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Religion and the Presidential Election

Religion and the American Presidential Election            Gerry OShea

America is a very religious country. More than 40% of the population attend church services at least once a month, and about half report that they pray every day. By comparison, in most countries in western Europe, attendance at church on Sunday hovers around 10%.

Surprisingly, we have heard very little from the candidates for the Democratic nomination for the presidency about their religious convictions. Mayor Buttigieg has spoken very movingly about the importance of his Christian faith as a married gay man. Nearly all the Christian denominations look askance at the homosexual lifestyle, but he attends an Episcopalian church where he and his husband, Chasten, received a full church blessing when they got married.

Joe Biden is a practicing Catholic but, because he supports the Roe v Wade decision which gives a woman the right to choose on the abortion issue, he was refused communion in a church a few months ago. He argues that he accepts his church’s teaching on this controversial subject but he must follow the law as a public servant.

Senator Corey Booker, who has ended his candidacy, spoke eloquently in one debate about his participation in a bipartisan bible study group in Washington. Elizabeth Warren, a devout Methodist, was a Sunday school teacher in her church, but, surprisingly, she hardly ever mentions this important insight into her character.

For former president Jimmy Carter his work as a Sunday school teacher and his strong Christian convictions were always stressed as a central part of his resume. Like many devout Southern Protestants, he eschewed the use of alcohol, leading the then House Speaker Tip O’Neill to complain grumpily that while Carter was the brightest president that he had dealt with, he lacked the common sense to offer an Irishman a beer during his many strategy sessions in the White House.

Democrats are very committed to maintaining the separation of church and state, a basic principle that set America apart from the powerful European colonial countries in the past. They do not want to be ever seen as showing preference for one religion over another. Unlike the present Make America Great Again(MAGA) Republican regime in Washington, all the Democrat presidential aspirants are careful to stress their commitment to a pluralistic country.

Evangelical Christianity has deep roots in America. They look to the Bible as the sole source of moral guidance and they stress personal conversion, a born-again experience, as a necessary part of spiritual growth. They consider legalized abortion as the main public issue, and more than 70% of white evangelicals vote Republican largely on the basis that the party offers the best chance of reversing the 1973 Roe v Wade decision by the Supreme Court.

African-Americans also have a strong history of devout adherence to the Christian message. Throughout the generations who endured the horrors of slavery right through the humiliating maltreatment under Jim Crow to the present, the black churches continue to proclaim the gospel message, the good news of equality and liberation.

 Martin Luther King was the quintessential black Christian preacher who drew his inspiration from the Sermon on the Mount and led the march for justice until his death in 1968.

This religious spirit lives on in the black community. In South Carolina no less than 81% of African-Americans describe themselves as Christian and 64% read scripture every week.

President Trump is an enigma when talking about religion because while he was confirmed in a Presbyterian ceremony he rarely attended any church in New York and showed little interest in religion. In fact, he shocked a lot of people by claiming that he saw no reason to ask God for forgiveness. This statement contradicts a basic Christian tenet that all humans are sinners.

 His main spiritual advisor, the televangelist, Paula White, who, like the president is a thrice married multi-millionaire, left no doubt where she stands in promoting her friend’s re-election: “I declare that President Trump will overcome every strategy from hell. --- Let every demonic network that has aligned itself against President Trump be broken in the name of Jesus.” No doubt about the strength and sincerity of Ms. White’s prayers.

Trump’s core constituency is built around the evangelical community and people of all religions who oppose the Roe v Wade ruling which made abortion legal throughout the United States. They believe that this Supreme Court decision in 1973 was a grave error by liberal judges, and they look to the president and the Republican senate to appoint members to the court who will reverse the Roe ruling.

A frequent and cogent criticism of this sincere group of people centers on their blindness when it comes to supporting the babies who are born. Many seem indifferent when Trump proposes cuts in the food stamp and other programs designed to help struggling families. They open themselves to the accusation that they are more pro-birth than pro-life?

Democratic candidates for president, all of whom strongly support a woman’s right to choose, have failed to adequately address some aspects of the abortion issue. Medical tests and techniques are now much more sophisticated in determining a foetal heartbeat. Do they think that this should impact the legal limits for an abortion which were set at a different stage of medical knowledge fifty years ago?

 Questions like this cry out for rational debate, and while all the candidates know how emotive and divisive this issue is, they owe it to the people to set down where they stand.

 Should they be advocating with health service providers to make access to contraceptives and the morning-after pill easier? Furthermore, surely they should highlight their backing for generous government-funded support programs for pregnant women and young mothers which might well reduce the number of abortions.

Nearly half of Republicans believe that God wanted Trump to win the election in 2016, and those numbers have not diminished as they prepare for another day at the polls in November. It is highly ironic that so many Americans believe that Trump’s election and decision-making carry a whiff of divine inspiration while so many others see him as the most unethical president of modern times.

Democrats should make a strong moral case based on the belief systems of the Jewish, Christian, Muslim and other religions which all say that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, an idea that doesn’t easily square with the exclusivist MAGA philosophy.

 Buttigieg speaks far more forcefully on religious issues than any of the other candidates. Confronting Trump directly about his economic proposals, he challenges him to explain how anyone who believes in God could pursue his budgetary policies that favor the affluent at every turn.

The Bible, especially the New Testament, is replete with examples of Christ - and some of the earlier Hebrew prophets too - praising those who welcomed refugees and people fleeing oppression. In a powerful passage in Matthew’s gospel Christ personalizes the moral obligation for his followers, leaving no doubt about how the sick, the poor and the stranger should be treated: “whatever you do to the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you do to me.”

There must be a question about the genuineness of American religiosity  when children from neighboring countries are held in cages in the Southern border, and there is a “No Entry” sign facing Nigerians and people of the Muslim faith.

Pope Francis has spoken eloquently on these matters. He says that “a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not a Christian.”

Gerry OShea blogs at


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