Can Americans elect a non-Christian president?

On President’s Day, Pew Research highlighted the religious faith of America’s presidents:

With the exception of Democrat Bernie Sanders (who is Jewish), all of the presidential hopefuls are Christians and most are Protestants.

In addition, all of the current presidential candidates have spoken openly about the importance of faith in their lives (again, with the exception of Sanders, who describes himself as “not particularly religious”). Our recent survey shows that many Americans care about their leaders’ faith. For instance, half of all American adults say that it’s important for a president to share their religious beliefs. And more people now say there is “too little” religious discussion by their political leaders (40%) than say there is “too much” (27%).

Historically, about a quarter of the presidents – including some of the nation’s most famous leaders, like George Washington, James Madison and Franklin Roosevelt – were members of the Episcopal Church, the American successor to the Church of England.

The next largest group of presidents were affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, which has roots in Scotland. Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson and Ronald Reagan, all of whom had Scots-Irish ancestry, were among the commanders in chief who belonged to the denomination.

Protestants have dominated the office yet just two denominations – Episcopalians and Presbyterians – have supplied nearly half (19 out of 43) of the presidents. Arguably, Americans might not care exactly what denomination or particular doctrinal beliefs a president has as long as they identify as a Christian. This may be part of American civil religion where particularities are not encouraged but a general Christian faith is helpful.

In a continuing trend, a sizable number of Americans say they are unwilling to vote for atheists for president though more younger voters are open to it:

As the 2016 presidential election field takes shape, more than nine in 10 Americans say they would vote for a qualified presidential candidate who is Catholic, a woman, black, Hispanic or Jewish. Less than half of Americans would vote for a candidate who is a socialist…

Among religious identities, while the large majority of Americans would vote for a Catholic or Jewish presidential candidate, smaller majorities say they would vote for a candidate who is Mormon (81%), an evangelical Christian (73%), Muslim (60%) or an atheist (58%)…

At least two-thirds of adults younger than 30 say they are willing to vote for a candidate with any of the characteristics included in the survey.

How this influences the 2016 election remains to be seen.

Big city mayors discuss why no sitting mayor has ever been elected President

Watch this video of current big city mayors talking about why no one has ever moved from sitting mayor to American President. The most common reason given: mayors have to make decisions, big and small and often pragmatic, all the time and this doesn’t line up with the gotcha politics of today and keeping all the constituents happy. It may be just me reading into the video but it seems like these mayors give this reason with both a sense of pride and regret: “Hey, we make tough decisions all the time and this can make people mad. Unfortunately, we don’t get rewarded at the highest level for such choices.”

I suspect there is more to this story, particularly if we asked the mayors of the biggest cities, and it would be worth hearing more.

Quick Review: The Sixth Floor Museum

During a short trip to Dallas, I had a chance to visit The Sixth Floor Museum in the Texas Book Depository. This is, of course, the site from where Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President John F. Kennedy. A few thoughts about this intriguing museum:

1. There is a lot of interesting material about the event including photographs, videos, models, and artifacts. I have read multiple books on the subject and there were a number of features of that day that I had forgotten. It was a nice mix of media through which to explore that fateful day.

1a. One video featured the national TV news coverage in the days after the assassination. From what I saw, it looked like those few days were a quick foreshadowing of the 24/7 news we have today. After the shooting, the major news networks had live coverage for much of the next few days and NBC even captured the shooting of Oswald by Jack Ruby live on a Sunday.

2. It was hard not to feel a sense of sadness when hearing about the death of a President. This sadness was not just limited to the feelings of people at the time (and there was a 10-minute video showing the somber scenes in Washington D.C. as JFK’s body was led through the streets) but it was noticeable among those in the museum. There was a guestbook at the end of the museum and a number of people had signed it and expressed their condolences and emotions. I was not alive on that day but I could see why it was a momentous day for many Americans.

3. The museum had more than I expected about the possible conspiracies. I would be curious to hear how the museum decided to present these – they can’t really be ignored and this is why many people are interested in the event but many of the conspiracies have a limited basis in facts. One of the more interesting displays in the museum was one that showed the numerous governmental commissions that examined the issue between 1963 and 1980.

3a. One thought I had when standing next to the recreated corner where Oswald shot from was that it would have been a difficult shot to hit a person in a moving vehicle with trees in the way. There is some dispute about how good of a marksman Oswald was. I’d like to read more about how difficult of a shot this really was.

3b. One area where there was less information regarded the backstory of Lee Harvey Oswald. While they hinted at his convoluted story of defecting to the Soviet Union and then returning to the United States, there is a lot of other curious information they could have displayed.

4. The museum was quite positive about JFK’s legacy. Perhaps they are simply reflecting the positive way in many Americans view JFK (more info here).

5. I have mixed feelings about having a gift shop at the end of such an experience.

Overall, I imagine this would be an intriguing museum for many Americans and not just those interested in history or Presidents.

New polling data on presidential legacies

A number of sources are reporting on a recent Gallup poll on the approval ratings of past presidents. The Atlantic provides a quick round-up of the trends: Kennedy has a strong legacy (85% approval), Clinton and the first Bush are both up 8% compared to 2006 (up to 69% and 64%, respectively), George W. comes in at 48%, and Nixon is still in the dumps (29%).

What is fascinating to think about is how these legacies get constructed. Part of it is based on the performance of the president while in office. But part of it is also based on what happens after the president leaves office and how the cultural narrative develops about that time period. Richard Nixon can’t shake Watergate and Lyndon Johnson can’t escape the turmoil of the mid 1960s. In contrast, Bill Clinton was president during a prosperous era and JFK is still seen in glowing terms. All of these presidents except for JFK had some years to tell their story and become involved in other causes, if they so chose. These legacies are shaped by cultural narratives, common stories by which a country understands its own history.

I would be interested in see how these figures break down by different demographics. For JFK: is his support higher among those who were alive at the time or younger people today? For Reagan: what is his legacy support among Democrats?

This reminds me of a lesson I once heard in class from a professor: don’t trust the information in political memoirs because the purpose of such texts is to promote a particular legacy.