Faith has figured consistently in US presidential elections, although separation of church and state continues to set the perimeters of the political and religious activities in the United States. In 2008, Mitt Romney’s Mormonism alienated many white evangelicals who regarded him as non-Christian, and, in his 1960 speech, Kennedy famously responded to anxieties about his Catholicism before a Protestant clergy, declaring, “a great office [of the presidency] must neither be humbled by making it the instrument of any one religious group, nor tarnished by arbitrarily withholding its occupancy from the members of any one religious group.” Since religiousness remains a highly coveted attribute in a US president, candidates in the 2016 election interspersed biblical language in their campaign addresses or stressed their dedication to religious freedom. Yet Trump put noticeably little effort into branding himself as a religious candidate, even incurring condemnations of his “un-Christian” language and policy positions from faith leaders. In particular, his harsh stance on Mexicans and Muslims has been commonly viewed as contrary to the spirit of the gospel; nevertheless, Trump was the only candidate who flouted the tried and true rule that religiousness is a prerequisite for the US presidential candidate, especially if he or she is Republican. Trump has garnered some big-name evangelical endorsements, although his unfamiliarity with the Bible has alienated many among the Religious Right. Unlike for the other candidates, Trump’s popularity hardly suffers from his weak religious ties, suggesting that Trump’s aggressive, nativist blueprint to revive the United States’ glory resonates across religious affiliations.
Whether a potential president is religious is significant to American voters. As indicated by the Pew Research Center’s analytic report on the impact of faith in the upcoming election, more than half of American adults say they would be less likely to vote for a hypothetical presidential candidate who does not believe in God. Despite a decrease in the share of Americans with inhibitions about voting for an atheist president, the polling results show that a lack of faith still serves as “one of the biggest perceived shortcomings that a candidate could have.” Having little or no religious leanings acts as a disadvantage for nominees, but even with respect to the same candidate, voters tend to be more likely to see him or her as a potentially “good” or “great” president if they consider him to be religious. While the Pew Center’s findings do not reveal to what extent or exactly how the supposed religiousness of a candidate improves voter opinion of him, the American electorate presumably construe perceived devoutness as a sign of greater competence or morality.
Perhaps Americans’ general preference for a religious president reflects many of their wishes that their political leaders expressed their religious faith and prayer more frequently. Currently, 40 percent of Americans say there has been too little religious discussion, while 27 percent say there has been too much of it. Moreover, American voters want a leader who shares in their religious beliefs; thus, candidates have attempted to pander to the religious dispositions of groups that their parties traditionally attract. Texas Senator Ted Cruz made his evangelical faith the centerpiece of his platform, flaunting his extensive biblical knowledge acquired from his Second Baptist school education and upbringing under his father, the Christian preacher Rafael Cruz. Through his religious credentials, Cruz appealed to mostly conservative, white Protestant evangelicals. His strategy towards his target supporters emphasized reclaiming the country’s Judeo-Christian heritage, salvaging it from growing threats on religious liberties. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, having formulated his views on same-sex marriage, creationism, and climate change from his syncretistic involvement with different faiths—he was baptized as both a Catholic and a Mormon, practices Catholicism today, but frequents a Southern Baptist Church—won over many hardline conservatives.
On the other hand, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton downplayed their personal faiths lest they become unfavorable to religiously unaffiliated voters, who are one of several major reliably democratic religious constituencies. In fact, Americans who do not identify with a particular religion have become the single largest demographic among self-proclaimed Democrats and Democrat-leaning adults. Similarly, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and historically black religious groups such as the Church of God in Christ, National Baptist Convention, and African Methodist Episcopal church are among those with the highest percentages of Democrat-leaning persons. Sanders has said on record that he is not actively involved with organized religions, and whereas Clinton has stated that she keeps her faith advisors close by, her position regarding religion prioritizes separating God and state affairs rather than intertwining the two. Democratic and Republican presidential candidates’ differential approaches to faith, in accordance with their different voter bases, speak to the centrality of religious qualifications to the profiles of presidential candidates.
Yet one man stands out as a glaring exception to the rule that the hypothetical president should be a person of faith in order to be widely liked: real estate mogul Donald Trump. Trump is the outlier in the Pew Research Center’s findings on the link between perceived piousness and favorability. Virtually all Republicans who thought Cruz, Rubio, and Carson would be successful presidents and expressed a view about those individuals’ religiousness also said they viewed those candidates as at least somewhat religious. Breaking this pattern, of the 56 percent of GOP voters who thought Trump would be a good or great president, a substantial number of them (17 percent of Republican registered voters overall) said they thought Trump is not religious. On the other hand, just 2 percent of GOP voters thought Rubio would be a good president and that he is not particularly religious, with just 1 percent saying the same about Cruz and Carson. Unlike the other leading contenders, Trump does not need to pass the “faith test” to gain approval. He thus represents an anomaly, as Republican voters tend to disapprove of candidates that they think are not religiously observant. Tim Goeglein, a longtime lobbyist for the evangelical group Focus on the Family who worked on President George W. Bush’s campaigns, implies that Trump’s case may be due to a shift in Republican political culture marked by a greater leniency towards non-religious candidates. Since the early 2000’s, Libertarian, Tea Party, and generally populist voters who don’t care as much about the religiosity of candidates have made a much larger percentage of the party. Goeglein said, “religion remains important for those voters but it’s relative to their frustrations…[but] it’s not always the first preference.”
Granted that religiousness is not as important as it once was even for the Republican electorate, Christian conservative activists have historically played an active role in the GOP’s presidential campaign. In fact, in a survey taken April of 2016, more than one-third of registered Republican voters identified as “born-again” or “fundamentalist” Christians, while only 12 percent of Democrats did. Nonetheless, Cruz’ widely publicized evangelicalism hardly gave him an edge over Trump, as both candidates drew about one-third of born-again supporters. Trump also had the highest Catholic support at 37 percent, compared to 18 percent for Cruz. Trump was the only candidate deemed “great” despite his seemingly shallow faith; the fact that he is popular regardless of his lack of fluency with biblical language may testify to the overriding attraction of his symbolism and agenda. Trump’s defiance of conventional wisdom in US politics, that someone who is not religious is unfit to serve as the president of the United States, warrants a closer assessment of the main appeals of the president-elect.
Trump’s creed to “make America great again” strikes a chord with Americans steeped in anxiety and disillusionment about the country’s internal stability and international standing. Rather than embodying self-interest, Trump signals “American Greatness” for his advocates, who hope that he will run the country with entrepreneurial vigor and confidence. For some, he harbors an antidote to supposed cultural malaises like political correctness and the corrupt establishment that is thought to have failed to help the average American, namely the white working-class. Those who call for stronger protectionist policies look to Trump to stunt the influx of immigrants into the country. None of these rationales pertain to Trump’s religiousness or take issue with the many instances he betrayed his disregard for God-related issues. His incorrect reference to the Second Corinthians as the “Two Corinthians” evaded censure from his evangelical Liberty University audience. Likewise, neither the noticeable absence of God in his speech nor Pope Francis’ denunciation of Trump’s deportation and wall-building proposals as un-Christian faced much public scrutiny. Trump’s exemption from the duty to proclaim his Christian morals may reflect changing realities, in which an openly devout message or a vow to protect religious liberty are no longer the winning strategies for the Republican standard bearer. There is a more worrisome implication, though, that Trump’s popularity is so formidable that it outweighs, or even renders irrelevant, the turn-off factor of his dubious Christian identity.