Americans have a somewhat ambivalent attitude when it comes to their presidents and their religion. While it is likely that any candidate who openly declared him or herself an atheist would not get very far, it seems that—maybe for good reasons—a candidate who appears to be a bit too openly religious is going to cause some uneasiness.
Certainly this was understandable back in the old days when a lot of Americans suspected that Catholics owed their loyalty and obedience first of all to the Pope. But few, including most American Catholics, seem to take that claim seriously any more. After his clear disavowal, during his campaign, of any such divided loyalties, the short presidency John F. Kennedy, whose cultural Irish-Catholic background seems to have had little influence on either his political or personal conduct, pretty much disposed of the notion that being Catholic meant being anti- or perhaps only quasi-American.
Jimmy Carter, on the other hand, a Southern Baptist who was probably the most openly and certainly the most consistently religious of our recent presidents, was not regarded all that highly during his single term. Yet his principled stand on human rights and his continued dedication to that cause, which includes his break with his own church over it's increasing conservatism, has earned him great respect, both in the USA as well as abroad.
However, this religious issue seemed to be regaining ground after the announcement of Mitch Romney, a Mormon who is the former governor of Massachusetts, said that he was intending to run for president on the Republican Party ticket. It seems that a fair number of Americans began having second thoughts, especially since our present president—who has been quoted that he believed God wanted him to become president and to invade Iraq—nevertheless seems to have made such a mess of things. Likewise, the continuing bid of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who is also a Baptist minister, leaves many people, even in his own Republican party, uneasy.
However, I think that in this whole matter of presidential religious identity we have to distinguish between what a particular church or religion actually teaches on the one hand, and, on the other hand, how seriously or literally these teachings are taken by the candidate. For most people, religious identity is pretty much an inherited family tradition. That is not to say that their religious identity should not be taken seriously or even respected as having given them a sense of dedication. But at the same time, we have to realize that few religious beliefs, if taken literally, could pass a worldly realities test. Their function is symbolic and largely inspirational, that is, to give a sense of purpose and meaning.. In America, we should choose our presidents solely on their proven abilities, not on their religious heritage—unless, of course, it shows signs of have having undermined their common sense or their ability to use sound judgment.
R W Kropf (2/23/08) PresidentialBeliefs.doc