On Mixing Religion and Politics: Post-Convention Edition

On Mixing Religion and Politics: Post-Convention Edition July 29, 2016

America is notoriously and incurably religious. And political.

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Most Americans, it seems, like our politics to go along with a big dose of religion, too. Although, sometimes it’s hard to know the difference between the two.

In historian Barry Hankins fine (and entertaining) book, Jesus and Gin: Evangelicalism, the Roaring Twenties, and Today’s Culture Wars, he closes with a reflection on the role of religion in politics today (published in 2010, mind you):

While evangelicals join traditional Catholics in applauding the forthrightness of candidates’ public expressions of religion, cultural and political liberals continue to argue that religion is a private matter that should be left in the realm of autonomous individuals. Most of the liberal arguments are made in the halls of academia through scholarly articles that appear in journals that the wider public never reads. The idea that religion is private and should be kept out of politics has lost the popular favor it held in the 1960s and 1970s. As was the case in the 1920s, the liberal insistence that religion remain private is once again in the minority. At the popular level liberal pundits may argue why a particular candidate’s religious views are detrimental to public welfare, but such pundits know they will get nowhere with the blanket claim that religion is a private matter. Kennedy’s position from 1960 satisfies few today, and polls show that a majority of the American people want their president to be a person of deep religious faith.

But what’s fascinating is that, watching the two conventions in the past few weeks (and granted, I only caught bits and pieces of it), I would hardly say that the Republican convention exhibited any more reverence for the role of religion as such than did the Democratic convention. From what I was able to see (correct me if I’m wrong), I’d say the converse may be the case–which might suggest a point someone made earlier, that Hillary is the most religious of the candidates we have left.

She referenced her “Methodist faith,” citing the quote often (but probably incorrectly) attributed to John Wesley (which she has previously also tweeted):

The RNC also featured Tim Cain’s “Christian missionary” work in Honduras, and the role that his faith plays in his political work.

Now, don’t get me wrong, religion was there in the RNC, too. And Trump picked a V.P. candidate who is known for being a deeply committed evangelical Christian.

The GOP is the party of choice for most conservative evangelicals (and Hankins’ book, cited above, is about them–or their forebears, rather).

So that last sentence of the Hankins’ quote is jarring, because if the majority of the American people want their president to be a person of deep religious faith, one would think that that majority would include a very large majority of the evangelical voters. Yet most of those seem prepared to vote for Donald Trump.

As a recent Pew poll shows, “More than three-quarters of self-identified white evangelicals plan to vote for Donald Trump in the fall (78%).” But the poll also suggests they will do so reluctantly; they aren’t so much voting for Trump, as voting against Hillary (the “lesser of two evils” rationale).

While Hillary could be the most religious of the two major party candidates left (honestly who really knows but God anyway–since only God can discern true and false religion, though he does leave us some hints), the conservative evangelicals probably don’t trust or like her (mainline Protestant) form of religion–or more likely still they don’t trust her or agree with her platform.

Nonetheless what’s jarring about this whole deal is that Trump is, by most accounts, not perceived to be a “a person of deep religious faith,” certainly not in the usual sense of that phrase. Note: I’m making no claims here either way regarding the authenticity or lack thereof of Trump’s religious faith. Nonetheless, as the GOP candidate, questions about the nature of his religious faith has certainly provided plenty of fodder for debate and has been a source of consternation for not a few evangelical leaders. So he loves the Bible but he can’t quote a single verse?, etc.

This debate and consternation no doubt prompted James Dobson to declare Trump a “baby Christian,” in effect assuring those evangelical voters: don’t worry, he’ll get there (to a deep religious faith), or at least and more likely, don’t worry, he’s on our side, in our tribe.

And then, mega-church Southern Baptist pastor defended his support of Trump by saying that, though he may not be “exactly like us” [conservative evangelical Christians] “at least he likes us.” So yes, in other words, don’t worry, he’s on our side, in our tribe.

Perhaps one takeaway, post-convention, is that religion is still pretty much at the front and near the center of politics (as Hankins notes), and that’s not going away anytime soon.

But the situation is more complicated than whether or not we feel comfortable that not a candidate is “deeply religious”–or even that he/she shares the same religious perspective as I (we) do.

Whether candidates have a deep religious faith or not matters less than whether whatever religious faith they do have aligns with our personal, tribal, and political interests.

Let’s just be honest about that.



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