God has played an important role in the American presidency, from the revolutionary era to the present. Presidents from Thomas Jefferson to George W. Bush have invoked God's name in the service of presidential politics. The consistency of these invocations is testimony to their political and cultural significance.
God's influence on the American presidency reflects, in part, in each president's political motivations and strategies for invoking God. More specifically, presidents have had different political purposes for calling upon God.
However, God's influence on the presidency also reflects characteristics of American culture, in particular, its history, which is rooted in religion. American presidents have incorporated God into their public statements to achieve a wide range of political objectives. For instance, presidents commonly structure their references to God as supplications for God's guidance, solemn vows to act according to God's will, and thanksgivings for God's grace. These presidential expressions of faith in God help religious Americans to identify with their president and support his policies-because they foster the belief that the president is driven by the same moral force that motivates them.
Therefore, in lending moral credibility to their public personas by invoking God, presidents hope to increase support for their political agendas. For example, when promoting a more activist role for America in world affairs, Woodrow Wilson said, "I pray (that) God may give me the wisdom and the prudence to do my duty in the true spirit of this great people." Establishing himself as a moral and religious man led many to believe his political agendas were enlightened. Wilson and his advisors expected, then, that a portion of Americans would agree with their president on religious grounds and agree with his mission to "Make the world safe for democracy." Given the religiosity of the American populace, it is not surprising that Americans use their impressions of presidents' personal morality and religious beliefs to assess their presidents' policies. This behavior has political significance because it suggests religion's influence on American government is greater than might be expected if considering only the somewhat paradoxical commitment of Americans to a separation of church and state.
American presidents have traditionally upheld the Calvinist image of a just, omnipotent, and mysterious God. They have done so to encourage solidarity and to lift morale during divisive and challenging times. For example, in Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address and for the purpose of uniting a divided nation, Lincoln used a Calvinist image of God when saying, "The Almighty has his own purposes" and "The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous all together." This Calvinist image is used today and for the same purpose. For example, at a National Prayer Breakfast and for the purpose of winning solidarity while leading the country during a controversial war, George W. Bush suggested, "We can be confident in the ways of Providence. Behind all of life and all of history, there's a dedication and purpose, set by the hand of a just and faithful God." American presidents clearly understand that people depend upon their religious faith to have faith in their president.
Just as the broader American religious populace acts publicly on the basis of privately held religious beliefs, the broadly defined religious beliefs shared in public by many American presidents have often reflected their private faith as well-although not always directly. For example, President Jefferson, in public expressions of faith, did not directly reflect his personal religious beliefs. However, in his publicly advocating for religious pluralism, he was expressing his personal and private faith as an enlightened deist, someone whose faith is expressed in its emphasis on reason and considering the variety of perspectives. On the other hand, Woodrow Wilson's religious beliefs were consistent both on and off the political stage. Wilson was a Presbyterian who read the Bible daily and attended religious services regularly. His religious faith led him to believe that nothing in the world happened without divine participation, and he was convinced that he was an instrument of God. Thus, he communicated his public policies to the American people with a self-confidence borne of faith in the will of a higher power. Wilson, in public as well as in private, often referred to God as his guide. Similarly, Abraham Lincoln's personal and public expressions of faith were consistent with one another. For example, in his personal notes as well as in his public speeches, he expressed his belief that the Civil War might well have been God's plan.
As for the presidency today, George W. Bush's personal spirituality is ostensibly mirrored in his public policy. Bush acknowledges that prayer and religion sustain him and, like Wilson, he believes himself to be an instrument of God whose duty it is to promote American involvement in world affairs. For example, in his September 20th, 2001 speech to Congress, he remarked, "Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them"-which reflects his stated belief that God mediates in world affairs and that America's involvement in world affairs has a religious dimension.
The spiritual lives of American presidents reflect not simply the spiritual lives of these men. They also reflect the broadly religious foundation of the American populace. Like its presidents, the American public finds ways to express its private religious values in public, such as through charitable giving and volunteerism. Surveys indicate the average religious person is 23% more likely to make financial contributions to charities and 26% more likely to volunteer time doing community service than is the average nonreligious person.
America's preoccupation with religion is puzzling to most western European countries, because they do not claim religious foundations for political thinking and action. Therefore, leaders in these countries are much less likely to invoke God in public forums, and the average citizen may be less likely to engage in charitable giving and community service. Clearly, positive social outcomes have sprung from Americans' sense of religious belonging and mission, and just as clearly, American presidents will continue to solicit support by making use of religious language. However, using religious language in public political discourse carries a risk because such language can be used to support a pernicious agenda. Perhaps the clearest example is Nazi Germany and Hitler invoking God's name to promote his evil agenda.
Notwithstanding the dangers, God will always play an important role in American presidential politics, both because of America's religious heritage and because America is a democracy. In the words of the famous French political philosopher and observer of American culture, Alexis de Tocqueville, "Religion is much more necessary in democratic republics than in any others. How is it possible that society should escape destruction if the moral tie is not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed?"