Faith at Altitude

Religion and spirituality in the shadow of Pikes Peak

Friday, January 12, 2007

Faith, personal and presidential

This weekend, The Gazette will run a story about the Rev. Paul Peel, senior pastor for First Lutheran Church, and his correspondence with the late President Gerald Ford.

Peel's contact with Ford began as part of a research project Peel was doing in 1976, examining the faith of U.S. presidents. His research became the basis for a lecture he gave several times during that year's bicentennial celebrations, titled "Faith of our Fathers."

His 30-year-old notes are still pretty interesting. According to Peel, most presidents claimed to have faith -- it's nearly impossible to get elected if you don't -- but the presidential annals have very few folks who would qualify as zealous. The most pious were often fairly forgettable. Rutherford B. Hayes started Sunday-evening hymn sing-alongs at the White House in the late 1800s. His successor, James Garfield, was one of the only presidents to come from an evangelical denomination (the Disciples of Christ), and he actually served as a lay preacher. Herbert Hoover helped start a Quaker group in Washington, D.C. None of these folks are due to get the next spot on Mt. Rushmore.

The faith history of our best-loved presidents is mixed, though, according to Peel's notes. George Washington was the guy who first said "so help me God" after his inauguration, and kissed the Bible.

Thomas Jefferson was never affiliated with a church and is considered by many historians as a deist. He told a friend that "I have ever thought religion a concern purely between God and our conscience, for which we were accountable to him and not to priests."

Abraham Lincoln is also considered a deist by some historians, but Peel reports that Lincoln read the Bible constantly, and once wrote "I have often wished that I was a more devout man than I am. Nevertheless, amidst (the) greatest difficulties of my administration, when I could not see any other resort, I would place my whole reliance on God."

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, according to Peel, always kept the Bible and the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer nearby.

Peel only got as far as Ford during his earlier research stint. Now he wants to study the presidents who came after Ford, and he suggests that it may become fodder for a new lecture or book. With religion and politics so closely intermingled these days, it should be interesting work.


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