Religion is grabbing some of the biggest headlines in the current US presidential campaign.
We’ve heard a lot about what candidates like Donald Trump think about other people’s religious beliefs.
But what about the candidates' own beliefs and religious affiliations – and how those will affect their policy positions?
As a student of American religious life, my research leads me to suggest that there are rarely straight lines from religious doctrines to policy positions for any of us.
As a voter, the better question to ask is whether religious conversations are part of the candidate’s everyday world – and, if so, to whom are they talking?
An imperfect mirror
I look at this field of presidential candidates and see a mirror of the diverse kinds of religious conversations in which Americans engage.
With one exception.
We certainly might notice that there are no Muslim candidates, but like Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs and other non-Christian traditions, they constitute a very small minority of the population. More striking are the missing nonaffiliates. Fully 23% of Americans tell researchers that they have no religious affiliation, but a lingering distrust of atheists seems to make “none of the above” an unacceptable option for politicians. That’s true even though most unaffiliated people aren’t atheists.
What we do see in this field, however, are several candidates whose active participation is quite minimal.
Fiorina, Trump, Paul, Christie and Pataki
Like 15% of Americans, Carly Fiorina, Donald Trump and Rand Paul are affiliated with “mainline” Protestant denominations – just like most US presidents have been.
Fiorina is Episcopal, Trump Presbyterian, and Paul was raised Episcopal but now attends a Presbyterian church. All reports indicate that Trump and Fiorina seldom attend church services. Paul’s wife is active in their congregation, but there is little mention of his participation.
Like roughly four in 10 of their fellow Catholics and mainline Protestants, these are people who claim their own personal faith but may go to church only on holidays and not much more.
My research on religion in everyday life suggests that for these candidates, their churches and their beliefs are likely not the overarching framework for their lives. They may have some ability to talk about religion in contexts where that vocabulary is the coin of the realm, but it is not their own native tongue. Their religion is unlikely to bear much on how they think about the world. When people are not actively involved in communities and conversations where spiritual matters are the focus, they rarely bring that focus to other parts of their lives.
We might also put Bernie Sanders in this camp, but the Jewish experience is a bit different.
Sanders is rather typical of American Jews whose identification is more ethnic than religious. As the Pew Forum report on American Jews shows, identity comes less from participation in synagogue life than from family and community ties. They also report that a majority of American Jews say that working for social justice is essential to being a Jew, and that is something Sanders can bring to bear as he responds to issues.
These six candidates stand in contrast to the remaining eight, who more regularly engage with others in spiritual conversations – with their church community, families and friends.
Clinton and O'Malley
Hillary Clinton waves at the United Methodist Church, September 13 2015. Yuri Gripas/REUTERS
It is critical to note that being religiously engaged is not just for conservatives.
Protestants like Hillary Clinton and Catholics like Martin O’Malley participate actively in communities where the social justice message of Christianity shapes how they see the world. That’s a relatively easy-to-miss portion of the American religious landscape, but there are political liberals in virtually every religious tradition.
Approximately one in five mainline Protestants and Catholics and 13% of evangelicals identify as politically liberal.
Huckabee, Graham, Cruz, Carson
The roughly 13% of Americans who are both religiously and politically conservative tend to get more attention in the press.
These are represented in the presidential field by Southern Baptists Mike Huckabee, Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz, and Seventh Day Adventist Ben Carson. Adventists are similar to their evangelical compatriots but were a new group that emerged in the mid-19th century. There is sometimes tension with other evangelicals over their habit of worshiping on Saturday. Southern Baptists are also evangelical, but a more intense conservatism took over in the 1980s. Today the denomination is linked more strongly to opposition to abortion and gay marriage and is slowly pushing its historic progressive wing – think Jimmy Carter – out the door.
Kasich and Santorum
This group is joined in their conservative religious and political commitments by Protestants like John Kasich and Catholic Rick Santorum.
Kasich belongs to a church affiliated with the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA), a new dissident conservative wing of Episcopalianism.
Santorum’s influences include the Opus Dei movement. The intense everyday spiritual commitments expected in Opus Dei have often made it controversial, and its reputation for secrecy has made it the subject of intrigue.
Both the ACNA and Opus Dei are influential religious organizations that go beyond a simple denominational affiliation. Across our history, Americans have created and joined such new religious organizations to pursue particular religious visions and goals, and that means that denominational affiliation alone is never the whole story.
Rubio and Bush
And then there are Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, who embody the growing tendency of Americans to put together their own patchwork of affiliations.
Bush left his Episcopal upbringing to join his wife’s Catholic faith.
Rubio started out Catholic, detoured into the Latter Day Saints, joined a Southern Baptist church and then returned to Catholicism. A generation ago, few people would have expected to see a practicing Catholic who also still attends a Southern Baptist church, but the political affinities of conservative Catholics and conservative Protestants have created new conversations where doctrinal disagreements take a back seat to social concerns.
No neat lines
Understanding the relationship between a candidate’s religion and his or her politics is neither irrelevant nor straightforward.
Two key questions need to be asked. How deeply enmeshed is this candidate in a set of spiritually focused conversations and relationships? If the answer is “not very,” the candidate represents the large nominally affiliated portion of the American electorate, and we can expect his or her invocation of religion to be highly situational.
If the answer is “very,” then the next question is: which circles of conversation?
Those circles no longer neatly follow denominational lines, so just knowing a given politician’s affiliation isn’t the whole answer.
There are broad ranges of political opinion in nearly every denomination. In many cases, there are spin-off special-purpose organizations that embody those political differences and blur the boundaries of traditional denominational labels. The books people read and the preachers they listen to on YouTube may be as important as the church they attend. People who have listened to Joel Osteen or read The Purpose Driven Life may share a religious view of the world that also shapes their politics.
But even when a religious person is deeply engaged in conversations that shape a religious view of the world, those views never tell the whole story of a life. Everyday life, even for religiously committed presidential candidates, always entails the mundane realities of making a living, staying well, dealing with difficult people and getting from point A to point B.
Religious conversations may be important conversations, but they are never the only ones.