Fewer Americans are flocking to religion, but you wouldn’t know that from the current presidential election cycle.
The politics of Washington are on pause for Easter break, but the campaign trail does not relent. And despite our separation of church and state, religion has been front-and-center this election season, often in ways that emphasize division rather than reconciliation.
From candidates questioning the beliefs of their fellow candidates, to religious figures offering endorsements, to a renewed spotlight on Islam after last week’s terrorist attacks in Brussels, religion has been dominating the political debate. Trump is winning massive support from evangelicals.
Why this focus at a time when polls find Americans are starting to move away from organized religion? The share of people unaffiliated with a religion and faiths other than Christianity is growing . Yet just more than half of Americans still say they are less likely to vote for a president who doesn’t believe in God.
And Republican front-runner Donald Trump — as unfiltered in his comments on faith as on all other topics — has also led the field in questioning the faith of his rivals. For example, in Utah this month, Trump asked of 2012 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who has begged his fellow Republicans not to vote for the billionaire: “Are you sure he’s a Mormon? Are we sure?”
Trump has also questioned the faith of GOP opponent Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and his one-time rival Ben Carson.
And despite a gaffe over a Bible verse at Liberty University, Trump has been rewarded for this finger-pointing, winning massive support from evangelicals and the endorsement of Liberty’s president, Jerry Falwell Jr., who said: “In my opinion, Donald Trump lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the great commandment.”
The God talk is not so easy to reconcile when Trump is reducing wives to beauty contestants and Cruz is denying a National Enquirer tale alleging he’s had affairs with five women. We are a long way from Sunday service — and you have to wonder if their most devoted and devout voters will care.
Another way that faith has been front and center this election is in the discussion of Islam, with Trump calling for a temporarily keeping Muslims from other countries from entering the U.S. and Cruz proposing that police patrol “Muslims neighborhoods.”
It’s not a surprise that Democrats take a different view about where faith fits into campaign rhetoric. Both Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders have visited a few congregations, and the Social Gospel is an important part of their message.
When Clinton, who is a Methodist, was asked about her faith at an Iowa event , she said: “There is so much more in the Bible about taking care of the poor, visiting the prisoners, taking in the stranger, creating opportunities for others to be lifted up, to find faith themselves that I think there are many different ways of exercising your faith.”
Sanders, who is Jewish, has said he is not active in organized religion. “I think everyone believes in God in their own ways,” he said, as reported by The Washington Post . “To me, it means that all of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together.”
Now, though, there is news of another religious leader helping to launch, as its advance material says, a “national revival tour is to redefine morality in American politics and champion values of love, justice and mercy at a time when they are needed most.”
The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, of Moral Mondays, the civil-rights movement that marched and protested regularly in the North Carolina capital of Raleigh, along with the Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes, Jr, senior minister emeritus of The Riverside Church in New York City, are leading The Revival: Time for a Moral Revolution of Values.
Also featured are faith leaders the Rev. Traci Blackmon and Sister Simone Campbell. After an April 3 kick off at Riverside, a tour will travel to 15 states and the District of Columbia, with action in some state capitals and, not coincidentally, in Cleveland and Philadelphia, the locations of the Republican and Democratic political conventions.
During and well beyond the Easter season, the debate over the true meaning of faith will go on, of course, and may resonate at the ballot box. But in a changing America, no one quite knows how.
Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis is also a contributor to NPR and NBCBLK and has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, Politics Daily and as a contributor to The Washington Post. She is a senior facilitator for The OpEd Project at Cornell and Yale universities. Follow her on
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