The Trinitarian Streak: Religious Orthodoxy and the American Presidency

For the past 104 years, the chief executive of the United States has been a Trinitarian Christian.

1. I would like to show how American presidents have become more religiously orthodox.

2. I would like to explore various explanations as to why American presidents have embraced orthodoxy.

When William Howard Taft is remembered, it is mostly as the most overweight president or as the only president to serve as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. However, Taft held another distinction: he was the last known Unitarian to serve as the chief executive of the United States. Starting with the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson in 1913, every U.S. president has been an orthodox (i.e. Trinitarian) president. A Trinitarian is a Christian who believes in worshipping the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit as coequal and as being three different persons but being one god.

Trinitarianism is almost universal in most forms of Catholic and Protestant religions, marginalizing Unitarianism further than in certain times of the past.
Though Taft was the last non-Trinitarian Christian president, he was not the first. He was not even the most unorthodox. Historian William A. DeGregorio wrote that John Quincy Adams refused to believe in either the Virgin Birth of Jesus or in the possibility that miracles occurred in nature. His father, second U.S. president John Adams, was a Unitarian. Additionally, the Unitarian Millard Fillmore challenged a New York law forcing public officials to claim that they believed in God, a kind of law that would not be completely abolished in the United States until the Supreme Court’s Torcaso v. Watkins ruling in 1960. Thomas Jefferson was a sort of Christian deist, who subscribed to the axioms set forward by the Bible without thinking that the Creator God actually intervened in the affairs of the world. Even Abraham Lincoln was not known to be particularly religious or even to believe in God, though he respected the views of the majority of Americans. In fact, DeGregorio could not find an example of a zealous Christian until William Henry Harrison, the ninth president who ascended to the office. Harrison came to the office 52 years after George Washington’s first election.

Even moral issues that turned into hot-button debates, such as abortion, prayer in school, and public expressions of faith in the political arena, could not end the current streak.

The aforementioned facts do not imply that every president before Woodrow Wilson was irreligious or even unorthodox. The 14th president, Franklin Pierce, would not open letters on Sundays. Grover Cleveland was a loyal Presbyterian and William McKinley was a true-blue Methodist. However, the now-104 year streak is odd in the face of such an odd religious history. There are some consistent factors, though. No president of the United States has publicly declared dedication to agnosticism, atheism, or any other religion than Christianity.

A partial explanation of why presidents became both more orthodox and more overtly religious may be attributed to the effects of the Second Great Awakening. Historian Donald Scott wrote about the evangelical impact of the Second Great Awakening, as opposed to the revival within the congregations that occurred during the First Great Awakening of the 18th century. Ordinary women and men outside of the churches were the focus of this movement, and their conversion to Trinitarian Christianity was of the greatest importance to the pastors of the movement.

The widespread acceptance of a massive amount of people to a specific form of Christianity possibly encouraged politicians to be more public with their faith. Nevertheless, the individualism of some of the early presidents cannot be discounted. The first presidents were adherents to the Enlightenment, a movement that encouraged skepticism and promoted empiricism. The end of the Enlightenment and the beginning of the Second Great Awakening encouraged belief in miracles, healings, and the equality of all humans before the Judeo-Christian God.

In short, historians will never know what the men who served as the president of the United States believed.

Presidents are now far more open about their faith in God than ever before. Democratic President Harry Truman of Missouri declared a National Day of Prayer while his successor, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, founded the Annual Prayer Breakfast. As the above example shows, the Trinitarian streak is bipartisan as both Republicans and Democrats are more openly religious. Democrat James Buchanan did not join a church while president from 1857-1861, because he thought that the public would find his decision shameless. By contrast, Democratic President Jimmy Carter taught Sunday School classes while in office and Republican President Ronald Reagan invoked God after the Challenger disaster of 1986. Clearly, changes are obvious and widespread since the start of the Trinitarian streak.

Nevertheless, there is ample evidence that demonstrates the increased popularity of Trinitarian Christianity in the public lives of the presidents.

In short, historians will never know what the men who served as the president of the United States believed. For a contemporary example, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump never directly challenged Trinitarian Christianity. Neither wore Trinitarianism on their sleeve, but attacking the ideology is out of the question. We will never know exactly what they believe or who (if anyone) they worship. Nevertheless, the ubiquity of Trinitarianism among the major candidates shows its importance in gaining votes at present.

Luke Voyles ’18 studies in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at lrvoyles@wustl.edu.

Luke Voyles

Luke Voyles '18 studies in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at lrvoyles@wustl.edu.

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