The faith of American presidents affects the whole nation, as scripture itself affirms: “When the godly are in authority, the people rejoice. But when the wicked are in power, they groan” (Proverbs 29:2 NLT).
A ruler may either rule wisely and administer justice or choose the path of injustice. The natural consequence of choosing injustice is that one’s subjects find themselves hiding places (Proverbs 28:12). Leaders serve as moral examples, not only by setting trends but also by reflecting them.
New life from war
Presidents are often remembered for wielding power and influence, especially in wartime. Yet to lead a nation out of war and to peace takes strong faith.
Presidents’ Day remembers the February births of two of America’s most revered presidents, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. While Washington was noted for battlefield prayers, “Honest Abe” came to faith late in life, by his own admission.
After election to the Illinois legislature, Lincoln developed formative views on slavery focusing primarily on its impediment to economic development. Only late in his presidency did the idea that all men were created equal become central. From a Constitutional perspective, some of Lincoln’s actions as president were questionable: His ordering a blockade without Congressional approval and effectively suspending the Bill of Rights (via newspaper suppression, income taxation and prison detention) suggested ambivalence about upholding the rule of law (Frey and Davis, The New Big Book of U.S. Presidents).
Lincoln freely admitted his shortcomings: “When I left Springfield I asked the people to pray for me. I was not a Christian. When I buried my son, the severest trial of my life, I was not a Christian. But when I went to Gettysburg  and saw the graves of thousands of our soldiers, I then and there consecrated myself to Christ. Yes, I do love Jesus” (WhatChristiansWantToKnow.com).
Lincoln’s later public encouragements revealed his new-found faith: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.”
Faith persevering in trial
By contrast, Grover Cleveland, the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms, was the son of a preacher. Known for honesty and integrity and commitment to self-reliance, liberty, and the rule of law, Cleveland set a standard few presidents have reached. Regarded highly by both political sides for his classical-liberalism and limited-government ideals, Cleveland took a no-nonsense approach to rooting out political corruption and patronage. The Mugwump wing of the Republican Party chose Cleveland over the Republican nominee in 1884, propelling him toward the presidency.
Allan Nevins, writing for the American Historical Association, explains, “In Grover Cleveland the greatness lies in typical rather than unusual qualities. He had no endowments that thousands of men do not have. He possessed honesty, courage, firmness, independence and common sense. But he possessed them to a degree other men do not.”
Cleveland, unmarried upon entering office, wed Frances Folsom in the White House, the first such ceremony to occur there. They had five children. The oldest, Ruth, was born five years after the marriage between Cleveland’s two terms.
Exciting both the president and the nation, the joy over “Baby Ruth” Cleveland too quickly turned to sorrow. After contracting diphtheria, Ruth died at the age of twelve.
Cleveland’s crisis of faith shook him to the core. His diary entries shortly after her death show him questioning what he had been trained to believe: “It seems to me I mourn our darling Ruth’s death more and more. So much of the time I can only think of her as dead, not joyfully living in heaven.”
Cleveland was comforted when he recognized the Lord’s demonstrations of being present with him still. By submitting his temptations toward doubt and his emotions, he found greater strength in his source than in his problem. What cannot be shaken will remain (Hebrews 12:27). Cleveland later acknowledged, “God has come to my help and I am able to adjust my thought to dear Ruth’s death with as much comfort as selfish humanity will permit.”
As he wrote later to Pastor Wilton Merle Smith, he was able to place his trust in God for the rest of his life: “I know as no one else can know my limitations, and how fixed and inexorable they are … but I shall trust God, as I have in the past, for strength and opportunity for further usefulness.”
Building a city on a hill
In youth, Ronald Reagan developed a strong faith and optimism. He was baptized into the Disciples of Christ after being strongly impressed by a book about devout Christian itinerancy; he was noted in his hometown for hospitality (welcoming into his home blacks who were turned out elsewhere) and dedication (performing dozens of rescues as a lifeguard).
Reagan took great inspiration from Whittaker Chambers, C.S. Lewis, Malcolm Muggeridge and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, writers who each scored personal victories of Christian trust over atheism.
Reagan’s sincerity made him a natural for radio, leading to his film career and a job hosting “General Electric Theater.” While regularly interviewing GE’s workers nationwide, he matured his concern for the common man by affirming the responsibility of leaders to take direct responsive action, which also moderated him from a Truman Democrat into a Goldwater Republican.
Americans adopted Reagan as their standard bearer in 1980, beginning a decade of group action and responsibility. In every generation, the people’s and the leader’s values move together for well or ill. Our responsibility is to do right both to persevere during injustice and to follow in times of justice.
Penni Bulten is a homeschooling mom who is fascinated with the Founding Fathers and their faith. She can be reached at [email protected]