Four years ago, I wrote a post on “God and the Presidential Debates” after the first round between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. The substance of that post follows here, after a brief update.
God, Christianity, and religion were almost entirely absent from this week’s first debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. I thought Clinton might work in a reference to her Methodist faith, about which I thought she spoke very effectively at the Democratic National Convention. I expected Trump to reference his Presbyterian tradition’s heritage of Calvinism, especially its emphasis on human depravity, and then speak at length about his personal shortcomings. Okay, maybe not.
The only religious reference I caught was Clinton’s mention of the “vibrancy of the black church.”
Otherwise, no God-talk at all. I expect Trump to steer clear of God, though a gratuitous reference to religious freedom probably wouldn’t hurt. I expect Clinton to talk about her faith at some point, as part of an effort to appear “human” (a strange thing to request from a presidential candidate).
As my post from 2012 illustrates, that absence is not unusual. God has often been ubiquitous in American presidential politics, but the debates over the past half-century have rarely included much discussion of religion, personal or otherwise.
One exception to that was the GOP 1999 debate in Iowa, when the moderator asked the candidates to name a favorite philosopher or thinker. George W. Bush responded, “Christ, because he changed my heart … When you turn your heart and your life over to Christ, when you accept Christ as the savior, it changes your heart, it changes your life, and that’s what happened to me.” Widely panned by pundits at the time, I’ve long thought it was both authentic and good politics. The other candidates at the time looked like they wished they’d thought of Jesus first. In any event, one could probably find many other examples of recent Republican candidates talking about God and Jesus.
I explored religious references in other presidential debates. I thought 1960, 1976, 1980, and 2000 were the most likely years in which religion might have surfaced as an issue.
John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism was a major issue during the 1960 campaign. In their third debate, Nixon and Kennedy both obliquely mentioned the issue of the Democratic candidate’s Catholicism:
Kennedy: Mr. Nixon knows very well that in this – in this whole matter that’s been involved with the so-called religious discussion in this campaign, I’ve never suggested, even by the vaguest implication, that he did anything but disapprove it.
Nixon: We can’t settle for anything but the best. And that means, of course, the best man that this nation can produce. And that means that we can’t have any test of religion. We can’t have any test of race. It must be a test of a man. Also as far as religion is concerned. I have seen Communism abroad. I see what it does. Communism is the enemy of all religions; and we who do believe in God must join together. We must not be divided on this issue. The worst thing that I can think can happen in this campaign would be for it to be decided on religious issues. I obviously repudiate the Klan; I repudiate anybody who uses the religious issue; I will not tolerate it, I have ordered all of my people to have nothing to do with it and I say – say to this great audience, whoever may be listening, remember, if you believe in America, if you want America to set the right example to the world, that we cannot have religious or racial prejudice. We cannot have it in our hearts. But we certainly cannot have it in a presidential campaign.
I cannot imagine how anyone could ever suspect Richard Nixon of being willing to use under-handed methods against his political opponents.
Nixon also, on at least two occasions (including during the fourth debate) put the Cold War in the context of religion:
In other words, the next president, as he leads America and the free world, can be only as great as the American people are great. And so I say in conclusion, keep America’s faith strong. See that the young people of America, particularly, have faith in the ideals of freedom and faith in God, which distinguishes us from the atheistic materialists who oppose us.
Moving ahead, the most Jimmy Carter said about his religion in the 1976 debates was that he would no longer discuss it with Playboy magazine:
The Playboy thing has been of very great concern to me. I don’t know how to deal with it exactly. I agreed to give the interview to Playboy. Other people have done it who are notable–Governor Jerry Brown, Walter Cronkite, Albert Schweitzer, Mr. Ford’s own Secretary of Treasury, Mr. Simon, William Buckley, many other people. But they weren’t running for President. And in retrospect, from hindsight, I would not have given that interview had I to do it over again. If I should ever decide in the future to discuss my deep Christian beliefs and condemnation and sinfulness, l would use another forum besides Playboy.
Ronald Reagan had little to say about his religious beliefs in 1980, but surprisingly, the most explicit discussion of religion that I’ve found in a presidential debate came in 1984. Fred Barnes, one of the moderators, asked both candidates to describe their religious faith and what role it played in their political decision-making. Barnes even pressed Reagan on why he did not attend church very often. Outside of the Obama-McCain forum with Rick Warren in 2008, this was very unusual. Here are the highlights:
Reagan: Well, I was raised to have a faith and a belief and have been a member of a church since I was a small boy. In our particular church, we did not use that term, “born again,” so I don’t know whether I would fit that — that particular term. But I have — thanks to my mother, God rest her soul — the firmest possible belief and faith in God. And I don’t believe — I believe, I should say, as Lincoln once said, that I could not — I would be the most stupid man in the world if I thought I could confront the duties of the office I hold if I could not turn to someone who was stronger and greater than all others. And I do resort to prayer.
At the same time, however, I have not believed that prayer should be introduced into an election or be a part of a political campaign — or religion a part of that campaign.
… about why I don’t go to church. I have gone to church regularly all my life, and I started to here in Washington. And now, in the position I hold and in the world in which we live, where Embassies do get blown up in Beirut — we’re supposed to talk about that on the debate the 21st, I understand — but I pose a threat to several hundred people if I go to church.
Mondale: I am a son of a Methodist minister. My wife is the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. And I don’t know if I’ve been born again, but I know I was born into a Christian family. And I believe I have sung at more weddings and more funerals than anybody ever to seek the Presidency. Whether that helps or not, I don’t know.
I have a deep religious faith. Our family does. It is fundamental. It’s probably the reason that I’m in politics. I think our faith tells us, instructs us, about the moral life that we should lead. And I think we’re all together on that.
What bothers me is this growing tendency to try to use one’s own personal interpretation of faith politically, to question others’ faith, and to try to use the instrumentalities of government to impose those views on others. All history tells us that that’s a mistake.
… This nation is the most religious nation on Earth — more people go to church and synagogues than any other nation on Earth — and it’s because we kept the politicians and the state out of the personal exercise of our faith. That’s why faith in the United States is pure and unpolluted by the intervention of politicians. And I think if we want to continue — as I do — to have a religious nation, let’s keep that line and never cross it.
Fascinating that Reagan didn’t claim the “born-again” label during this debate! He did so in 1976. I don’t know whether or not he spoke of himself as “born again” in 1980, but he certainly conveyed that sense quite strongly. In 1984, he affirmed his faith without mentioning Jesus. It’s also interesting that Mondale argues so forcefully for a strict separation between private religious belief and public policy / leadership.
I’m sure a more detailed analysis of religious language during presidential debates would reveal a great deal more. What interests me is the relative scarcity of religious language (with 1984 being an exception). Religious freedom comes up from time to time, God comes up on occasion, Playboy once, and Jesus only in Republican primary debates.