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Considering a Political Candidate’s Religious Beliefs: Why It Does and Doesn’t Matter

Last in a 3-Part Series on Politics and Religion

A pdf copy to print or read is HERE.


This series began with the premise it was fair game to consider the mix of politics and religion as the two most powerful motivating forces in our corporate lives. The first commentary speculated what kind of political platform Jesus might have pitched, had he run for president. The second commentary followed on the heels of Pope Francis addressing a joint session of Congress two months ago; comparing and contrasting what Jesus might have said, given the chance.

Both inquiries were based on a suggested premise that beyond anyone’s particular political biases and religious belief’s lies a worldview that is theological, in nature; using the term ‘theological’ in a broader context than merely religious. To the extent any political candidates claim to be informed, shaped or guided by some unknown greater reality or ultimate value – and they nearly all do – that professed viewpoint certainly seems worth considering.


In a stump speech, the once-frontrunner, Donald Trump reacted to poll numbers in an Iowa newspaper that indicated Ben Carson had taken the lead in the primary race in that state for the Republican presidential nomination.

“I love Iowa,” Trump said. “And, look, I don’t have to say it, I’m Presbyterian. Can you believe it? Nobody believes I’m Presbyterian. I’m Presbyterian. I’m Presbyterian! I’M PRESBYTERIAN! Boy, that’s down the middle of the road folks, in all fairness. I mean, Seventh-day Adventist, I don’t know about. I just don’t know about.”

Carson is an avowed, lifelong Seventh Day Adventist. Like many Christian traditions nowadays, the denomination includes those who adhere to literal interpretations of church teaching, and those who want to reform or modernize. Traditional beliefs of Adventists depict Catholics and Evangelicals who worship on Sundays to be spiritual foes in league with the Antichrist; who will persecute true believers in the End Times that are near at hand. In a 2013 interview, Carson declined to distinguish himself from such a belief; adding that he also fully accepts the church’s stance that God created the world literally in six days.

In addition — and like a number of candidates before him — Carson has described his decision to run for president as a prayerful response to a divine calling. “Lord, if you want me to do this,” he has related, “you have to open the doors. And if you open the doors, I will gladly walk through them.”

The Problem

This is the perpetual problem: On the one hand, Americans prize religious freedom, allowing our citizenry to believe whatever one wishes; as crazy or nutty as it may sound to the rest of us. We say it shouldn’t matter, as long as your religious beliefs don’t infringe upon my constitutional rights. And, if you’re a political candidate, I can choose to decide for myself whether your religious beliefs either sufficiently align with my own; or that they don’t matter to me and my position in the public policy debates. In which case, their religious persuasion is inconsequential.

On the other hand, if another person’s religious beliefs – or non-religious beliefs (which, of course, is another belief system) — don’t matter, and those beliefs don’t truly influence the thinking of the candidate asking to lead us, with the way they view the world and our corporate life together in that world, then what does that say about the importance – or lack of importance – of whatever they might deem to be of ultimate value, concern or reality?

When the Kentucky county clerk who disobeyed federal law by refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples said she did so out of her deeply-held religious convictions that she said took precedent over “man-made laws,” presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee stood shoulder to shoulder with her; calling it a courageous act in defense of religious freedom. But what one person might call religious freedom, others could regard as downright discrimination, borne of religious bigotry. Differentiating those two disparate ideas may be akin to locating that line in the shifting sands that demarcates freedom of speech from illegal hate speech.

A report by Pew Research last year showed that, as in the past, 53% of Americans would apparently still be less likely to vote for a presidential candidate who said they didn’t believe in God. At the same time, a newly released study by the same research firm found a continued decline in traditional religious beliefs and practices. On a steady rise is that segment of Americans that are religiously unaffiliated. They are the “nones” (none of the above), who self-describe their religiosity as “nothing in particular;” and who now represent 23% of the adult population.

Along with that “nothing in particular” level of discernment, one could include what is meant by that term “God” to begin with. Left undefined, and only assumed, it consequently reflects the un-reflective way in which the researchers, this season’s political candidates, the electorate, and the media all generally approach the whole question of personal faith when it comes to our collective political life. We typically steer clear of any serious inquiry; and instead itemize a laundry list of contemporary social-values questions, label them as “religious values,” and simply check off the candidate’s answer as to whether they believe in this, or that.

The List and the Candidates

Here’s a list of some current candidates, and a sampling of what they’ve said about their religious backgrounds and beliefs, in their own words. The sampling is intended to be as non-partisan as possible, and doesn’t presume to be the only thing a candidate may have said, or even meant. It is only intended to provide a context with which to consider how a political position might square with that person’s religious belief system; as well as how such reflective thinking goes into how they might construct their entire worldview.

In my defense, much of the following material was found in an article in the July issue of Christianity Today, which is generally recognized as a relatively “mainline” periodical.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz is a Tea Party favorite and a committed Southern Baptist, who has been outspoken about religious freedom, both at home and abroad. He is the son of a Cuban-born pastor, and likens Barack Obama to Fidel Castro; describing him as a Marxist who “seeks to destroy all concept of God.” Says Cruz, “At the end of the day, faith is not organized religion; it’s not going to a church. It is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.” Cruz launched his political campaign, exclaiming, “God’s not done with America yet.” He opposes abortion rights and same-sex marriage.

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul was baptized Episcopalian, but now attends a Presbyterian church, where his wife Kelley is a deacon. “My faith has never been easy for me … never been easy to talk about and never been without obstacles.” Quoting Dostoyevsky, he has said: “I did not arrive at my hosanna through childlike faith, but through a fiery furnace of doubt.” He continued: “I do not and cannot wear my religion on my sleeve. I am a Christian, but not always a good one. I am not completely free of doubts. I struggle to understand man’s inhumanity to man.” He opposes abortion rights and supports rights for civil unions between same-sex couples.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio was baptized Catholic, attended a Mormon church as a child where he was baptized again, but then returned to the Catholic Church. In his memoir on the importance of keeping both faith and personal ambition in check he wrote, “We all crave to make our mark in this life, and sometimes forget that our place in the next one matters more. I have been ambitious for worldly success. I hope I have been for the right reasons.” He upholds the teaching of the Catholic Church on same-sex marriage and abortion.

Ben Carson, who is a life-long Seventh Day Adventist, is critical of political correctness and defends the right to religious freedom. In his 2012 book Americathe Beautiful, he wrote: “Today the forces of political correctness would expel God from every public sphere in American life, and the hearts and minds of every man, woman, and child in America are up for grabs in this cataclysmic battle between the lovers of men and the lovers of God. … The most important thing for me is having a relationship with God. To know that the owner, the creator of the universe loves you, sent His Son to die for your sins, that’s very empowering.”

Portrait of Ben with Jesus in Ben Carson's Maryland home.

Portrait of Ben with Jesus in Ben Carson’s Maryland home.

Carson opposes abortion rights and same-sex marriage, expressed disfavor over the idea of a Muslim in the White House, and has proposed a simplified tax plan, likened to a biblical tithe. To my knowledge, however, while he presumably embraces the whole of scripture, he has not expressed an opinion on the biblical injunction to forgive debts every seven years (Deut. 15), abolish private ownership of land (Lev. 25:23-24 ), and require a living minimum wage (Lev.19).

Carly Fiorina was brought up in the Episcopal Church, and identifies herself as a Christian. “I believe that everyone of us is equal in the eyes of God, and therefore, I know that everyone is capable of living a life of dignity, purpose, and meaning.” She opposes abortion except for the usual exceptions, and supports rights for civil unions between same-sex couples.

Former Gov. Mike Huckabee was raised Southern Baptist, giving his first sermon as a teenager, and serving as a pastor for 12 years. Speaking frequently about what he considers an attack on religious freedom, he has said, “It won’t stop, until there are no more churches, until there are no more people who are spreading the gospel, and I’m talking now about the unabridged, unapologetic gospel that is really God’s truth.” He opposes abortion rights and same-sex marriage.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush was raised in the Episcopal Church, but converted to his wife’s Catholic faith. “There’s no more powerful or liberating influence on this earth than the Christian conscience in action. And today in America it is important to respect and protect Christians acting on their faith.” In keeping with Catholic beliefs, Bush is pro-life and supports “traditional marriage;” but differs from his Church’s opposition to capital punishment. During his eight years as governor, his state executed more people than under any of the three previous governors.

Donald Trump launched his presidential bid promising to be “the greatest jobs president that God ever created.” Trump says he’s a Presbyterian “and proud of it.” “I believe in God. I am Christian,” he says. “I think the Bible is certainly, it is THE book. It is the thing.” He says he’s been given lots of Bibles. “There’s no way I would ever throw anything, to do anything negative to a Bible… I would have a fear of doing something other than very positive so actually I store them and keep them and sometimes give them away to other people.” “Believe me… if I win I will be the greatest representative of the Christians that they have had in a long time.” Trump opposes abortion rights. While he still believes in “traditional marriage,” he is “evolving” on the idea of same-sex marriage.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was raised Methodist, says she prays regularly, studies the Bible, and once taught Sunday School. Likening her faith to background music, she has said, “It’s not something you have to think about, you believe it. You have a faith center out of which the rest flows.” She also says she recognized that she “had to believe with both my head and my heart if it [faith] was going to sustain me over time.” Asked whether she believes in the resurrection or heaven, she defers to a higher authority saying, “who are we to read God’s mind about such a weighty decision as that.” She is pro-choice and supports same-sex marriage.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders – Jewish by birth, Sanders is the only major candidate who says he is not involved in any organized religion. As a young man he spent some time on a kibbutz in Israel. His father’s family emigrated from Poland, where many relatives were killed in the Holocaust. A self-described democratic socialist with a concern for growing income inequality, Subsequent to the papal address to Congress last September, Sanders has expressed deep admiration for Pope Francis. “I find myself very close to [his] teachings,” he says. Sanders is pro-choice and supports same-sex marriage.

The list goes on, of course, but a few observations can clearly be made from this sampling. All of these political candidates come out of a religious tradition of some kind. And nearly all express some continued religious affiliation of some sort; with some kind of formative belief system they either rely on, or to which they refer. And when it comes to the so-called culture wars, nearly all frame certain “social” values in religious terms.

But if one were to consider what differentiates the candidates with regard to any of their political positions — and how those decisions might be shaped or informed by their faith — there is an implied notion that such scrutiny about their private religious belief system is somehow intrusive and out of bounds. It’s fair game take off the gloves in the political arena, it seems. But questioning a mature adult’s religious views that might seem rather unenlightened, medieval or downright whacky in this post-modern world is somehow off limits. Why?

There is an implied notion that scrutiny about (a candidate’s) private religious belief system is somehow intrusive. It’s fair game take off the gloves in the political arena. But questioning a mature adult’s religious views that might seem rather unenlightened, medieval or downright whacky in this post-modern world is somehow off limits. Why?


Exceptionalism, Exclusivism and Religious Fundamentalism

In addition from whatever position a political candidate may take that may align with my particular point of view, there are three watchwords I have come to apply when considering what appears to be the underlying frame of reference for a politician; particularly when it is couched in a religious context by that candidate.

“American Exceptionalism” is a term that is often bandied about in one form or another as a rallying cry to restore our country to greatness again; with a hoped-for future that can be achieved with my support of that candidacy. But often overlooked or never mentioned among America’s exceptional qualities is the fact we incarcerate more of our citizens, execute more convicted felons and have more children living in poverty per capita than any other first-world nation. When it comes to what constitutes greatness, I consider the degree to which I see and hear in the words and manner of life of any candidate a central hallmark of the spiritual life; that is, great humility and a contriteness of heart for our failures and shortcomings when it comes to care for the “least of these.”

When I hear a candidate speak in exclusive terms about their own religious tradition, and the belief of singularity to there being only one way understanding “god” things – all the while championing religious freedom — I am wary of the kind of limited, sectarian tunnel vision manifested by such a view of our world.

When I hear a political candidate speak in black and white terms of a shining good battling an “axis” of evil, equating it to the world-wide war we violently wage against radical religious extremism, I can’t help but notice the expressions of extreme religious fundamentalism in our own society; even among some of those who would rise up to lead us. Whereas I once thought such fundamentalists were a harmless fringe, significant only in numbers, I’ve since come to regard them as downright dangerous. And I don’t consider it a form of religious persecution to simly name it for what it is.

The Third Way

I often consider if I were to refer to myself as a person of the Way – as the earliest followers of that Galilean sage and spirit person were initially called – then it would be that of the Third Way. It is not an either/or path. Nor is it a half-baked compromise between two distinctly different and irreconcilable worldviews that only results in obstructionism and gridlock. It is a vantage point that seems far more nuanced — and more complex, and therefore unelectable — than any politician might attempt to construct as any political platform on which to run. It is claimed as neither the high road, nor the low road of last resort. It is typically the road not taken. That way is only discernible by charity, compassion, mercy, forbearance, love for one’s enemies, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

It is notable by their seeming absence that those virtues usually deemed to be most characteristic of the spiritual life are often found to be totally missing from the political arena. Ironically, the same could often equally be said for the sphere of religious rivalries, as well. In this sense one might conclude it doesn’t matter.

But from my own religious tradition, I can’t help but notice that while such virtues are absent from the vast majority of the candidate’s stump speeches in this election cycle, it was standard fare in every speech delivered and parable ever told by Jesus.

© 2015 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved.

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