The vast majority of historical United States Presidents have been “God fearing” theists. But it didn’t necessarily start out that way.
In the late 18th Century the United States founding fathers sought to escape the traditions of monarchy and religious influence. Highly influenced by the deism of Thomas Paine, they designed a government with a separation of church and state. Many of those founding fathers were themselves considered deists. Thomas Jefferson has been even considered as bordering on atheism by some commentators. He did not affiliate with any religion.
The 19th Century saw one possible non-theist as president: Abraham Lincoln. His close friend William Herndon said that without “even a shadow of a doubt,” Lincoln was once an “elevated pantheist.” Biographers have described Lincoln’s religious beliefs as deistic or skeptical. His vice-president turned president Andrew Johnson was also rare in being one of the three presidents unaffiliated with religion, according to Pew Research Center for Religion and Public Life (Lincoln and Jefferson being the other two), but Johnson was still considered a Christian.
The 20th Century was also once close to having a pantheist president. One term Vice President Henry Wallace almost secured the nomination for a second term in 1944, which would have made him president after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Instead, in a stunning turn of events at the Democratic nominating convention, party bosses pushed the more conservative unknown Harry Truman for the nomination, which he secured and later became president.
Wallace was once asked if he was a pantheist. “What do you mean by pantheism?” he asked. “The belief that nature, science and religion are as one,” said the questioner. “If that’s pantheism, I’m for it,” said Wallace.
The 21st Century saw the insurgence of unlikely “Democratic Socialist” candidate for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders. Sanders, who was born to a Jewish family, said he believes in God, though not necessarily in a traditional manner:
“I think everyone believes in God in their own ways,” he said. “To me, it means that all of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together.”
It is unknown what affect Sanders’ non-affiliation with organized religion would have had on his electability as United States president if he were the nominee.
Speculation is now warming up about United State President Donald Trump’s challenger in 2020. A poll from Public Policy Polling showed talk show celebrity Oprah Winfrey leading Trump in a head-to-head match up. Winfrey rose from poverty to become the wealthiest black woman in the United States. Raised a Baptist, Oprah’s views expanded toward pantheism, as she promoted writers such as Eckhart Tolle. She has stated, “I believe in a God force that lives inside all of us.” Winfrey seemed open to the suggestion of her own running for president given Donald Trump’s relative inexperience.
In a recent survey by Gallup in December, only 56% of Americans stated they were members of a church, synagogue or mosque, a number that has been steadily decreasing. 21% hold no formal religious identity, up six percent since 2008. Pollsters are uncertain how these numbers will affect future presidential elections.