Does Religion Matter in Politics?

Posted on June 25, 2016 in Washington Watch

by James J. Zogby

Shortly after Tim Kaine had been elected Governor of Virginia in 2006, a discussion ensued among Democratic party leaders about the lessons that could learned from Kaine's victory. Some observations were interesting, others were not. One was particularly off the mark.

Because Kaine had often spoken about his Catholic faith, and because Democrats ordinarily do not, some concluded that the lesson to learn from Kaine's win was that Democrats needed to make a point of speaking more about religion. The observation was correct—Kaine did speak about his faith; but the conclusion was wrong.

Kaine is not your ordinary politician. He is soft-spoken and thoughtful. Never one for bluster or stilted speechifying, his style is easy going and conversational. He is also a Catholic who speaks comfortably about how his sense of morality and his commitment to serving those in need comes from the social gospel message of the bible and his experience as a volunteer worker in Latin America sponsored by the Jesuits.  

Over the next several months, I noted that one of the Democrats who had been influenced by this discussion began to speak, rather awkwardly, about his religious beliefs. At one point, having winced one too many times at his clumsy efforts to talk about his faith, I approached him and said "You have it all wrong. Tim Kaine didn't win because he spoke about religion. He won because he is authentic. And because he really is influenced by his faith. When he speaks about it, it's real and people can feel that. When you speak about religion, it's not real and it just doesn't work. Be authentic, don't fake it."

This same dynamic was at work during this year's Democratic primary. To his credit, Bernie Sanders never faked it. He was compelling when he spoke about his immigrant father and the values he learned growing up in a working class immigrant home. When he was asked during a televised debate about his religious beliefs, he didn't attempt to fake it. Instead he spoke about his "spirituality"—his belief that we are all connected to one another and, therefore, responsible to care for each other. It was moving and authentic. And because it was real, it registered well with the audience.

I thought about this matter of religion in politics this past week, when I read news accounts of Donald Trump's meeting with a group of leading Christian Conservatives. Originally planned as a small "get acquainted" session, the event grew to over one thousand people. Since the Christian right represents almost 40% of the Republican electorate, the meeting was important. Trump needed their support.

Trump apparently knew his limitations. He didn't even try to convince the assembled religious leaders about his faith. At one point he spoke clumsily about the importance of sending children to Sunday school and at another he mentioned "when I used to go to church" implying that he no longer does.

But none of this mattered to the assembled leaders. They are a self-righteous group who believe that they alone are in possession of God's truth. Instead of their political beliefs flowing from their faith, they attempt to give their conservative politics a religious coloration. They weren't interested in Trump's religion, what they wanted to know was that would endorse their political agenda. And he did, promising to appoint anti-abortion judges and to change the law that currently limits the ability of tax-exempt religious institutions from becoming directly involved in politics (which Trump endorsed saying "I think maybe that will be my greatest contribution to Christianity").

Though awkwardly phrased, Trump was direct in his appeal "You can pray for your leaders, and I agree with that—pray for everyone—but you really have to do is you have to pray to get everyone out to vote for one specific person"—obviously meaning himself, Donald Trump.   

Not satisfied with this crass appeal for votes, Trump went further questioning Hillary Clinton's faith. "We don't know anything about Hillary Clinton in terms of religion...she's been in the public eye for years and years and yet there's nothing out there. 

That, of course, is sheer nonsense since it is well known that Clinton is deeply committed to her Christian faith. She often quotes scripture and her most genuine moments have been when she speaks about it. Coincidentally, I had just received a letter from a friend, an evangelical Christian leader, who told me that he had gone to high school with Clinton and how she had been a youth leader in the Methodist Church. He recalled her decades-long relationship with her pastor on whom she had relied for spiritual guidance.

In the end, it wasn't faith or the lack of it that mattered for the assembled Christian Conservatives. In reality, they were not embracing Trump for his religion or his authenticity. More likely, they suspended their disbelief, simply because they had come to accept that he would advance their earthly goals.      

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the Arab American Institute. The Arab American Institute is a non-profit, nonpartisan national leadership organization that does not endorse candidates. 

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