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Religion and the US election: does faith matter anymore?

Hillary Clinton’s failure to win over religious voters has not been for lack of trying. Charles Mostoller/reuters, CC BY-NC

Religion and the US election: does faith matter anymore?

It is often remarked that Americans will elect almost anyone except an atheist. Only one of the 535 members of the current Congress professes to be religiously unaffiliated.

Polls consistently show Americans want their political leaders to be religious. This applies even to the purportedly secularist Democratic Party. Though the figure has been declining, no less than 53% of Democrat supporters still say it is important for their candidate to have strong religious beliefs.

This should be yet another advantage for Hillary Clinton. Of all the qualities she brings to the election race, one of the least-remarked-upon is her religiosity. A lifelong Methodist, she is by all accounts a committed and sincere churchgoer.

The contrast with Donald Trump is stark. He might call himself a Presbyterian, but few can recall seeing Trump in the pews. The twice-divorced casino magnate regularly muddles his scriptural citations. And at one church in Iowa, he almost put money in the communion plate.

Yet here, as elsewhere, the race has defied conventional wisdom. Evangelicals are flocking to the Republican. Meanwhile, the so-called “nones” – those who identify as atheists, agnostic or nothing in particular – are siding with the Democrat.

Religion in the Clinton campaign

Clinton’s failure to win over religious voters has not been for lack of trying. At key moments through her career she has spoken openly of her faith. In a 2014 interview, she named the Bible as the biggest influence on her thinking.

At other times Clinton has described the role of theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich in driving her commitment to social justice. Unlike Trump, she knows scripture well enough to impress religiously minded voters at campaign stops. Put simply, she is fluent in religion in a way that her opponent is not.

Furthermore, her campaign has reflected this commitment, even if in a muted tone. Religion was everywhere at the Democratic Convention. The Democratic Faith Council held panels on religion and politics while Catholic nuns drew attention to the problem of social injustice.

Using religiously inflected language, a Protestant minister called on delegates to:

… shock this nation with the power of love.

Vice-presidential candidate Tim Kaine spoke at length about his Roman Catholic faith and his missionary work in Central America.

Clinton herself summed up her credo with a Methodist motto:

Do all the good we can, in all the ways we can, for all the people we can.

In the midst of all this God-talk, it was revealed that the Democrat National Committee had been using religion in a more negative way. Hacked emails showed that committee members tried to discredit Bernie Sanders during the primary campaign by drawing attention to his supposed atheism.

Trump and the religious right

In the heady post-convention days, the Democrats dared to dream of peeling off elements of the religious right from their opponents. This dream is now clearly over.

With only a few exceptions, leaders of the religious right have endorsed Trump. One survey from mid-August shows Trump beating Clinton by a margin of 63-17 amongst white religious conservatives.

This has occurred despite the fact that hardly any voters see Trump as particularly religious. During the primary season, only 5% of Republican voters described Trump as “very religious”, compared to 47% for Ben Carson. There is little evidence that Trump’s belated attempt at Jesus-speak since then has shifted their opinion.

Explaining this evangelical embrace of Trump might be one of the larger puzzles of this campaign. One solution is that evangelicals have morphed into values voters instead of faith voters. Conservative Christians will now turn out for any candidate offering a return to a past America where discipline and order reigned, and where white lives mattered most.

It helps that Trump has promised the religious right much of what it wants. Under a President Trump, bakers will never be forced to sell wedding cakes to gay couples.

Even more than the plight of pious cake-makers, the religious right has been fretting about an obscure clause in the federal tax code, Section 501 c(3). Passed in 1954 at the urging of Senator Lyndon Johnson, the clause bans tax-exempt organisations such as churches from overtly supporting candidates for political office. Become too partisan, and you start paying tax.

Trump has promised to rescind this troubling restraint on religious freedom.

Though few can recall seeing Donald Trump in the pews, the religious right is rallying behind Trump. Carlo Allegri/Reuters, CC BY-NC

The times they are a-changin’

In the end, the fact that so much of the religious vote will go to the obviously less religious candidate says a lot about this race.

For much of the right, dislike of Clinton outweighs everything else. At the same time, very few appear to believe her when she talks about her faith.

The religious vote is typical in another way as well. Just as growing racial diversity has helped the Democrats, a steady decline in religiosity amongst young Americans might be having the same effect.

The latest survey shows the number of young Americans who are religiously unaffiliated is on the rise. Only 27% of young millennials (born 1990-1996) attend a weekly religious service compared to 51% of the so-called “silent generation” (born 1928-45).

Clinton has tried to win over the faith community. But if the trend towards a less religious America continues, future Democrat candidates may not even need to bother.

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