Religion is playing a major role in this year’s Republican primary race, as it generally does in almost every recent election. Nancy T. Ammerman studies the role of religion in politics and has catalogued the religious affiliations of the various candidates and their degrees of dedication to taking past in formal religious observances.
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.
Chris Christie and George Pataki were raised Catholic. Christie has lots of Catholic connections, but can’t always attend Mass.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
So where are the candidates who represent other religious traditions or no religion at all? Ammerman suggests that the strong preference for voters that their elected representatives be religious means that no one is likely to come right out and say so.
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.
Of this crop, of candidates, I suspect that Sanders is the closest to being non-religious.