Many Americans want a president of their own religious persuasion. The Pew Center reports that 41 percent of Democrats and 64 percent of Republicans say it is “important for a president to share their religious beliefs.” Given this demand for confessional conformity, it’s no wonder that politicians weave religious language into their campaign rhetoric.
Nor is it any wonder that our political parties are sorted by religion. Republicans tend to be openly evangelical. Democrats tend to be more ecumenical.
Bernie Sanders provided a good example of Democrat inclusivism in the debate Sunday in Flint, Michigan. In response to the God question, Sanders said, “when we talk about God whether it is Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam, or Buddhism, what we are talking about is what all religions hold dear.” Hillary Clinton said she prays regularly. She explained, “I pray for the will of God to be known that we can know it and to the best of our limited ability, try to follow it and fulfill it.”
Republican evangelism is more forceful. Ted Cruz once said, “Any president who doesn’t begin every day on his knees isn’t fit to be commander in chief of this country.” Ben Carson went further, suggesting that a Muslim could not be president.
Perhaps the only one who breaks the mold is Donald Trump, who seems to lack the religious literacy of most Republicans and the religious sensitivity of most Democrats. But Trump still talks religion. He has suggested, for example, that Obama feels more comfortable in a mosque than in a Christian church.
All of this religious talk may come as a surprise to those who think that the U.S. is a secular country. In a more secular country, politicians would avoid speaking of religion. French secularism seems to point in that direction.
But in the U.S., religion remains important. Many Americans don’t like atheism, for example. According to the Pew Center, more Americans are willing to support a Muslim than an atheist for president. A sign of American anti-atheism is that there is only one representative in Congress who is not religiously “affiliated.” There are 2 Muslims, 2 Buddhists, 1 Hindu, 1 Unitarian and 28 Jews. The rest are Christians of various sorts.
Maybe someday a candidate will refuse to answer the God question on constitutional grounds. Such an unlikely candidate would point out that her religious beliefs are no one’s business but her own. She might add that privacy and freedom are essential for genuine religiosity. She might suggest that political sound bites produce clichés that float on the surface of genuine soulful religious reflection.
Our imagined secular candidate might point out that in a diverse religious society, politicians serve all of the people – not merely some of the people. And she might remind us that partisan religious squabbling further polarizes us.
We continue to play politics according to a script that ignores the fact of our ever-increasing religious diversity. In addition to about 6 percent of Americans who are not Christian, more than 22 percent of the population is not affiliated with any religion.
But it is still difficult to imagine a president who does not routinely say some version of “God bless America” at the end of every speech. Presidents didn’t always use that phrase, of course. Ronald Reagan added it to the standard script for political speeches during the culture wars of the 1980s.
Religious clichés and ritual religious affirmations do not necessarily have any deep religious significance. Politicized discussions of religion often seem to be more about polling than piety. And so despite all of this religious rhetoric, we are quick to question the authenticity of the religious affirmation of candidates we don’t like.
But how would any of us know what transpires in the soul of a stranger? It is hard enough to figure out your own spiritual commitments. Half of Americans change their religious affiliation at least once.
That’s why the Constitution is important. Other people’s religious beliefs are none of our business. Religious liberty includes the freedom to change religions. There is no religious litmus test for office. And in a pluralistic democracy a candidate’s religious rhetoric is less important than the commitment to protecting every person’s right to religious liberty.