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September 18, 2015

Faith on the Stump: A Look at the 2016 Presidential Field

By John Carr

I've been searching for my earlier column which predicted that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders would surge, Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush would be in trouble and Ben Carson would show surprising strength in the 2016 Presidential race. I’m not the only one who failed to see this coming. The expert predictions of a “back to the future” Clinton-Bush general election race look far less likely than last spring.

Another surprising element of presidential politics has been the odd ways that the religious faith of candidates is playing out in the early stages of the 2016 campaign.

Donald Trump says he is Presbyterian, part of a New York congregation which released a statement that he is not an active member. He grudgingly admitted the Bible is a better book than his The Art of the Deal, but could not identify any scriptural verses which guide his life. Trump said he could not remember asking God for forgiveness, but added that in church “when I drink my little wine ... and have my little cracker, I guess that's a form of asking for forgiveness." This three time married, former supporter of Planned Parenthood and single payer healthcare who attacks immigrants and women who dare to challenge him is the Republican frontrunner.

Five Republican candidates are Catholic. Jeb Bush is in trouble, but deserves credit for resisting Trump’s nativist polemics and policies. His most visible comments on faith came when he responded to Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical by saying “I don’t get my economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope,” adding religion “ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm.” He had different message at Liberty University where he appropriately called Christians to oppose abortion and support religious liberty, two much debated matters in the “political realm.” Marco Rubio has not yet found a way to turn his political skills and Cuban identity into electoral support. Rick Santorum is not succeeding in bringing a working class message and his former religious right appeal into a second campaign. Bobby Jindal has taken on Trump from the back of the pack, but the son of immigrants agrees with Trump that the Constitution should be amended to end birthright citizenship. Governor Christie has a style problem, for example volunteering, "I'm a Catholic, but I've used birth control. And not just the rhythm method."

Ben Carson is gaining ground in Iowa and John Kasich in New Hampshire with messages that reflect their faith. Dr. Carson says he got into the race to answer God’s call, campaigns “with humility and fear of the Lord,” but resists calls to welcome Syrian families fleeing war and oppression. Governor Kasich defended expansion of Medicaid for poor people by saying when you meet St. Peter at the pearly gates “he’s probably not gonna ask you much about what you did about keeping government small, but he’s going to ask you what you did for the poor.”

Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz are most outspoken on matters of faith, offering fire and brimstone homilies with Huckabee saying the Iran treaty is “marching Israel to the door of the oven” and Cruz launching his campaign at Liberty University. Carly Fiorina is rising and Ron Paul is fading. They both talk a lot about “Hillary’s failures” and very little about faith.  Scott Walker is the son of a preacher, but his support in Iowa has faded as he tries to echo the policies of Trump without his persona. The Republican field often talks about faith, but rarely about “welcoming the stranger” or a priority for the poor. Rick Perry’s finest moment was when he said in his withdrawal “demeaning people of Hispanic heritage is not just ignorant, it betrays the example of Christ.”

Among Democrats, Hillary Clinton returned to thank her Methodist congregation in Washington, but is struggling to overcome the perception she has a problem with the eighth commandment on bearing “false witness.” One surprise is that the candidate who quotes Pope Francis the most is not Martin O’Malley, a Jesuit educated Catholic who barely registers in the polls, but Bernie Sanders, who is known more for his socialist label than his Jewish identity.  The Democratic candidates, including Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee, worship at the secular altar of “reproductive rights,” reflecting liberal orthodoxy, more than a consistent ethic of life.

One example of a genuine connection between faith and politics can be found on the website of the Circle of Protectionwhere candidates answer a critical question “What would you do as president to offer help and opportunity to hungry and poor people in the United States and around the world?”Is it a surprise that Trump has not responded?

Perhaps, the most compelling discussion of faith in public life was not in a Church or Religious Right forum, but came from Vice President Biden on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” In a remarkably intimate and very public conversation, two Catholics talked about faith and family, grief and loss, public service and personal choices. The Vice President anguished over whether he could fully commit to a presidential race after the death of his son Beau. Colbert asked “How has your faith — I know you’re a man of deep faith — how has…your faith helped you respond?” Biden replied, “My religion is just an enormous sense of solace…I go to Mass, and I’m able to be just alone even in a crowd. You’re alone. I say the rosary. I find it to be incredibly comforting. What my faith has done is it sort of takes everything about my life, with my parents and my siblings and all the comforting things and all the good things that have happened have happened…around the culture of my religion and the theology of my religion. And I don’t know how to explain it more than that, but it’s just the place that you can go.”

I differ with each of the candidates on major moral questions, for example with Biden and Clinton on abortion, Bush on torture and the death penalty, Trump on deporting immigrants.  But, on religion in public life, I believe both faith and politics are better served by the honesty and anguish of Joe Biden rather than the cynicism and glibness of Donald Trump.