The issue of religion is emerging as a defining feature of the 2016 presidential campaign. Several major candidates feel increasingly compelled to discuss their Christian faith as a way of connecting with Christian constituencies.
As always, candidates who publicly profess their strong faith walk a line. They want people, especially religious voters, to know they live according to a transcendent moral code, yet many voters, especially secular ones, will be turned off if the candidates seem eager to impose their theology on everyone else. Republican presidential candidates seem more willing to appeal to religious voters than Democratic candidates. That’s partly because white evangelicals represented 23 percent of the general electorate in 2012 and 2008, and 21 percent in 2004, according to the Pew Research Center, and evangelicals tend to vote Republican. So the GOP candidates are using religion to motivate such conservative Christians to volunteer, contribute financially and cast their ballots for them on Election Day.
Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner, started his campaign as an apparent secularist who didn’t seem comfortable talking about his religion. He ran afoul of some Christian conservatives when he said he hadn’t asked God to forgive his sins. He even joked about communion when he said, “If I do something wrong I just try to make it right. … When I drink my little wine, which is about the only wine I drink, and have my little cracker, I guess that’s a form of asking for forgiveness.”
But he has tried to recover from such missteps by talking about how faith is important to him and he even waved a Bible during a speech to conservative Christians in Washington in late September. Trump, a Presbyterian, says the Bible is his favorite book but he has refused to disclose his favorite verse. And he can still be very awkward in discussing religion. He recently said on the Christian Broadcast Network’s The Brody File, “Well, I say God is the ultimate….So nobody, no thing, no, there’s nothing like God.”
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who has surged recently in the polls, created a firestorm when he told NBC that a devout Muslim should not be president because such a person’s faith would not be consistent with the Constitution unless he or she denounced Sharia, a framework for Muslim theology. Many Christian conservatives share this belief, and Carson probably gained politically because of the controversy. The public is split. A recent USA Today/Suffolk University poll found that 49 percent of Americans say they would vote for a qualified Muslim for president and 40 percent wouldn’t.
Carson, a Seventh-day Adventist, also told CNN, “I’m a person who has a deep and abiding faith and relationship with God. But I’m not really into a lot of religious dogma and rituals – ‘You can’t do that, and you can’t do this.’ I don’t believe in that. I believe you have to have a deep and abiding faith in God.”
Carson was asked what he would do if a gunman confronted him and asked him to state his religion, which is what apparently happened in Roseburg, Oregon last week before a gunman shot some of his victims when they identified themselves as Christians, according to news reports. Carson said he would resist such a gunman, and in further response to the massacre, Carson posted a photo of himself on social media with a sign declaring, “I Am A Christian,” and the message went viral.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida extols his Catholicism, a faith to which he converted 20 years ago. In an essay on CNN.com to mark the visit of Pope Francis to the United States in late September, Bush wrote, “Catholicism has grounded my own life. In Catholic teachings, the family is a ‘domestic church,’ and the Catholic faithful are a kind of extended family. The Catholic Church has always bound my own family together.” He added: “The church that Francis leads never tires of proclaiming the dignity of all people – a truth that is also at the heart of our form of government that pledges liberty and justice for all. It underlies the first freedom in our Constitution, the freedom of religion, a freedom that too many in our government have lost sight of in recent years.”
The tradition used to be that presidential candidates didn’t talk much about their specific religion. But John F. Kennedy broke that pattern when he and his advisers concluded that his Catholicism was a drawback among Protestant voters who feared his allegiance would be to the pope and not to the Constitution. Kennedy addressed the issue at a meeting of conservative Christian ministers in Houston during his 1960 campaign, declaring that he would never allow his religion to interfere with his decision-making as president and he believed in the “absolute” separation of church and state. He won the election, and the religion issue rarely came up when he was president as other concerns crowded it out, such as the Cold War and the economy.
Gradually, religion has permeated presidential politics as politicians tried to bond with voters by discussing their faith. Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, proclaimed his strong Christian faith in the 1976 campaign and it helped him win. Ronald Reagan, a Republican, did the same in 1980 and 1984. George H.W. Bush, another Republican, actively courted the Christian right and it was a key to his success in the 1988 election. Republican George W. Bush proclaimed himself a devout Christian, and this helped him win in 2000 and 2004. Several prominent GOP contenders think this is a pattern worth repeating now.