Thomas Jefferson wouldn’t get elected to President of the United States today. In addition to owning slaves and lacking public speaking skills, he’d still struggle in the polls due to his criticisms of organized religion, says historian Bruce J. Schulman.
Jefferson’s unusual religious views—he didn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, and he advocated a strong separation of church and state—were a point of contention in the election of 1800, when the opposition “basically said any Christian has to vote against this essential atheist,” says Schulman, professor of history at Boston University.
But Jefferson was elected anyway, and is now revered as a founding father.
More than two centuries later, presidential candidates must publicly embrace a strong faith if they want to win. An incident in the 2016 race shows how times have changed.
In May 2015, Hillary Clinton, a lifelong Methodist, walked into a South Carolina bakery while on the campaign trail and struck up a conversation with a customer about the passage he was reading in his Bible. Their talk gained Clinton his support. The former secretary of state’s Bible knowledge “is important in my world,” the man, a Baptist minister, later explained to CNN. “I’d like to know that my president has some religious beliefs in God.”
Clinton may not trumpet her faith on the stump as much as some candidates do, but she knows how to use it to connect with people.
Today, says Schulman, “it’s almost impossible to win the presidency without some show of serious religious commitment.”
How did we transform from a nation that could look past Jefferson’s criticisms of religion and elect him president to one that wouldn’t tolerate them? Religion, which has long been an “indispensable part of American public life,” is “perhaps more central to American politics than ever before,” Schulman and his coeditors write in Faithful Republic: Religion and Politics in Modern America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).
The book considers the relationship between religion and politics from the early 20th century to the present—from church and state responses to the New Deal to the rise of the Religious Right in the 1970s. It also points out that while America is becoming increasingly secular—”Recent polling shows that the fastest-growing religious groups are nonbelievers and those who identify as ‘spiritual but not religious,’” the editors write—religion is taking anything but a backseat in presidential elections.
“In 2012, unease about Mitt Romney’s Mormonism persisted among liberals and conservatives alike,” the editors write, and “in 2008, controversial liberation theology sermons by Reverend Jeremiah Wright threatened to undermine Barack Obama’s candidacy (while a small minority of Americans doubted whether Obama was even a Christian).”
When tensions boiled
When Jefferson was running for president, elections were very different from what they are today. Voting was heavily restricted (largely to wealthy white men) and political parties were not as established as they are now. “You don’t have candidates going around the country making speeches,” says Schulman, “so personal statements of faith are really not a part of political campaigns.”
One issue that nudged candidates’ personal faith further into the electoral limelight was immigration. As waves of Catholics began arriving from Europe in the early 1800s, religious tensions boiled. Protestants believed Catholics’ loyalty to the pope above other authorities made them unfit citizens. That suspicion lessened over time and with restrictions on mass immigration, says Schulman, but it was still potent enough to force John F. Kennedy to openly address his Catholicism in a speech in 1960 to reassure a nervous public.
Accused of being unpatriotic and a Catholic Communist, Kennedy downplayed his faith, assuring his audience of Protestant ministers that he believed “in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”
But candidates didn’t really begin talking about their personal faith to win office until after the 1970s, says Schulman. Opposition to the secularism of the ’60s, to abortion, and to measures that established a clearer separation between church and state, such as the banning of school-sponsored prayer, galvanized the Religious Right. Evangelicals would boost the campaigns of Republicans like Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush.
Now, “the role of evangelical Protestants is so strong,” says Schulman, that it shapes “the entire presidential selection process.”
Today, most Americans want a president of faith. In a 2014 Pew Research Center survey, 53 percent of Americans said they would be less likely to support a presidential candidate who does not believe in God. As recent elections have shown, they also expect presidential candidates to talk about their personal faith.
“The rise of the Religious Right has changed the landscape so that” in most of the United States overt religious expression is an expected part of our politics, says Schulman, “and overt irreligion or non-religion is something that’s become more or less unacceptable.”
As they’ve watched religion help Republicans win the White House, Democrats have tried—with varying levels of success—to convince Americans they have the spiritual chops worthy of the Oval Office.
“It was a pretty widespread perception that one reason John Kerry lost in 2004 was because he just couldn’t convey any sort of faith to the American people,” says Stephen Prothero, professor of religion. “He sort of seemed like a secularist, and people didn’t like that. [It wasn’t so much] that he was Catholic—it just seemed like he didn’t have any piety. Democrats now have learned from that, and they talk about religion a lot.”
He notes that the strategy of “Hillary Clinton and Obama has been to co-opt efforts by Republicans to claim the Christian mantle for themselves and [their efforts] to claim that there’s only one kind of Christianity.”
We can expect candidates to continue to play the faith card in 2016. Clinton will “talk more about [religion] as the election moves on,” he speculates.
Faith and strategy
If the Democratic Party’s challenge is knowing when to talk about faith, the Republican Party’s is knowing when to stop talking about it. A lineup including Mike Huckabee (an ordained Southern Baptist minister) and Ted Cruz and Ben Carson (both sons of ministers) guarantees strong testimonies of faith and plenty of references to God and morality. But candidates like these have to be careful: talking too much about religion and morals could cost them the Oval Office.
Prothero, whose new book Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections) is due out in January 2016 from HarperOne, says he’s joked that the Republican primaries could be the best thing for the Democratic Party.
“Culture war politics is very successful on the right for state and local elections, but it’s not successful at the national level,” he says.
Voicing opposition to issues such as abortion and gay marriage in the primaries might fire up some GOP members, but can make hopefuls “look like fringe candidates” to others—never mind voters beyond the confines of the party, says Prothero. Faithful Republic cites Republican Rick Santorum’s failed 2012 presidential bid as an example: the Catholic gained favor by opposing abortion and gay marriage, but not when he spoke out against contraception; he lost the nomination to Romney.
Prothero expects 2016 won’t be much different, because, he says, “in order to win the Republican nomination you have to appeal to cultural conservatives.”
Is talking religion getting risky?
In the end, the politicization of religion could come back to haunt politicians—and church leaders. In fact, surveys of young people show this to be a contributing factor in the rise of the religiously unaffiliated, says Prothero. These so-called “nones,” expected to grow to roughly a quarter of the population in 2050, don’t want to be associated with a party—or politicians—they may not agree with.
“I think the vitality of American religion has really been hurt by the recent push toward more and more religion in the political space,” he says. “And there are some evangelicals saying, ‘You know, we made a mistake. We need to get out of this political game, because our brand is being hurt.’”
But the entanglement of religion and politics can be used for good, as it was in the abolition and civil rights movements. And while voters in more secular countries are befuddled by the idea of voting for a candidate who waxes on about Jesus, the phenomenon is in some ways a reflection of our nation’s history of religious freedom.
Since the US “didn’t have a state church, religion was actually able to thrive more here,” says Prothero. Religion was freed, he explains, from the official political ties that damaged it in times of upheaval, like the French Revolution.
For good or ill, the ongoing importance of religion in US elections also shows that Americans still have a soft spot for faith—even if they’re less likely to be found in the pews. In 2013, more than half of Americans said religion was “very important” in their lives and that it “can answer all or most of today’s problems.”