“We need a president who understands the role of faith,” Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton told a crowd of religious leaders gathered September 8 for the annual National Baptist Convention meeting, “a president who will pray with you and for you.”
The next day, in Washington, Donald Trump, her Republican rival, promised the Values Voter Summit gathering that in his administration, “our Christian heritage will be cherished, protected, defended, like you’ve never seen before.”
Yet until then, neither candidate was talking much about religion or faith. Their silence is strange, because the United States is known as a relatively religious country — indeed the most religious one in its category of wealthy nations, like Canada, France or Australia, according to the Pew Research Center. This dearth of church-talk is just another sign of how different this election is from all others.
“There has been less conversation about faith in this election than I’ve noticed in the past,” said Rabbi Jack Moline, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance, a group focused on advancing religious freedom. “We have two candidates [and] neither of them come in with a strong identity of faith.”
In the short-term, American Jews might find the change refreshing, since as a religious minority any suggestion that there is something inherently Christian about the United States makes them nervous. Should Trump win, however, he might make changes that amplify religion’s role in the public sphere.
In 2012, Mitt Romney’s Mormonism raised interest in the candidates’ religious beliefs; four years earlier, in the 2008 elections, Barack Obama’s pastor Jeremiah Wright generated interest in the candidates’s religion. George W. Bush, born again as a Christian under the auspices of the Rev. Billy Graham, carefully nurtured his natural connection to the religious right, and during Bill Clinton’s presidency evangelicals raised religious objections to his adultery.
But in this election cycle, any national conversation about faith has been much more limited, and initiated by the candidates. It’s come up mainly when they’ve tried to reach out to specific parts of their respective bases. Clinton opened up about her faith to African-American voters, while Trump has used his comments on the issue to target white evangelicals, a faith group that makes up much of the Republican base.
Speaking out about personal religious beliefs and aligning themselves with a faith community is still a political requirement for the candidates. But Pew’s director of religion reeearch, Alan Cooperman, pointed to research conducted by the group, which indicated that this point is less important than in the past. Since 2008, the share of Americans who think it is important for the president to have strong religious beliefs has been in decline and now stands at 62%. The dip, Cooperman said, could be explained by the rise of the “nones” who are not religiously affiliated and care less about their leaders’ faith.
But when they did venture into the discussion, Clinton and Trump opened a rare window into their world of religious beliefs.
“Sometimes people ask me, ‘Are you a praying person?’” Clinton, a practicing Methodist, told the National Baptist Convention in Kansas City, Missouri. ”If I wasn’t before, one week in the White House or on a campaign trail would have turned me into a praying person.”
She recalled occasions when she taught Sunday School and would would talk to students about how Scripture demands people to love each other. “Indeed, Jesus made it his greatest command,” she said. “That’s a hard commandment to obey; sometimes it’s really hard for me. But in so many ways, all of you have answered that call. I’ve been privileged to see your love in action with my own eyes.”
Trying to define her religious views, the Democratic candidate said she embraces “a social activist faith, a ‘Roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty’ faith.’”
Black Protestants are Her natural constituency in the faith community. According to a July report by Pew, this is her strongest support group, with 89% of black Protestants stating they intend to vote for Clinton. Voters who say they hold no religious affiliation also tend to support Clinton. In this group, sometimes referred to as the “nones,” she enjoys a 76% support rate, compared with only 23% for Trump.
The road to the hearts of conservative Christian voters, Trump’s biggest religious constituency, has been bumpy. In the early stages of the Republican primaries, his New York liberal positions on gay and lesbian rights and his personal marital history put him at odds with Christian conservatives. A year ago, a Values Voters Summit straw poll put him in only fifth place, while most conservatives preferred Ted Cruz.
But the candidate, who is a Presbyterian, reached out to the group successfully with a mix of flattery and pragmatism.
“There are no more decent, devoted and selfless people than our Christian brothers and sisters,” he told the Values Voter Summit this year. He also issues dire warnings about the consequences of a Clinton administration Supreme Court nominee who would tilt the balance on the issue of abortions.
Indeed, once Trump clinched the GOP nomination, he easily won over evangelical and conservative Christian voters. “I got the evangelicals,” Trump said at this year’s gathering. Seventy-eight percent of white evangelical Protestants told Pew in July that they will vote for him; only 17% support Clinton.
In an attempt to offer faith voters a practical measure they can identify with, Trump floated the idea of repealing the 1954 Johnson Amendment, which prohibits tax-exempt religious institutions from endorsing political candidates. “I figure it’s the only way I’m getting to heaven,” Trump quipped.
Jewish groups have long opposed any ease on restricting political speech from the pulpit, fearing it would erode the separation of church and state.
“Jews,” Moline said in reference to Trump’s pledge to defend America’s Christian heritage, “find themselves uncomfortable when someone makes noise that there is something dominant about Christianity in this country.”
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman