Faith and American Voters

By: Dr. Michael A. Longinow
Department of Journalism and Integrated Media
School of Arts & Sciences
Biola University


For Christians, the video clip is hard to watch. Donald Trump is standing behind a podium at Liberty University, squinting out at the 13,000 packing the gym, attempting to quote a biblical passage. It’s in the New Testament, and his staff has given him the passage on cue cards or his speech paperwork. But his citation of it, and his quoting of it made national news for clumsiness. CNN’s headline says students laughed. The New York Times confirmed this, saying he had quoted Scripture “sort of.”

But that was mid-January. And by early May, Trump had nearly locked up the Republican nomination with Christian evangelicals voting for him by large percentages as caucuses clicked through state by state.

Why? Research by the Pew Center for Religion and Public Life posted about a week after Trump’s visit to Liberty suggests Americans might be less interested in a presidential candidate’s faith than in the past. Survey research is notoriously tricky to unpack, but the Pew Center study suggested more people regarded Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio (in that order, by order of magnitude) as religious — in percentages far higher than their view of Trump. In fact, even Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders rank above Trump in respondents’ perception of religiosity.

Does it matter? Hard to say. In fact, it’s the not saying of things — or saying them badly — that has gotten Trump in trouble with Christian conservatives, but also with Muslims, across the U.S. and in other countries. His is a bombastic style of political rhetoric that crashes the gates of any topic he approaches. His political rivals in the Republican Party have, to a person, been people of more careful articulation. And their reticence to offend seems not to have won over the wider populace of Republican potential voters.

Hillary Clinton, a lifelong Methodist, was quoted by the Latin Post as being committed to her faith (she says she gets daily email devotionals from a minister who posts by 5 a.m.) But she, like her rival Bernie Sanders, speaks of openness to people of all faiths.The January Pew study suggested about one quarter of Americans see the decreasing influence of religion over public life as a good thing. And it also suggested the number of Americans is growing who say a president who has no personal faith at all is a good thing.

By way of comparison, the Pew Center, in 2012, found survey evidence that Americans said Mitt Romney’s faith was important to his winning the GOP nomination, but would be of little help in November against the incumbent president.

American Christians, we’re told, have in the last decade or so begun eschewing labels. The Pew Center, a year ago, reported evidence that Millennials as a whole were increasingly likely to check the “none” box on surveys about their faith. This response, the research suggests, does not mean they are not religious — it means their faith is more complex than the descriptors being arranged by those their parents’ and grandparents’ age.

And it’s those young people who are populating our classes. They are unenthused with news, are sensitive to hate speech, but are also suspicious of promises that have not come true for them (which might explain why young people have not fled from Trump wholesale, as might be expected, and why Bernie Sanders’ wildly idealistic rhetoric about change has its appeal to even well-educated young adults.)

Election cycles are a mirror put to our faces as Americans. We see ourselves in ways we can’t when the stakes are not as high, when the allure of voting power rises in our midst, and when hunger for new directions beckons.

And it is in election years, as well, when we see the faith questions of our students become more pointed, more real than ever. Something about a loud voice behind a podium — a voice saying something that draws roaring applause from massive crowds — has a way of setting off alarm bells in some of our students’ minds. Perhaps they hear themselves. Perhaps they hear the quiet warnings of someone they read in our classes (or that they heard from us or a peer in those classes.)

Now is the time for some serious teaching and learning about religion in the lives of our students — students whose participation in the upcoming election could matter very much to the future of American democracy and faith within it.

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