The 2016 Presidential race for the White House is occurring during a time of increased polarization between the two dominant American political parties. Republican and Democrat political candidates, as well as registered voters, are sharply divided on issues such as tax reform, public services and programs, income inequality, military spending, women’s reproductive rights, and the civil rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. While the common perception is that Republican candidates and voters tend to be more religious than their Democrat counterparts, the majority of polled Americans indicate that an Atheist candidate is a problem. Although on the decline since 2007, fifty-one percent of American voters are still less likely to support an Atheist candidate (Pew Research Center, 2016). What is most interesting is the while voters who identify as Republican state they prefer a candidate that shares their religious values, these same voters are less likely to associate Republican front-runner Donald Trump with religion (Maschi, 2016). This finding seems to indicate that a candidate’s religious affiliation (or lack thereof) is becoming less important in whether voters are willing to lend their support.
Voters are also less likely to associate the Democrat candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, with religion. In fact, Clinton’s association with religion in the mind of voters has declined since 2007. Approximately forty-three percent of voters do not believe Clinton is religious (Maschi, 2016). Although this is not problematic in Clinton’s likelihood of securing the nomination, it could signal why some voters who identify as Republicans do not believe that she would be a successful president (Pew Research Center, 2016). Registered Democrat voters are less likely to associate religious beliefs with a candidate’s ability to be a successful president. At the same time, those Democrat voters who are themselves not religious tend to shy away from endorsing the Republican, religious candidates as having the potential to be a good presidential choice (Pew Research, 2016). Regardless of which political party or religious group voters tend to affiliate with, there is evidence that religion itself does not tend to influence elections. Rather, it is the notion of whether a candidate’s religious beliefs (or lack of religious beliefs) will control policy, that helps shape a candidate’s popularity (Pew Research, 2016).
Literature Review and Analysis
The literature on the role of religion in the 2016 presidential campaign indicates religion is not as important to specific voter segments. Certain voter segments also believe that religion has too much influence over the Republican Party (Pew Research, 2016). The majority of Americans still want a presidential candidate to hold religious beliefs, but it the Republican voter segment that has a greater desire for a candidate’s beliefs to be congruent with their own. If this is true, then what can explain candidate Donald Trump’s lead? Either registered Republican voters that desire a candidate’s religious beliefs to be congruent with their own are not the voting majority in the primaries or Republican based voters are not as religious as the general population believes them to be. Voter perception within both Republican and Democrat segments reveals Donald Trump is less likely to be perceived as religious in comparison to other Republican candidates, such as Ben Carson and Ted Cruz (Maschi, 2016). Of course, this could also indicate that Republican voters are less likely to identify with the religious extremism that some of the other candidates are displaying.
If Republican voters were attempting to change the party’s affiliation with right-wing religious extremism, lending support for the least likely candidate to be associated with religion would make sense. Yet, there are probably other factors influencing Donald Trump’s popularity with voters. Political commentators have drawn similarities between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in that both represent a revolution in American politics, albeit in quite different manners. Sanders is advocating for increased economic equality and an overhaul in how American government supports it citizens. Trump, on the other hand, is riding on a platform of increased national security – to the point of blatant discrimination – and advocacy for the country’s business sector. While these sharply divergent platforms reveal a divide in voter segment’s values and beliefs, one can agree that both Trump and Sanders platforms call for radical change.
Religion and religious beliefs have been used to justify the values inherent in both Trump and Sanders’ platforms. Christianity, for example, is thought to advocate for helping those who are in need. Social programs that pool the resources of the majority to support all citizens, particularly those who are at a financial disadvantage, are in alignment with the value of helping others. Social equality is touted as a value of other religious, including Buddhism and Christianity, as all are “equal in the eyes of God.” Yet, there is a history of discrimination against specific population segments by the Christian church and its followers. For instance, acceptance and tolerance of the LGBT community is still a controversial topic among fundamentalists. In addition, Christianity and those followers that are more conservative in terms of tradition have historically suppressed the rights of women. This is not to say that other religions have not perpetuated this suppression, as evidence and examination of the majority of the world’s major religions would reveal the same occurrence.
The 2016 presidential campaign has revealed that religion remains on the forefront of American voters’ minds. Even though it is becoming less important for presidential candidates to possess specific religious beliefs, American voters seem to equate the presence of religious beliefs with morality and strength of character. Republican voters seem to be moving aware from religious extremism and control, Democrat voters are also moving away from candidates with a reputation for being religious. What this seems to suggest is that the average American voter has a desire to lend support towards a candidate who will act in a just and solid manner, but not infiltrate religious beliefs into government policy.
Maschi, David (2016, January 27). 5 key findings about faith and politics in the 2016 presidential
race. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/01/27/key-findings-faith-and-politics-in-2016-presidential-race/
Pew Research Center (2016, January 27). Faith and the 2016 campaign. Pew Research Center.
Retrieved from http://www.pewforum.org/2016/01/27/faith-and-the-2016-campaign/