Presidential candidates test the relevance of religion in this electoral cycle.
Moving into summer, the American public found itself staring at a slate of candidates who were unprecedented — with religious persuasion and expression among many stark contrasts. On the GOP side stood golden-maned Donald Trump, a Presbyterian who has attended Marble Collegiate Church — although that Manhattan church contends he is not an active member. On the Democratic side stood a nonpracticing Jew and socialist, Bernie Sanders, and a lifelong United Methodist, Hillary Clinton, who invokes her faith sparingly, commenting during a 2008 presidential primary debate that she is reticent about “advertising” it.
“There are so many subplots that deal with religion in political campaigns,” says David Hawkings '82, senior editor of the political and congressional news service C Q Roll Call. “Like so many things in campaign 2016, those subplots are more melodramatic. I’m relatively certain that no viable candidate for federal office, let alone the presidency, has advocated setting an immigration policy based on religion. Those of us inside the beltway thought Trump would be done in by this, but it will be remembered by history that this was one of his pathways to the nomination.”
Embracing the Faith — or Not
A candidate’s embrace of faith — or lack thereof — has been an important factor in voting patterns in past presidential elections. “Religion remains an important part of politically relevant identity for voters,” confirms Professor Scott Meinke, political science. “There is a sharp divide in recent political elections between those who are religious and those who are not. The latter are more likely to side with Democrats.”
A poll released in July by the Pew Research Center: Religion & Public Life indicated the trend would likely hold for the 2016 presidential election. The report noted that evangelicals were even more solidly lining up for Trump than they did for Mitt Romney at a similar point in the 2012 election. Seventy-eight percent of white evangelical voters preferred Trump if the election were held at that moment; one-third indicated they “strongly” backed Trump.
Conversely, voters who identified as atheist, agnostic or “religious nones,” as Pew terms them, backed Clinton over Trump as strongly as they did in the 2012 election, when they favored Obama by two-thirds over Romney.
Religion's Eroding Appeal
As Eduardo Porter wrote this spring in The New York Times, “religion’s appeal has been eroding in the United States since the end of the 1980s. … In 1987, only one of 14 American adults expressed no religious preference. By 2012, the share had increased to one in five.”
Though Meinke believes the decline in people who identify as religious has relevance in the voting booth, “that doesn’t mean religion has become irrelevant to voters,” he says.
According to Meinke’s fellow political scientist, Professor Chris Ellis '00, “It’s very easy to overstate how much people vote their faith. When it comes to what people normally vote on, number one is money, jobs and the economy. Number two is social change and acceptance of diversity. Number three is the traditional left/right stance on religion. It’s way behind the other factors.”
The fact that neither presidential candidate is perceived as ultra-religious may compel many people of faith “to stay home,” Ellis adds. “In this election, there is no one for you if you are sincerely committed to these sorts of views.”
The Divide Among Evangelicals
“Unlike in past presidential election cycles, the Republicans have a very religious candidate,” points out Professor Brantley Gasaway, religion, who teaches courses in religion and American politics and religion and constitutional law.
“The unconventional nature of the Trump candidacy has strained the relationship between white evangelical Christians associated with the Religious Right and the Republican Party,” he says. “In fact, a small but vocal group of conservative Christian leaders have declared that Christians should not support Trump based upon what they perceive as his personal immorality and his bigoted statements regarding religious and ethnic minorities.”
At the same time, says Gasaway, conservative evangelicals refuse to support Hillary Clinton, a former Sunday school teacher. “Not only do they regard her as untrustworthy, but they also criticize her support for legalized, publicly funded abortion and her perceived lack of support for legal protections for those who have religious objections to same-sex marriages.”
Gasaway suggests that several factors will ultimately lead many conservative evangelicals to vote for Trump: “Concern over Supreme Court appointments are number one, since they will shape ongoing legal and political battles regarding abortion and same-sex marriage. A lot are concerned about transgender issues — access to school locker rooms and bathrooms. They also say we are not electing a pastor, that they want someone who will be a strong leader, a nationalist who is concerned about immigration and someone who appeals to their economic anxieties.”
To Gasaway, Trump’s selection of “Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a conservative Christian himself, as his running mate was a clear effort to retain the traditional support of white evangelicals and conservative Catholics for Republican presidential candidates.”
In contrast to conservative evangelicals, politically progressive evangelicals are much more likely to be swayed by Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic Party’s agenda, Gasaway says. “They are concerned about issues of race and support Black Lives Matter, prioritize issues of economic and social justice, and are critical of anti-immigration sentiments and militaristic policies,” he explains.
A Progressive's Dilemma
One Bucknellian who stands firmly in the progressive Christian camp that Gasaway describes is Professor Ben Willeford, emeritus chemistry. At age 94, the lifelong Baptist has voted in 18 presidential elections, starting in 1944, when he chose a third-party candidate, the six-time socialist candidate and ordained minster Norman Thomas, Class of 1905.
“In my early life it was very important that the presidential candidate be a Christian,” says Willeford, who was reared in a Christian home in North Carolina. “All occupants of the White House, so far, have been, at least nominally, Christian.”
Sometimes, though, an appearance of excessive religiosity has been a turnoff, he says. “I’m enough of a Jeffersonian to believe there should be a definite wall between church and state. I voted in fear and trembling in 1976, because I thought Jimmy Carter was too much of an evangelical. Turned out not to be so.”
The Christian right’s embrace of Trump is troubling, he says. “His personal life seems to be antithetical to what they believe in.” Willeford certainly considers some of Trump’s key stances as incompatible with his own beliefs.
“Building a wall to keep out Mexicans is not being respectful of human beings,” says Willeford. “I want Muslims and Jews — and atheists — to feel safe in the society of which I am a part. I’m uncertain whether I will vote for Hillary or a third-party candidate, as I did for Norman Thomas in 1944.”
Sorting Out Indecision
Another person of faith who is undecided is Manisha Chase '16. Chase was a leader of the Interfaith Council, a group of students who meet regularly to foster interfaith dialogue, plan multifaith events and promote religious awareness on campus — and one of only two Sikh students during her time at Bucknell.
“Sikhs arise from the idea that we need justice and equality for all people,” says Chase. “That’s what’s driving my choice. I stand behind my beliefs and want a candidate who reflects those beliefs. I would like it if they would be called by their faith to reduce the divisive politics and to think about how we can unite and break down bridges. I’m going to have to wait it out and see what comes of the debates.”
Another member of the Interfaith Council has no doubt about his vote. “My morality is informed by my Christian faith, and it will have an impact on how I vote,” says Nathan Wagner '17, a Methodist. “I get a sense that Hillary Clinton’s faith informs her decision making, even though she doesn’t talk about it a great deal. Sometimes the candidates who talk the most about faith don’t put their faith into action. One of the reasons I will be voting for Hillary Clinton is that she does consider the implications of the policies she pursues in light of her faith.”
Emily Cottle '17, a double major in political science and religious studies, is writing a thesis that analyzes how religious beliefs play into personal decision making. “I’ll look at state bills dealing with religious freedom and how state congressmen have used religion to influence public policies,” she says. “If you believe religion is a set of beliefs and values, then religion has to be involved in politics.”
In this presidential election, Cottle understands the tough choice faced by evangelicals. “They are torn between wanting to see certain polices enacted that reflect evangelical beliefs and balancing that between what they feel is for the good of the nation and what will help us prosper in the future. Depending on where they are campaigning, candidates tailor their comments to reflect what they feel is most important to those voters.
Muslim Comments Take Center Stage
“Trump’s comments on Islam and Muslims in the United States play to a sector of the population that sees this religion as universally dangerous,” she adds. “His broad statements on Islam, however, pose a threat to the religious freedom that is a founding principle of this nation.”
The Rev. John Colatch, university chaplain and director of religious life, addressed the controversy over derogatory comments Donald Trump made after Khizr Khan, the father of a Muslim soldier killed in Iraq, denounced Trump at the Democratic National Convention in July.
“Trump’s comments [that the mother was barred from speaking at the convention, because she is a Muslim woman] come from a lack of awareness of the Muslim community,” says Colatch. “Among students I’ve worked with other the years, more women from Islam than men have been forthright in their opinions and in positions of leadership.”
Kabir Uddin '19, a campus Muslim leader, was startled by Trump’s comments as well. After contemplating the remarks, he concludes, “I believe that Allah put Donald Trump in the position he is in right now as a test, a means for much of the human population to wake up and see the reality of this world as it is right now. That’s what I find beneficial out of all this chaos.”