If you're looking for a way to celebrate Presidents Day on Monday, but don't plan to buy a used car or a new mattress, you could do worse than to spend time reading the Bible.
Our earliest presidents, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, were all assiduous readers—of history and philosophy, and the Bible as well.
During his student days at Princeton, Madison even studied Hebrew so he could better understand the Good Book. John Quincy Adams wrote letters to his son on the Bible's teachings, including his philo-Semitic but grim assessment of the Jewish prophets as "messengers, specifically commissioned of God, to warn the people of their duty, to foretell the punishments which awaited their transgressions."
Abraham Lincoln was one of the most diligent readers of all U.S. presidents, though he had a limited selection of books as a child. Fortunately his books included the Bible, which he read and reread. From this he learned a common but elevated language, which allowed him to connect with ordinary Americans, who understood his frequent biblical allusions and references.
Lincoln's famous opening to the Gettysburg Address—"Four score and seven years ago"—may sound stilted to a modern Twitter user, but it made perfect sense to Bible-literate Americans who knew Psalms 90:10. The verse describes a man's life span as "threescore years and 10; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years."
The Bible continued to influence presidents throughout the 20th century, some more deeply than others. Woodrow Wilson would not talk about public policy on the Sabbath, recited grace before his meals, and read from the Bible nightly. When biographer Ray Stannard Baker visited Wilson at his sickbed after a stroke, Baker noticed that Wilson was flanked by detective novels and an old Bible.
Oddly enough, even though presidents often kept their Bibles close, Air Force One did not always have a Bible on board until the 1970s. This was a problem on Nov. 22, 1963, when Lyndon Johnson was sworn in on the presidential plane after John Kennedy's tragic assassination. Without a Bible handy, the non-Catholic Johnson took the oath on a missal, the liturgical prayer book of the Catholic Church. Gerald Ford ensured this would not happen again. He specifically requested that a Bible be placed in the aircraft's stateroom whenever he was aboard. Having a Bible on board is now an Air Force One tradition.
The Bible has continued to be a close companion for more recent presidents. Jimmy Carter, a devout Southern Baptist, even wrote a study Bible, "NIV [New International Version] Lessons from Life Bible." Ronald Reagan also admired the Bible, at one point affirming: "All the complex and horrendous questions confronting us at home and worldwide have their answer in that single book."
Bill Clinton kept a Bible close during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. He was not just putting on a show; he knew the Bible well. After the death of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, White House speechwriters inserted Brown's favorite biblical verse into the president's eulogy. When Mr. Clinton saw it, he said, "Oh this is Isaiah 40:31. It sounds like the New English translation. I prefer the King James version myself."
George W. Bush was a disciplined reader, reading 95 books in 2006 alone. In addition, our 43rd president also engaged in an annual reading of the entire Bible, along with a daily devotional.
Barack Obama has read the Bible as well, although with a personal twist. In his book "The Audacity of Hope," he wrote that "When I read the Bible, I do so with the belief that it is not a static text but the Living Word and that I must continually be open to new revelations—whether they come from a lesbian friend or a doctor opposed to abortion."
Mr. Obama's interest in new revelations extends to his daily devotional. Joshua DuBois, former executive director of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, emails Mr. Obama a daily devotional thought that often includes wisdom from non-biblical sources, including Johnny Cash and Nina Simone.
The continuing presidential devotion to the Bible has been a constant throughout American history, one that connects us directly to our Founding Fathers. Even as the cultural staples of the founding era have gone away, and TV, Twitter and movies have taken their place, the Bible has remained pre-eminent in American life. The book our Founders read and meditated upon in the past will continue to provide a hopeful path for Americans—one that will inspire presidents, and the rest of us, for generations to come.