Religion continues to play a prominent role in the presidential race as the first round of voting takes place.
Religion was a frequent topic in Iowa, which held its first-in-the-nation caucuses on Feb. 1. Days before the event, polls showed a tight race between real estate magnate and reality TV star Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). Cruz won the caucus, with Trump in second and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) not far behind in third place.
Data analyzed after the vote showed that evangelicals, who make up a large portion of Republican voters in Iowa, broke for Cruz. This happened despite the fact that just days before the voting, Trump landed a major endorsement from a prominent Religious Right figure. Jerry Falwell Jr., chancellor of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., gave Trump a personal endorsement about a week before the caucus.
The move surprised some observers, who thought Cruz was the more likely candidate to win Falwell’s blessing. Cruz, the first Republican to announce his candidacy, kicked off his campaign in March of 2015 during an appearance at Liberty. Trump, by contrast, has been divorced twice, used to be pro-choice on abortion and has never, until recently, had a tendency to discuss religion.
Falwell told the Lynchburg News & Advance that he is concerned about the national debt and believes that Trump’s business background will help address it.
In a statement, Falwell called Trump “a successful executive and entrepreneur, a wonderful father and a man who I believe can lead our country to greatness again.”
Although he failed to secure Falwell’s endorsement, Cruz worked hard to woo evangelicals on the ground in Iowa and in other states. During a campaign swing in New Hampshire, Cruz remarked, “I’m a Christian first, American second, conservative third and Republican fourth. I’ll tell ya, there are a whole lot of people in this country that feel exactly the same way.”
Fox News reported that 62 percent of Iowa Republican voters identified as “born-again” Christians in an entry poll. And after being declared the caucus winner, Cruz claimed God wanted him to win. “To God be the glory,” he said.
Rubio also sought to win over Christian conservatives. During a town hall meeting in Waverly, Iowa, the Florida senator was challenged by an atheist who said he was concerned over the candidate’s overt religiosity. Rubio replied that his faith is “the single greatest influence in my life.” The exchange was captured on video and posted to YouTube, where it scored millions of views. Rubio’s campaign immediately issued an email fund-raising appeal with the tagline “I met an atheist” and boasting of the popularity of the video.
“I want to live in a country where Americans feel comfortable living out their faith, in private AND in public,” the appeal read. “But we’ve seen from the attacks liberals will level – and the policies of the Obama Administration – that some on the left don’t agree. I’ve promised to voters everywhere I go: I will not be a president who will pit you against any other group of Americans, but I’m going to be honest about my values.”
The Washington Post reported that Rubio’s last-minute strategy for Iowa was to talk about God even more. When Time asked Rubio recently why he hasn’t turned out to be the savior many in the GOP expected. Rubio replied, “Let me be clear about one thing: There’s only one savior and it’s not me. It’s Jesus Christ who came down to Earth and died for our sins.”
Cruz’s strong showing led two social-conservative candidates who had fared poorly in Iowa to drop out of the race. Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, won the Iowa caucus in 2008 but captured only 2 percent of the vote this year. Rick Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, won the caucus in 2012 but this year was an afterthought, winning only 1 percent.
There has also been some talk about religion on the Democratic side. The New York Times ran a long profile about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Methodist faith Jan. 25, and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) opened up about his views on religion in an interview with The Washington Post around the same time. Sanders said that he is not “actively involved with organized religion” – an admission few candidates on the national stage ever make.
Sanders, who was raised Jewish, said he believes in God and added, “I think everyone believes in God in their own ways. To me, it means that all of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together.”
In early February, Sanders was asked about his faith during an event in New Jersey. He replied, “Everybody practices religion in a different way. To me, I would not be here tonight, I would not be running for president of the United States, if I did not have very strong religious and spiritual feelings….So my spirituality is that we are all in this together and that when children go hungry, when veterans sleep out on the street, it impacts me. That’s my very strong spiritual feelings.”
(A third Democratic candidate, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who is Catholic, dropped out of the race after finishing a distant third in Iowa.)