April 2020 Church & State Magazine - April 2020

The Faith Factor: American Voters Have Traditionally Supported Presidential Candidates Who Are Religious. Is That About To Change?

  Rob Boston

According to conservative com­mentator Rich Lowry, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) may not be religious enough to be president of the United States.

“It used to be expected that serious presidential candidates would have religious faith and discuss it, in keeping with the religious coloration of the country they sought to govern,” Lowry, a longtime editor of the right-wing National Review, wrote in a column last month. “Just as the taboo against openly socialist candidates has given way, so has the old norm about religiosity eroded nearly to the vanishing point.”

Lowry referred to Sanders as “a secular Jew [who] doesn’t call himself an atheist.” He noted that San­ders has said he believes in God but not in a traditional manner. Speaking of his religion, Sanders once said, “To me, it means that all of us are connected, all of life is connected and that we are all tied together.”

To Lowry, this isn’t enough.

“Functionally,” Lowry carped, “this means his religion is indistinguishable from the vision of solidarity undergirding his socialist politics.”

Does the U.S. president have to be religious? The Constitution clearly says no. Article VI contains a provision stating “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” (For more on the history of this provision, see “Believe It – Or Not!” page 6 of this issue.)

But historically, Americans have preferred religious presidents – a trend that continues today. A Pew Forum poll released March 12 found that 20 percent of Americans said it is “very important” that the president have strong religious beliefs, and another 32 percent said it’s “somewhat important” that the president be strongly religious, indicating majority preference for a religious president.

Yet it’s worth noting that the job of chief executive has no religious responsibilities, as Founding Father Alex­ander Hamilton pointed out back in 1787-88 during the writing of the Federalist Papers.

In Federalist 69, Hamilton outlined the key differences between the proposed office of the U.S. presidency and the British king.

Observed Hamilton, “The one has no particle of spiritual jurisdiction; the other is the supreme head and governor of the national church!”

But even though the Constitution bans religious qualifications for public office and the president has no religious role, voters have, during most of the country’s existence, expected their chief executives to be religious. It has only been within the past few years that the number of Americans who say they’d be willing to vote for an atheist cracked 50 percent. According to a May 2019 poll by Gallup, the figure is now at 60 percent.

No other religious or philosophical group is that low. Ninety-six percent of Americans say they would be happy to back a Roman Catholic, 93 percent say they would vote for a Jewish candidate, 80 percent say they’d cast a ballot for an evangelical Chris­tian and 66 percent are willing to vote for a Muslim.

As the primary election moves forward – this article was written just after Super Tuesday, when the Democratic race had narrowed to Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden – voters have once again been taking stock of candidates’ religiosity, or lack thereof.

While it remains to be seen how important this issue will be in the general election, questions about how, where and whether a candidate worships tend to percolate in the background of campaigns, surfacing to a higher degree of interest on occasion.           The issue is likely to receive increased attention during the general election as President Donald Trump seeks to rally his white conservative evangelical base by portraying himself as a “godly” candidate. If the Demo­cratic nominee is Sanders, a man perceived by many to be indifferent to religion, these attacks could escalate. (The irony is that Trump, a nominal Presbyterian, rarely attends church services and for most of his life has been perceived as not especially religious.)

One recent poll indicates that if religion becomes an issue during the general election, Democrats could find themselves at a disadvantage. Put simply, most Americans don’t see the Democratic field (including some candidates who have now dropped out) as very religious.

In a survey conducted in early February, the Pew Research Center found that 60 percent of Americans said they believe Sanders is “not too” or “not at all” religious.

Interestingly, Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., who on several occasions played up his Christian faith – he’s an Episcopalian – was viewed as irreligious by many Americans, too. Twenty-five percent told Pew they considered Buttigieg to be “not too” religious, and 13 percent labeled him “not at all” religious. Twenty-eight percent called him “somewhat” religious, and only 4 percent said he was “very” religious.

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a Methodist, suffered a similar fate, with 48 percent saying they consider her to be “not too” or “not at all” religious, with 33 percent saying she is “very” or “somewhat” religious.

The only Democratic candidate who was viewed as at least “somewhat” religious by a majority is Biden, a Catholic. Fifty-five percent see him that way, and an additional 8 percent consider the former U.S. senator from Delaware to be “very” religious. (Pew’s poll did not include former New York Mayor Michael Bloom­berg, who is Jewish. Bloom­berg ended his campaign after Super Tuesday.)

These results came despite efforts by some of the candidates to play up their faith on the campaign trail. Warren, for example, prayed with her pastor, the Rev. Miniard Culpepper, before every Democratic debate. Her campaign also formed an interfaith advisory board. (Warren dropped out of the race on March 5.)

On the stump, Buttigieg was not hesitant to talk about religion and took pains to draw a distinction between his Christianity and conservative interpretations of that faith favored by evangelicals like Vice Presi­dent Mike Pence. In January, The New York Times reported that Butti­gieg had made faith “central” to his campaign and recounted a speech in Des Moines during which Buttigieg lit into Republicans for using religion to divide Americans.

Buttigieg asserted that it’s all right “for us to talk about how each of us are formed, and where our faith takes us” but quickly added, “God does not belong to a political party in the United States of America.”

Buttigieg hired a faith outreach coordinator, the Rev. Shawna Foster, a Unitarian Universalist minister. But he failed to make significant inroads in some Democratic constituencies, especially black Protestants, and exited the race after a poor showing in the Feb. 29 South Carolina primary.

Candidates often use their personal faith as a kind of shield to ward off religion-based political attacks. Such assaults have a lengthy, if unfortunate, lin­eage in American politics. They stretch back at least to the election of 1800, when Thomas Jefferson was blasted for his unorthodox religious beliefs.

Jefferson admired the moral teachings of Jesus but did not consider him divine, and rejected the miracle stories of the Bible. He attempted to merge Christian ethics with the cool rationalism of the Enlightenment, a theological brew that was perhaps unique in the new nation. As Jefferson once said to a friend in a letter, “I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know.”

Although Jefferson was a champion of religious freedom and church-state separation, his unconventional religious views left him open to attack. During the 1800 election, one Federalist newspaper pontificated, “Should the infidel Jefferson be elected to the Presidency, the seal of death is that moment set on our holy religion, our churches will be prostrated, and some infamous prostitute, under the title of the Goddess of Reason, will preside in the Sanctuaries now devoted to the Most High.”

(Jefferson won the election, and no churches were prostrated.)

In more recent times, candidates have been subjected to impromptu religious quizzes, almost as a form of “gotcha” journalism. A common stunt is to ask a candidate to name a favorite Bible verse. Some candidates haven’t handled this well. Trump’s answer, famously, was a verse no one could find in the Bible. In 2004, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean was asked to name his favorite New Testament passage. He replied the Book of Job, which is not a New Testament book. Dean later corrected the mistake and said that his favorite New Testament passage was really “anything in the Gospels.”

Awkward incidents like this could be avoided if Americans took Hamilton’s words to heart and remembered that presidents have only political and public-policy responsibilities and aren’t some kind of national quasi-pastor.

Will that day come? Stay tuned.                               


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