WASHINGTON, D.C. — Even though people often advise against talking about religion and politics in public, a recent panel discussion at Georgetown University went there by examining current presidential candidates’ beliefs and how faith plays a role in elections.
“Politics for some is the new religion,” said John Carr, director of Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, which sponsored the May 22 discussion 530 days prior to the presidential election.
The panelists — two journalists, the former press secretary to President Bill Clinton and the former chairperson of the Republican National Committee — spoke about how presidential candidates this year have been vocal in talking about their faith and how voters’ faith plays a part in influencing candidates they support.
By the nature of his beat, Jack Jenkins, a religion and politics reporter for Religion News Service, has always zeroed in on the faith of political candidates but he said this election season he is hardly the only one looking for this combination because so many of the presidential candidates have been up front about their religious beliefs.
He said there are “23 theologies to parse on any given day,” referring to the 23 Democratic candidates for president. But he also noted: “Politics is relative; this could change.”
He and other panelists on the Georgetown University stage noted the increased activism from those in the religious left, which they attributed as a reaction to President Donald Trump and the evangelical Christian base supporting him.
Essentially, it’s a new religious ballgame in this upcoming election, speakers noted.
Or as Christine Emba, an editorial columnist for The Washington Post, put it: “Faith doesn’t have to be a handicap for Democrats and it will no longer be a net that Republicans can use to get voters.”
She emphasized that the religious right is no longer the main faith of American politics. She also said when Democratic candidates discuss their faith on issues such as abortion, they open up discussion to examine: “What does pro-life actually mean?”
Although several Democratic candidates have been outspoken about their faith, the name that came up repeatedly during the discussion was Pete Buttigieg, the Episcopal mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who has spoken publicly of his own beliefs and criticized what he has described as the religiosity of Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
He also has called evangelicals’ support for the president hypocritical.
Michael Steele, a political analyst for MSNBC and former RNC chairperson, similarly didn’t mince words about Trump, whom he said faces “no consequences for his actions,” and some of his religious supporters, whom he described as having done so much damage to faith “by their hypocrisy, faithlessness and politics.”
Trump has used faith as a weapon to stir passions, said Mike McCurry, Clinton’s former press secretary, who is currently a professor at Wesley Theological Seminary.
McCurry, who is Methodist, said it has been refreshing to hear candidates talk about their faith because he noted that there has long been “a God gap” in national politics, especially with Democrats who tend to shy away from “talking about their faith and commitment and how it would guide what they do.”
“I do find that troubling, but I am hopeful,” this is changing, he added.
He said he worked for John Kerry — former Massachusetts senator who was a 2004 presidential candidate — and the candidate “lamented he did not talk about his faith enough.”
McCurry, who has switched gears from political to religious spheres, said faith can be misused in politics but he said it should be embraced because it provides direction for how to “operate in the public square.”
He said President John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, hardly spoke about his faith at all. He also said President Jimmy Carter was the last president to speak openly about his faith, but Jenkins disagreed, mentioning how President Barack Obama discussed grace and even sang “Amazing Grace” at the 2014 funeral for the South Carolina state senator and pastor killed in a church shooting.
Jenkins mentioned other candidates who stand out for what they’ve said about faith including:
— Julian Castro: Former mayor of San Antonio who is Catholic and announced his candidacy in January in San Antonio’s Plaza Guadalupe, an outdoor venue across from Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church and adjacent to the Guadalupe Theater.
— Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, a Methodist, who explained in a CNN Town Hall in March how her Christian faith shapes her politics, particularly compelling her to serve those in need.
— Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, who has spoken frequently about his Christian faith and his embrace of other religious traditions.
Other Democratic presidential candidates who were either raised Catholic or continue to practice the faith are: Joseph Biden, former vice president; Steve Bullock, governor of Montana; Bill de Blasio, mayor of New York City; John Delaney, former U.S. representative from Maryland; Kirsten Gillibrand, U.S. senator from New York; Beto O’Rourke, former U.S. representative from Texas; and Tim Ryan, U.S. representative from Ohio.
Abortion is an unsettled issue in the discussion of faith and politics. Emba said most voters aren’t the extreme of New York, which recently passed legislation to expand abortion in the state, or Alabama, which passed legislation banning most abortions in the state.
As far as the Catholic vote goes, Pew Research analysis of exit polls shows that Obama won the overall Catholic vote in 2008 and in 2012, and in 2016 Trump won 52 percent of Catholic vote overall, with white Catholics supporting him over Hillary Clinton by a 23-point margin.
“One of the things that’s divided people,” Emba said, “is that when candidates say they are religious, in many minds that automatically aligns them with the right, with this dogmatism. Hopefully in the 2020 election we’ll see a lot more flexibility on this. Voters won’t necessarily assume that candidates who hold a faith will use that faith to tie them down or to force them to ally with perspectives that they don’t believe in.”
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