The Faiths of the Postwar Presidents: From Truman to Obama

By David L. Holmes | Go to book overview

William Jefferson Clinton
1946– PRESIDENT FROM 1993 TO 2001

William Jefferson Clinton was born into a southern family descended from a long line of struggling farmers named for founding fathers. On his mother’s side, he was of Irish and Cherokee heritage. His biological father’s lineage is difficult to determine, but the family name is Scots. His maternal grandmother, Edith Grisham Cassidy, grew up a Methodist. His grandfather, James (or “Eldridge”) Cassidy, was raised Baptist. Neither his mother, father, nor stepfather attended church regularly.

In 1940, six years before Clinton’s birth, Arkansas’s population of nearly two million was roughly three-quarters white and one-quarter black. Clinton later described his home state, one of the most impoverished in the nation, as “composed mostly of white Southern Baptists and blacks.”1 Of the total number of Baptists, African Americans accounted for approximately 40 percent. Evangelicalism permeated the state’s rural and small-town culture, and white and black children received substantial instruction in religious matters outside the home. Thus Clinton was brought up as and has remained a Southern Baptist.

In 1923, Clinton’s maternal grandfather, James Eldridge Cassidy—Clinton later described him as “an uneducated rural southerner without a racist bone in his body”2—left his small farm at his wife’s insistence and moved to the market and railroad town of Hope. Located in southwest Arkansas not far from the Texas border, Hope had a population of roughly five thousand.3 Following a series of other jobs, Cassidy eventually operated a grocery store and sold bootleg liquor. Clinton’s grandmother, a stern but compassionate woman who was frustrated by the difficulties life had dealt her, worked as a registered nurse.

The Cassidys’ daughter, Virginia Dell—Clinton’s mother—was intelligent, ambitious, and passionate. While a student at Hope High School, she served as secretary of her class, belonged to numerous clubs, and was elected to the

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