On March 15, 2016, Marco Rubio stated, “It is not God’s plan that I be President in 2016.” Rubio suspended his presidential campaign that night after losing the Republican primary in his home state of Florida to Donald Trump. Rubio’s commentary on “God’s” supposed role in the 2016 election is strikingly juxtaposed against the seemingly diminished role of candidates’ religious beliefs in the minds of voters, compared to past election cycles.
The Republican Party is widely thought of as the party of the intensely religious. Evangelical Christians make up the single largest religious group among Republicans, with eight in ten members of the Party identifying as some form of Christian. Right-wing political positions have stemmed from religious viewpoints, particularly those involving social issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion. The result is a platform that Professor Marci Hamilton says “has been constructed upon Roman Catholic and evangelical theology.” The 2012 Republican Party Platform outright stated that an ongoing “war on religion” was being waged by the Obama Administration “to compel faith-related institutions, as well as believing individuals, to contravene their deeply held religious, moral, or ethical beliefs regarding health services, traditional marriage, or abortion.”
This rhetoric might suggest that deeply religious candidates such as Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Ben Carson would excel with Republican voters. According to the Pew Research Center, Rubio, Cruz, and Carson are viewed as “very” or “somewhat” religious by 70%, 76%, and 80% of Republican and Republican-leaning adults, respectively. Yet, it is Donald Trump, the presidential candidate perceived as the least religious of all candidates—Republican and Democrat—who is leading the race for the Republican nomination. Only 44% of Republicans and Republican-leaning adults view Donald Trump as “very” or “somewhat” religious.
The perception that Trump is less religious than his rivals may be a result of several factors. Trump spends far less time invoking religious-based reasoning (and mentioning “God”) than his fellow Republican candidates, and the instances in which he has discussed his personal religion have garnered negative attention from the more religious members of his party. Last year, Trump was criticized for commenting that he doesn’t feel compelled to ask God to forgive his sins, and later for not being able to name his favorite Bible verse.
Trump’s campaign has not been particularly focused on debates over social issues that often stem from religious disagreement. He has instead found success with his simple message of “Make America Great Again.” Sometimes, this simplistic approach does touch on religious issues. For example, Trump chimed in last winter when Starbucks faced backlash for its plain holiday cup design, adding to criticism that the coffee chain was waging a “war on Christmas.” Additionally, in response to terrorist attacks in Paris and California, Trump called for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States. However, Trump’s positions on these issues seem to be less about religion itself, and more about casting aside the dreaded “political correctness.” After all, Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric has aided him no more than his anti-Latino or anti-woman rhetoric.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton, who identifies as Christian and often discusses her faith while campaigning, has unexpectedly weathered a significant challenge from her non-religious opponent, Bernie Sanders. Last September, on the morning of Rosh Hashanah (one of the holiest days of the Jewish calendar), Sanders skipped synagogue to speak to college students about social justice and economic inequality, which he has described as “the great moral issue of our time.”
Although Sanders has expressed cultural pride in his Jewish heritage, he has also stated that he does not follow organized religion. In January, Sanders told the Washington Post: “I think everyone believes in God in their own ways . . . To me, it means that all of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together.” Journalist Michael Schulson observed in March that Sanders’s views on faith seem to echo his political values of belief in communal responsibility and suspicion of authoritarian structures. Sanders’s secular approach to morality has possibly contributed to his popularity, especially among younger voters, who are least likely to identify as religious.
Most Americans have consistently said that having a president with strong religious beliefs is important to them. About half of Americans state that they would be “less likely” to vote for an Atheist. But it seems that voters simply aren’t as preoccupied with candidates’ religious beliefs as they perhaps once were. Any decline in voters’ concern with the religious beliefs of presidential candidates may be caused by an increased number of Americans who identify as non-religious. The growth of non-religion is particularly visible among Democrats, 28% of whom identified as religiously “unaffiliated” in a 2014 Pew Research Center study. Up 9% from 2007, these “Nones” now make up the party’s single largest religious group. Even among Republicans, the proportion of religiously-unaffiliated members rose from 10% to 14% between 2007 and 2014.
Marco Rubio spoke at the 2012 Republican National Convention, looking forward to a potential future presidential bid. He proclaimed that “[o]ur national motto is ‘In God we Trust,’ reminding us that faith in our Creator is the most important American value of all.” The lack of influence of religion in the 2016 election suggests that perhaps faith is not as important a value to voters as Rubio presumed. The survival of the traditional Republican Party may depend on a reframed, less religious message. For the Democratic Party, nearly a third of which now identifies as not religious, a candidate’s religious identification may become wholly irrelevant, or perhaps eventually, a candidate’s lack of religion may even prove advantageous.
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