Religion Roundup: The 2012 Candidates, and Why their Religion Shouldn’t Matter (But Probably Does)

Religion Roundup: The 2012 Candidates, and Why their Religion Shouldn’t Matter (But Probably Does) December 7, 2011

After a bit of a hiatus due both to exams and late-November North American harvest festivals, the Religion Roundup shall now keep on truckin’, this week with a focus on American politics.

Even though American history’s first openly Pokémon-inspired presidential contender has left the race, the most prominent Republican candidates seem to be holding tightly to their platforms (so to speak).

So, I think it’s probably valuable to take a concise look at how religion has influenced, and been used by, the 2012 presidential candidates– most of whom have followed the traditional path of self-identifying with some flavor of Christianity in an effort to win over devout voters.

The “religious issue” that seems to have garnered the most press over the past two election cycles has been Mitt Romney’s (and, this time around, John Huntsman’s) Mormonism. You might recall Romney giving in 2007 what I would consider a terribly poor parroting of JFK’s 1960 speech regarding his Catholicism, trying to win over evangelical Republican voters who might shy away from support because of what has been deemed the “Mormon problem”. Both Huntsman and Romney hold the traditional Christian conservative view on abortion rights, despite how Romney seems to have altered that position since he ran for governor of Massachusetts in 2002.

Rick Perry, of course, leaves nothing in the deck regarding his Methodist religious expression: he used his position as governor of Texas to instate the infamous Day of Prayer and Fasting in Houston, teaming up with the notoriously Christian-conservative American Family Association and inviting his fellow lawmakers to join him. Many considered this to blatantly drop church and state in the same soup, and emails sent out to attendees regarding Perry’s campaign essentially branded it a base from which he could launch his 2012 election bid.

Candace Gingrich-Jones, the first ever American Humanist Association LGBT-Humanist Pride award recipient in 2010, is unfortunately not running for office. Her brother Newt, however, very much is, and is currently Real Clear Politics’ highest polling Republican candidate in Iowa. Both he and Rick Santorum identify as Catholic, which, as with many of their fellow hopefuls, seems to have subtly informed their support of intelligent design as a part of high school biology curricula.

Some have tied Michelle Bachmann, formerly a part of the Salem Lutheran Church, to anti-Catholic bigotry inherent in her former church’s doctrine, although she has repeatedly stated otherwise and made efforts to reach out to Catholics in response. Everyone’s favorite politically-“consistent” Libertarian vying for the GOP bid, Ron Paul, identifies as a devout Baptist (also unsupportive of evolution), although of all his fellow Republican contenders he certainly refers to his faith the least in the political arena.

And although I’ve focused on the diversity within the GOP candidacy, there is of course one candidate in the 2012 election whose Islamic  Christian beliefs continually make an appearance throughout his speeches and actions. Barry Obama strikes me, however, to be far more interested in interfaith dialogue and cooperation, than any of his recent presidential predecessors. He faced controversy over Rev. Wright’s statements on black liberation, and came originally from an entirely nonreligious Hawaiian household. As far as policy goes, despite making frequent references to his faith, most recently during the White House holiday tree lighting ceremony, the closest thing to an infringement on the Establishment Clause I know of would be his failure to strike down certain policies of the Bush administration, particularly regarding tax breaks for purely religious organizations.

But I want to make a caveat to all of this: I don’t mean to say that the religions of the candidates are in and of themselves important. I don’t happen to think that we, as American citizens, have any special right to know what specific religion a candidate subscribes to—and I certainly don’t think that we should be interrogating them about their personal religious views in the public sphere.

One specific example springs to mind: the 2008 election saw the panelists at a GOP presidential debate in New Hampshire expected to respond to the question, “Is every word of the [King James] Bible literal?” Many of them happened to hold this view—and could we expect any less? Vlad commented the other day on the way certain polls concerning the unelectability of atheists can be misconstrued—certainly true in some cases, but that doesn’t change the fact that being openly atheistic can put a punctuation mark on any political campaign. Article VI of the US Constitution warns against any religious test being required for office, and I think that having candidates in debates more-or-less unavoidably expected to describe their religious views effectively (or, to use a shaky word, “spiritually”) violates that clause. The tendency to constantly draw attention to the personal religious views of presidential hopefuls seems to further the expectation that they have religious views at all, and drive society further away from welcoming openly nonreligious individuals into office.

And all of candidates I overviewed earlier, with perhaps the exception of Ron Paul, have gone to great lengths to espouse their beliefs by their own volition, which is what I think is interesting. Incidentally, most of them have also used these beliefs a vessel to infringe upon the rights of others, be it by supporting anti-equality or anti-science legislation, or by sponsoring events that are inherently religiously divisive. What ultimately matters, in political terms, is that the individuals directing our country are doing so with equal consideration—if they embrace a pluralistic mindset, how much of the Bible they personally believe to be inerrant seems to be entirely trivial.

In Kennedy’s aforementioned speech, he noted that he believes in an America in which “the separation of church and state is absolute”, and “where religious intolerance will one day end.” I think it absurd to consider these two statements to be mutually contradictory: we can have an America where everyone, even politicians, can have or lack religious beliefs that some of us might find unreasonable, yet still respect one another as individuals and identify our shared values. It is fairly unavoidable to be somewhat aware of what religious beliefs the candidates hold—to judge them on those beliefs alone, and not on whether those beliefs are used to suppress others, however, is our own mistake.

And finally, here’s Herman Cain singing about pizza.


Walker Bristol is an undergraduate studying religion and linguistics at Tufts University, and the Community Organizer and Interfaith Representative for the Tufts Freethought Society. Originally from North Carolina, Walker was raised in a largely Quaker community before exploring several Christian traditions throughout high school and ultimately becoming a secular humanist at age 15. Walker serves as the chair of the Committee to Establish a Humanist Chaplaincy at Tufts, and this summer was a student intern at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard. Along with fellow Tufts Freethought board member Lauren Rose, Walker hosts the internet radio show FreethoughtCast. In addition to being involved in secular student activism, Walker is a hobbyist musician, ballroom dancer, and far-too-avid science-fiction fan. He tweets nonsense @GodlessWalker.


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