The US is considered the most religious among developed Western countries. According to a 2016 Gallup study, 80 percent of Americans define themselves as "religious". While the US policy is based on the principle of complete separation between church and state, the influence of religious people is clear in the choice of presidents, and it plays an important role in the election campaigns leading up to the autumn 2020 presidential race. According to a survey conducted in 2019 by the US Pew Research Center, 88 percent of members of Congress define themselves as Christians. In addition, almost half of American voters believe that the president-elect should have "solid religious beliefs". A third of Americans believe that government policies should support religious values. However, to what extent would the religious factor be influential and effective in determining the outcome of the upcoming presidential elections?
Dimensions of employing the religious factor in electoral campaigns
1. Trump and his evangelical orientations in both domestic and foreign policies:
President Donald Trump is not known to have practised any religion. He does not represent a figure with the moral or religious values that conservative Christians advocate. He is a divorced man, and his name has been linked to sexual scandals. Nevertheless, he is very popular among Neo-Evangelicals (Born Again). This was reflected in Trump's choices during his current term. His decisions were consistent with the demands of that popular base, most notably the absolute support for Israel as a land for the Jewish people, considering that the prophecy of rebuilding Jerusalem is necessary for the return of Christ, according to their beliefs.
Opinion polls show that Neo-Evangelicals are indifferent to Trump's biography inasmuch as they believe that he can fulfill a prophecy. According to a poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), 77 percent of white Evangelical Republicans are satisfied with Trump's performance, and 98 percent oppose his impeachment and the attempt to remove him from office.
A close look into the appointments made by the Trump administration would reveal that his Vice President Pence, adviser and son-in-law Kushner, Secretary of State Pompeo, and ambassador to Israel Friedman, mostly belong to the extreme right and are lovers of Israel. They embrace the idea that "God may have sent Trump to save Israel from threats”, even as his Vice President Pence said: "my passion for Israel springs from my Christian faith".
Evangelicals were the staunchest supporters of Trump's decision to consider the whole of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Furthermore, the inauguration of the US embassy in May 2018 witnessed a mass by the fanatical Evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress who is known for his anti-Muslim stances.
While he does not personally embrace the faith of Evangelicals, Trump is allied with them. He surrounds himself with famous preachers in their circles, including his own spiritual adviser Paula White, as well as instructor and psychologist James Dapson, and preacher Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, the spiritual adviser to many US presidents.
When Trump raised the Bible in front of St. John's Church in Washington, a street away from the White House, days after the killing of George Floyd on 25 May 2020, he was not doing so out of religious conviction, but rather in the context of his attempt to win over Evangelical voters who wanted to renew his mandate, hoping that they would fulfil additional basic demands in their beliefs, including the rejection of abortion, the ban on same-sex marriage, and the introduction of religious education into school curricula. Trump attacked his rival for the presidency Joe Biden in early August 2020, accusing him of "hurting God and the Bible".
2. Biden between his Catholic commitment and his liberal and secular orientations:
Democratic candidate Joe Biden is the only Catholic in US history to have held the office of Vice President, during Obama’s terms. He is the fourth Catholic candidate to qualify for the presidential race, all of whom belonged to the Democratic Party. The first was Al Smith, the Governor of New York in 1928, then John Kennedy in 1960 who was the only one who won and was assassinated in November 1963. The third is former Secretary of State John Kerry in 2004.
Biden, who chose Kamala Harris as his Vice President, who is also a Catholic and whose husband is Jewish, seeks to benefit from the support of the Catholic community for him in voting for him in the upcoming elections. While Biden separates his personal faith from politics, voting, for example, in favour of laws of abortion and same-sex marriage, his campaign headlines have begun to establish the religious conflict raging against the backdrop of the 2020 presidential elections. His campaign’s slogan is "Battle for Soul of the Nation".
Today, it has been observed that in mobilising for the Biden campaign, the Democratic Party is resorting to literature that is strange to its previous campaigns, indicating that it has become aware of the role played by religion in the popular mood. This is demonstrated through great reliance by the Biden campaign on his image as a devout man who perseveringly faced the death of his ex-wife and two of his children.
Biden also met with more than one pontiff, the last of whom was Pope Francis. He also talks constantly about the nuns who influenced his life. It is said that he used to carry a rosary in his hand during important meetings or difficult historical milestones that he experienced during his tenure as Vice President to Barack Obama.
On the other hand, on 20 July 2020, Biden pledged to address the needs and concerns of American Muslim communities as soon as he becomes president, promising to appoint Muslim individuals in his potential administration and work with Congress to pass stalled hate crime legislation if he is elected as president.
Limits of the influence of the religious factor on the US presidential election
The religious factor will certainly have a major role in voting during the 2020 elections. However, it would not necessarily be the decisive factor due to the following considerations:
1. Decline in interest in the religious factor in the choice of the favourite candidate:
Dr Frank Newport, an expert in opinion polls at the Gallup Foundation, explains that the religious factor used to be important and influential in the past, but now it is not of much value. The importance of preoccupation with the candidate’s religion has diminished. The fear of the presence of a non-Protestant candidate gradually waned until it almost faded away. For example, John Kerry did not face any problem because of his religious affiliation. The same was true for Mitt Romney, a Republican candidate who ran against Obama in the first term. He was a Mormon, a small Christian community. Joe Lieberman's Jewish religion was of little importance when he ran for vice president with Al Gore in the 2000 elections.
The reason for this development is perhaps that US society has become more mature or tolerant. Polls conducted by Gallup regularly since 1937 confirm that what happened represents an established and steady shift in the direction of public opinion, not one of its occasional fluctuations. In that year, 30 percent of Americans said that they would not vote for a Catholic candidate. That percentage later dropped to 25 percent in 1959. After Kennedy was elected in 1960, it reached 13 percent, then fell to less than 10 percent in 1967. Now, it is only 4 percent.
2. Prevalence of secular values within the US society:
There are many phenomena that support the belief that secularism is advancing steadily within the US society. After nearly 240 years of the foundation of the US state on foundations that are essentially white Protestant values and ideas, the major changes that have led to acceptance by the society of the rights of homosexuals, the right to abortion for women, or the full equality of all Americans regardless of colour, religion or gender, reflect a prominent shift towards secularism in the US society. The percentage of those who do not belong to any religion now exceeds 22.8 percent of the population (340 million people). During the past half century, nearly 60 million people emigrated to the US, mainly from Central America and Asia. This has made the US and its constituents more diverse and different than what many believe.
3. Increasing importance of the racial and ethnic factor in determining the priorities of black and Latino voters:
While the acceptance of a Catholic candidate constitutes an important point for Biden, his affiliation to this sect, which represents 23 percent of the electorate, does not necessarily mean winning over its votes, for several reasons, the most important of which are the following:
On the other hand, many American Protestants do not consider their Catholic counterparts to be Christians like themselves. Likewise, they did not consider black Africans who were followers of Protestantism as their brothers in religion. Besides, while classified among Protestant churches, the "Black Church" votes on an ethnic basis. This seems highly likely after the murder of George Floyd and the demonstrations and protests it triggered against racism and Trump's right-wing policies. During the 2016 election, Trump garnered 81 percent of the vote of white Evangelical voters, and outperformed among white Catholics, while he won fewer votes among Latin or African Evangelicals.
4. The confusion of American Jews between Trump, the staunchest supporter of Israel, and his right-wing orientations at home:
Due to its great financial and media influence, the Jewish lobby plays a prominent role in weighing the chances of any candidate to win the presidency. Since the era of President Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921), most Jews have tended to support and vote for the Democratic Party. Many Jews have maintained this electoral trend to this day. Obama was the last president to gain the support of Jews and manage to reach the White House. In the 2016 presidential election, Bernie Sanders was the first Jewish candidate to reach the final stages of the US presidential election.
However, in the upcoming elections, the Jewish vote will find itself divided between its principles that identify with the Democratic Party in terms of equality and non-discrimination between religions, sects and races, which contradict Trump's right-wing orientations at home, and its interests that intersect with President Trump's strongly supportive policies of Israel abroad.
Malik al-Hafez | 13 Sep 2020
Bilal Abdullah | 10 Sep 2020
EPC | 10 Sep 2020