by Bill Lehto
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 and 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 provide 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, who, in a 1999 speech at Bob Jones 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. 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, 1952 a month before his inauguration
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.
1. Donald J. Trump (2017-?)
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 one spot on this list. 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 attempt at the travel ban did not explicitly name Muslims, it did call for temporarily barring travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries, and he stated that the US 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 which could be used toward private religious schools.
Bill Lehto is the publisher at Freethought House and editor of Atheist Voices of Minnesota.