Saturday, February 20, 2016

Religion in the Presidential Campaign

To one extent or another religion is a topic of discussion in the campaigns of most of the contenders for the U.S. presidency.  This column provides a brief run-down of the religious views, insofar as they can be determined from public statements and analyses, of the remaining candidates for the two major parties’ nominations.  I list them in alphabetical order by last name.
Having attended mass with his Catholic wife for many years, Jeb Bush formally converted to Catholicism in 1995.  From all reports he is sincere and devout in his faith, which clearly influenced many of his actions as governor of Florida.  In his presentation to a 2009 conference, he stated, “As a public leader, one’s faith should guide you,” and that attitude was in evidence when, for example, as governor he established the nation’s first faith-based prison and attempted unsuccessfully to compel a hospital to keep Terri Schaivo on life-support.  He differs from Catholic doctrine on the matter of capital punishment, however, having presided over 21 executions during his time as governor.  Since the publication of Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change, Bush has acknowledged that earth’s climate is changing due, at least in part, to human activity, but he has not articulated any clear program to address the problem.

As a Seventh-Day Adventist, Ben Carson is in a position similar to that of Mitt Romney four years ago in having both to explain and defend his out-of-the-mainstream religion. Carson is a Biblical literalist who has stated that he believes in a literal six-day creation, that a Muslim should not be president, and that he sees no reason to distinguish between his political views and the official teachings of the Adventist church.  Since those teachings include the belief that the End Times are very close at hand and that the federal government will join Protestant Christians to round up, persecute, and execute seventh-day worshipers, one has to question how much Adventist beliefs might influence Carson’s Middle East policies, and public relations both foreign and domestic, were he to become president.
A life-long Methodist, Hillary Clinton rarely speaks of her faith publically. In response to a direct question at a town hall event in Iowa last month, she cited the Great Commandment “to love the Lord with all your might and to love your neighbor as yourself” as central to her belief.  She went on to highlight the Sermon on the Mount as “something that you [should] really pay attention to.”  A 2007 article published in Mother Jones magazine described how Clinton, while she was First Lady, became a member of a close-knit prayer cell under the tutelage of Doug Coe, the shadowy leader of the secretive evangelical group known as The Fellowship or The Family.  She tends to be more conservative and militaristic than are official Methodist positions on a number of issues. Last October she stated in a public forum that she thinks the use of the death penalty should be reevaluated, but that it should not be abolished.
The Washington Post recently published commentary by John Fea, chair of the History Department at Messiah College in Grantham, PA, titled “Ted Cruz’s Campaign is Fueled by a Dominionist Vision for America.”  Frederick Clarkson, a senior fellow at Political Research Associates, notes that Cruz “may be the most openly theocratic candidate ever to be a serious contender for a major party presidential nomination.”  In recent days Frank Schaeffer has provided additional background on the Reconstructionist roots of Dominionism.  Cruz’s minister father Rafael advocates a “Seven Mountains” theology which maintains that evangelical Christians must “take dominion” over seven aspects of culture, including government and education.  (Earlier articles on this blog about Dominionism can be found here and here.)  Rafael Cruz has declared that Ted’s election as senator is a direct fulfillment of prophecy, and Larry Huchs, pastor of New Beginnings Church in Bedford, Texas, agreed that it is a sign that the younger Cruz is one of God’s “anointed kings”.  Keep the Promise Super PAC, which supports Cruz’s campaign, is run by pseudo-historian David Barton, about whom I wrote last month.  A Cruz presidency could result in serious constitutional conflicts over individual rights and protections.
John Kasich grew up Catholic, the son of Czech and Croatian immigrants, but drifted away from religion as a young adult.  After his parents were killed by a drunk driver, he returned to the church and is now a member of the Anglican Church in North America, which split from the Episcopal Church over the issues of ordination of women and non-celibate gays and lesbians.  His approach to religion in public life appears to be generally low key and pragmatic, separating his personal beliefs opposing abortion and gay marriage from his public acceptance of the need to follow federal law and court decisions.  Kasich has some sympathy for the values of the Social Gospel.  When challenged on his decision, contrary to that of most Republican governors, to expand Medicaid to cover more than a quarter million poor Ohioans, he responded “…when I get to the pearly gates, I’m going to have an answer for what I’ve done for the poor.”
Despite, or perhaps because of, his being the youngest candidate in the field, Marco Rubio has followed the most convoluted path to his current faith identity.  He was baptized Catholic and went to mass with his mother, but after his family moved from West Miami to North Las Vegas when he was seven, the family attended a Mormon church.  Rubio writes that even as a boy, he studied religion, and “at his instigation” the family returned to the Catholic church. As a young adult, by then married and beginning his political career, he followed his wife and children into membership in Christ Fellowship, a charismatic and evangelical Baptist megachurch.  Once again, however, he was drawn back to the faith of his youth.  Today he declares, “I’m fully, theologically, doctrinally aligned with the Roman Catholic Church.”  He and his family worship at both Christ Fellowship and St. Louis Catholic Church.  This dual affiliation puzzles and may alienate many potential supporters.
As he is in many respects in this campaign, Bernie Sanders is the outlier.  He was raised Jewish but says of himself that he is "not particularly religious.”  His campaign webpage describes him as “a secular Jew who values and actively engages with people of various faiths for the betterment of American society.”  His position on religious freedom states, “To protect both personal religious freedoms and civic equality, Bernie advocates for the separation of church and state, which allows Americans to honor diversity, respect personal autonomy, and voluntarily choose to practice or abstain from religious faith.”  It continues, “Importantly, Bernie believes [that] having the freedom to believe whatever you want does not entitle you to impose those beliefs on others.”  In keeping with his policy of constructive dialogue with persons representing a variety of faiths, Sanders has observed that he finds himself “very close to the teachings of Pope Francis,” and, to the surprise of many, accepted an invitation to address the opening convocation at conservative, evangelical Liberty University in September 2015.
Donald Trump states that he is Presbyterian, and First Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Jamaica, Queens, has confirmed that he attended Sunday School and was confirmed there.  He has also told audiences that he attends Marble Collegiate Church, which is affiliated with the Reformed Church in America.  In response Marble Collegiate issued a statement that, while his parents were active members, and one of his children was baptized there, he is not currently an active member of the congregation.  Though Trump declares that he loves the Bible, he has made some notable gaffs which betray a very casual acquaintance, at best, with its contents. In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network he referred to a chapter in Proverbs teaching “never bend to envy.”  No such passage can be found in the book of Proverbs.  More recently he raised eyebrows and giggles from his audience when he referenced a verse in “Two Corinthians” instead of the usual “Second Corinthians.”  Because his speeches have so far been very short on details, it is difficult to determine what role, if any, his very nebulous religious beliefs might have on his governance.
I have included here all of the remaining Republican candidates even though three of the six are currently polling in single digits.  All of them are currently attempting, in one way or another, to appeal to the Evangelical Christian base of the party.  If either Bush or Rubio wins the presidency, he would become the second Catholic, and first Republican Catholic, to do so.  Ben Carson’s popularity seems to have peaked at 21.5% in late October 2015 and now hovers in the 8 to 9% range, so it is increasingly unlikely that he will become the first Adventist president.  On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders has already become the first Jew ever to win a presidential primary.  Whether or not he can go all the way to the presidency is a topic for considerable debate.  It’s still almost nine months to Election Day, and it promises to be a wild ride.  Stay tuned.


  1. Thank you for this sensible and non partisan description of the religious inclinations of the canidates. In Canada, it is not so important what religion a politician practices, and, as far as I remember was not an issue when election time comes around, though it would likely be a concern about abortion rights, and the right to die. Hugs, Audrey

  2. Very informative post, evidence of extensive research, Marian. Well done!