In 2004, it is impossible to imagine an avowed atheist or agnostic winning the American
presidency or even being nominated. Ronald Reagan, whose record of religious observance during his Hollywood years was spotty at best, started turning up regularly at church services as soon as he was elected governor of California. Although Democrats have been more careful to separate private religious views from policy-making, Jimmy Carter, the first born-again Christian in the White House, and Bill Clinton, the first president to publicly ask God’s forgiveness for adultery, did their part to blur the distinction between personal faith and civic responsibility. In the Bush White House, where Cabinet meetings routinely begin with a prayer, the institutionalization of religion has reached an apotheosis. Today, it is possible that Lincoln, who refused to join a church even though his advisers argued that some affiliation would help his election chances, could well be unacceptable as a major party presidential candidate.