi as-salam” (“peace be upon him”) immediately after. Muslims refer to God as “Allah”, an Arabic word meaning “the God”, emphasizing again Islam's monotheistic practice and disdain for polytheism. There are currently about 1.67 billion Muslims in the world, making Islam the world's largest or second-largest religion – only Christianity is calculable as having more adherents – about 2.2 billion - and then only if one counts it as a single faith across Catholicism, Protestantism (with its many denominations), Greek Orthodoxy, and so on.

Islam has risen to become a center of extreme controversy within the United States (and Western civilization in general), because some of its adherents have demonstrated an alarming willingness and even eagerness to use violence in the service of their aims and interests. The airplane hijackers who attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001 were believed to be affiliated with al Qaeda, a militant Islamic organization whose leaders had referred to the United States as the ”Great Satan” and called for jihad – an Arabic term meaning to strive for the preservation and prosperity of the Muslim faith, but used in this context to refer to the waging of holy war – against the nation. The shooting at Fort Hood, in which Army Major Nidal Hasan murdered 13 people and injured 30 others, began with Hasan shouting “Allahu Ackbar!” (“God is great”) before beginning his rampage. And in an evolution of extremism which many in the world have decried as absurdly oversensitive, some Muslims have threatened and even attacked cartoonists for drawing caricatures of Mohammed (visible depictions of Mohammed are strictly forbidden in the Islamic faith, for fear they may raise the prophet to the status of an idol and cause him – rather than God alone - to be worshipped).

Virtually all political camps agree about the danger of terrorism and the need for security against it. However, the religious affiliation of those carrying out the terrorist attacks has caused some people (mostly on the political right) to regard Islam as at least a suspect religion, and at worst the enemy itself. These people are likely to regard Muslims with suspicion and wariness. In the most extreme evolution of this mindset, some politicians have declared that a Muslim should never be allowed to be President of the United States, or that mosques (centers of Islamic worship, analogous to Christian churches or Jewish temples) should be specially monitored or even acted upon by law enforcement for breeding extremists.

Those opposed to this viewpoint, who are generally on the left, cite the fact that of the billion and a half Muslims in the world, the great majority have never committed a terrorist act. They also point out the violent history of the United States' own dominant religion, Christianity, and sometimes allege “Christian terrorism” in modern incidents such as bombings of abortion clinics. Those on the most extreme end of this scale have expressed reservations about or even refused outright to refer to “Islamic terror” (a favorite term of the right), believing the term is unfair and bigoted against Muslims. They are likely to accuse their political opponents of “Islamophobia”, a label that has entered into common parlance with the advent of this debate.

Faith Vs. Atheism in Presidents
As previously discussed, the United States has never had an admitted atheist as president, and all former presidents whose religion is definitively known were Christian. Traditionally, Christian faith has been seen as all but a prerequisite for election to presidential office. It should be noted, however, that popular attitudes on this point are changing. As recently as the 1930s, only about a third of Americans said they would vote for a Jewish candidate, while today, Bernard Sanders (a Jewish man) is a serious contender for the Democratic nomination. Also, a 2015 Gallup poll shows that a majority of Americans (58%) would consider voting for an atheist to be their president.

Those in favor of religious faith in their leaders argue that the job of President is simply too daunting for a mere human to properly execute, and that it can only be done well with God's help. They also tend to believe that religious faith is a mark of good moral character, and are reassured that a president who has this faith will lead the nation down not only the correct path, but the righteous one.

People opposed to this viewpoint are either entirely unconcerned with a prospective president's religion, or in some cases, feel that religious faith in a candidate is a liability. The latter worry that mystical spiritual beliefs may cause a president to make irrational decisions, such as (for example) a Christian president who believes in the biblical apocalypse rushing to engage in nuclear war because of his conviction that it is part of God's plan for mankind.

Candidates' Religion and Positions on Religion

Hillary Clinton
Gary Johnson
Donald Trump


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