Religion and the US Presidential Election

The inspiration for today’s address comes from a nine-year-old front page of The Bulletin, the now defunct news magazine that closed down in 2008, less than three years after the death of its benefactor Kerry Packer. The front page referred to our 2007 federal election. It read GOD’S VOTE. John Howard and Kevin Rudd are desperate for the religious vote. Inside were comments by representatives of a number of religious organisations. Not in any order these were Catholic, Buddhist, Pentecostal, Islam, Lutheran, Hindu, Jewish, Presbyterian, Uniting and Anglican. The religious influence on Australian politics has spawned several books, the most famous being God Under Howard by Marion Maddox, who teaches at Macquarie University. We’ve even had religious or quasi-religious political parties. I won’t list these as our talk today is basically about the United States, which has a different political system but, like in Australia, religion is an important factor in the minds of many voters. One point of interest is the fact that the The Bulletin article, written by Roy Eccleston, invited comments from representatives of four non-Christian religions. In the United States this would be very unusual.

An article in Salon, the US liberal on-line news site on March 21st this year by Edwin Lyngar has as its title “America is overdosing on religion: How the presidential election got taken over by theocrats and zealots. From the Islamophobia of Donald Trump to everything about Ted Cruz, this is getting bad. And the Dems (that is, the Democrats) are not immune.”

The US Constitution, in the first Amendment, also called the Bill of Rights, ratified by the necessary number of States in December 1791, prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, and other matters such as abridging the freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the right to peaceably assemble. Section 116 of the Australian Constitution is based on religious provisions in the US Constitution, but it is narrowly drafted and unlike its American counterpart it does not apply to the States.

Lyngar is of the opinion that no matter what the US Constitution says there is a de facto requirement of religious belief for public office, and that this year it has taken the form of “breathtaking religious pandering and bigotry.”

Who are the religious groups that might be important in this year’s election? The US Census, unlike our own, does not ask a question about religion, so we need to look at surveys to get some idea about the religious make-up of the US population. The Pew Research Center in 2014 found that 71 per cent of the US population are Christian of some variety. This will be discussed in greater detail later but included as Christian are Mormons at just under 2 per cent. Unitarian Universalists, normally included in the Christian category in surveys, are not listed. There are 6 per cent non-Christian faiths, including Jewish at just under 2 per cent and Islam at just under 1 per cent. Unaffiliated are 23 per cent, which includes atheist and agnostic at 7 per cent and 16 per cent “nothing in particular.”

Small percentages in the US as a whole do not translate into electoral insignificance. Mormons, for example, while a small percentage of voters in the US as a whole are politically significant in Utah, where Mormons make up over 70 per cent of the population. Similarly, for the percentage of Jews as a whole. In New York State the Jewish vote is important in some elections. It is among the Christian category where groups that are presently of high significance electorally will generally be found.

Pew finds Evangelical Protestant at 25 per cent and Catholic at 20 per cent. We need to look at both of these as they can be very important in US elections. Some US studies include a sub-category of “born again” with Evangelicals, and sometimes as a separate category. Born agains are people who are converts from being either nominal Christians or what Pew calls “nothing in particular” who accept the teachings of Christ and the literal interpretation of the Bible. The National Association of Evangelicals in the US includes born agains as evangelicals, but its core convictions are belief in the one triune God, the Bible, faith, Jesus, salvation, evangelism and discipleship. Unitarians would not qualify, and nor, incidentally, would Mormons. Non-belief in the triune God, that is the Trinity, is a disqualification from being an evangelical.

According to Pew almost all US presidents have been Christian, and nearly half have been Episcopalian or Presbyterian. Four, Taft, Fillmore and both presidents named Adams were Unitarians. Jefferson is sometimes referred to as a Unitarian but he never joined any Church. Barack Obama was raised in a non-religious household. He once attended a Unitarian Sunday School in Hawaii. As an adult he worshipped in a Christian Church in Chicago. He presently calls himself a Christian but is not a regular churchgoer. There has only been one Catholic president, John Kennedy, despite that Church being the largest in the United States in terms of numbers.

In this year’s presidential contest Donald Trump is currently the front-runner for the Republican Party nomination. While he lost the Wisconsin primary to Ted Cruz last week he still leads in delegate numbers for the Republican Convention to be held at Cleveland, Ohio, commencing on July 18th. Trump’s views about religion are described in his book Crippled America. How to Make America Great Again. Trump is a Christian. The first Church he belonged to was the First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, Queens, a borough of New York City. Trump claims that God is in his life every day. He is not full on, a popular expression to describe many Evangelicals.

Trump is a populist. His Australian equivalents might be Jacquie Lambie or Pauline Hanson, both of whom may grace the red Senate Chamber if Prime Minister Turnbull decides to hold a double dissolution election on July 2nd. Trump is not the popular choice of Protestant pastors according to the web site Christianity Today. He is not overwhelmingly popular among regular churchgoers. According to polling by Reuters Church attendance directly decreases support for Trump, who has the least-religious supporters among GOP candidates.

Trump’s present major opponent is the Texan Ted Cruz, a Southern Baptist. Cruz launched his presidential bid at evangelical Liberty University in Iowa. He is well organised. He claims that he “surrendered his heart to Jesus” as an eight-year-old at a summer camp at a Christian ranch. Cruz was born in Canada to an American father. His right to be President has not been tested in the courts. The US Constitution provides that a President must be a native born US Citizen. US law determines that a person born outside the United States to an American parent is treated as being native born. The Supreme Court may have to decide this. It is not proper for me to express an opinion, but Donald Trump has, questioning whether or not Cruz is legally qualified.

Cruz is a hard-liner on most issues. His views on a number of subjects would sound extreme in Australia. He would be closer to South Australian Senator Bob Day than possibly anyone else in this country. Cruz opposes Obamacare, a health initiative of the present administration. He supports strong controls on immigration. He supports limits on abortion. He is a darling of the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party, although his former strong supporter and Tea Party acolyte Sarah Palin now supports Trump. Evangelical voters are likely to support Cruz in a general election, possibly more than Trump.

On the Democratic Party side, the party generally more to the left than the Republicans the contest seems to be a race between Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a non-practising Jew, and Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State and wife of former President Bill Clinton. Sanders claims not to be greatly religious. It is doubtful that he has many votes from Evangelicals. Hillary Clinton, a Methodist even if a nominal one, has been seeking votes from religious Democrats by attending Church services. Clinton has been successful in all of the southern states with heavily black voters in Democratic primaries. She has an appeal to African-American religious voters that is overwhelming. It is likely that Clinton will win the Democratic nomination, but Sanders will give her a fight for her money.

The preferred candidate by faith according to a survey by the Barna Group found that Evangelicals preferred Cruz., but had no preference for either Democratic candidate. Practicing Christians also preferred Cruz if they were Republicans, and if Democrats they preferred Clinton.

Non-evangelical born-agains, notional Christians, all born-again Christians, all non-born-again Christians, Protestants and Catholics who were Republicans favoured Trump and Democrats favoured Clinton.

There was no preference recorded for Republicans from non-Christian faiths or Sceptics. Non-Christian Faith Democrats favoured Clinton and Sceptics favoured Sanders.

Franklin Graham, the son of evangelist Billy Graham and a supporter in 2012 of Mitt Romney, this time has yet to express a preference among the candidates, but we can be sure he will support whichever Republican is nominated. Graham said on television that only God can save America, and that non-Christians are unfit to hold public office.

An issue that will certainly be raised is that of the filling of a vacancy on the Supreme Court following the death of conservative Justice Scalia. Cruz has argued that the vacancy should not be filled until after the election of a new President. The Republican Senate, which must ratify a nomination by the President, may agree, but there have been precedents where an appointment by a President towards the end of his term have been ratified by a Senate with a majority from the opposition party. Republican Herbert Hoover in 1932 nominated Benjamin Cardozo, a Jew and a distinguished jurist, to the Supreme Court. Cardozo’s appointment was ratified unanimously by the Senate, then controlled by the Democrats.

The Living Church of God in Tomorrow’s World, January-February 2016, has criticised the Supreme Court as bowing to the dictates of Satan. It condemns certain court decisions from 1958 onwards. Among these the Court has ruled that pro-homosexual material is not inherently obscene, that same-sex couples have the same rights to marriage as heterosexual couples, and that a definition of obscenity excludes sexually explicit materials deemed to be of serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value. Ted Cruz argues that Courts should be elected, and may have been influenced by these decisions.

I will close with a comment by Lyngar in Salon. He states

"The presidential race is overflowing with offensive religious nonsense. Donald Trump is making fumbling overtures to the religious right, and condemning a billion Muslims solely because of their religion. Ted Cruz is playing to the most regressive form of Christianity, all but declaring non-Christians anti-American. Hillary Clinton won’t stop waxing poetic about prayer, and, although an understandable strategy, Bernie Sanders has tied himself into knots to infuse humanism with as much religion as possible. And yet, even the faithful should be offended at the central role religion has taken in this presidential election."

Address to Melbourne Unitarian Peace Memorial Church by Lyle Allan, 10 April 2016.