US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Deeply grooved religion: Childhood faith lasts a lifetime

By David L. Holmes | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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The grooves of childhood run deep. The experiences of life can change even our deeply inculcated beliefs, but our religious and political convictions seem largely determined by family background.

An example leaps out from the biographies of American presidents.  Of the twelve postwar presidents, eight remained in the grooves of childhood religion. For Truman and Carter, those grooves were Baptist; for Ford and George H. W. Bush, Episcopalian; and for Kennedy, Roman Catholic. Johnson and Clinton attended many churches, but both retained membership in the denominations in which they were baptized. Although Reagan (who attended church infrequently) changed to his wife’s denomination, he remained a Protestant.

Only four of these presidents changed faith radically. Although raised by Jehovah’s Witness parents, Eisenhower became an active Presbyterian following decades of absence from worship.  Nixon shed his ancestral Quakerism and privately adopted Unitarian beliefs. George W. Bush converted to evangelical Protestantism, but continued to frequent the mainline Protestant churches of his boyhood.  Obama changed the most dramatically, converting to Christianity from a secular humanist background. 

And of the current Republican presidential candidates, only Newt Gingrich—who converted to Roman Catholicism—has changed religious affiliation in any major way. Mitt Romney (Mormon), Rick Santorum (Roman Catholic), and Ron Paul (Protestant) remain adherents of their inherited religious faiths.  Of the sixteen men, only two—Santorum and Reagan—changed political affiliation from the party in which their parents raised them.

A writer emerges from researching a book on the presidents realizing all the more how deeply we are products of our upbringing.  Of course, this reality doesn’t mean that core truths are impossible to identify or that everything is relative.  But it does mean that we—and maybe even presidential candidates—should perhaps pause when we find ourselves too cocksure or too dogmatic in our views.

The U.S. Catholic editors interviewed historian David L. Holmes for the November 2012 issue (Vol. 77, No. 11, pages 12-15). This article originally appeared on and is reprinted with permission.

U.S. Catholic interviewee David L. Holmes is the author of the Faiths of the Postwar Presidents (University of Georgia Press, 2012). Read his interview with the editors of U.S. Catholic.