Religion in politics: Q&A with faculty experts Benjamin Knoll and Lee Jefferson
Benjamin Knoll and Lee Jefferson are two of several faculty experts who can speak to issues and subjects related to the upcoming Vice Presidential Debate at Centre College on Oct. 11. To see other faculty experts, click here.
Q: What role has religion historically played in American politics?
Lee Jefferson, Assistant Professor of Religion: Religion was an issue from the beginning, especially regarding the role of religion in the public sphere and its role within government. The nation’s architects had the idea that there would be freedom of religion and there would be religious liberty that included separation of the church from the state, but Jefferson and Adams would argue about religious issues in their letters about the role of the church within government.
Presidents have historically been religious people who have observed a denominational faith, but it has shaped past elections in this country—how much of a role it plays in an election depends on the context of when the election was held and what was going on in the nation at the time. It does seem in this election cycle that there are more issues outweighing the religious factor—namely the economy and foreign policy—that make religion not as prominent an issue as in elections past.
Benjamin Knoll, Assistant Professor of Government: Religion has always affected politics in the United States, but this relationship has changed over time, especially in the way it influences voter decisions. For example, in the 1950s and 1960s, you could usually tell if someone was a Democrat or Republican simply by asking if they were a Catholic or Protestant. For the last twenty years or so, the relationship between religion and partisanship is no longer so much about which church you go to, but how often you go to church, as well as how orthodox you are in your church’s beliefs. Now, orthodox Catholics and Protestants both tend to vote Republican, while more liberal Catholics and Protestants both tend to vote Democrat.
Q: How has religion played a part in past presidential debates?
Knoll: Religion usually comes into presidential debates for two reasons: when candidates want to confirm to voters that they are, in fact, personally religious, and when they want to assure voters that their religion will not adversely affect their potential decisions as president. For example, John Kerry worked hard to do both of these things in the 2004 debates. He repeatedly used phrases like “faith in God” and “people of faith” in his debate answers. He spoke about his religious upbringing: “I began life baptized and confirmed as Catholic. I served as an altar boy. There was a period in my life when I thought I might even be a priest—as a young person.” When asked about abortion, he brought religion in to the answer in way to try to appeal to both Democrats and Republicans: “I believe that choice, a woman’s choice is between a woman, God and her doctor.” Kerry was trying hard to appeal to religious voters, who were overwhelmingly supporting President Bush at the time.
Q: What role has religion played for both President Obama and Governor Romney in their campaigns?
Jefferson: I would say that religion has not been emphasized as much as some experts expected. The larger issue Romney had to deal with during the primaries was whether Mormons were regarded as Christians and how his Mormonism would inform his presidency. Since he secured the nomination, it hasn’t been as big an issue. The Democrats have not invoked Romney’s Mormonism as a contentious issue, or really religion in general.
Knoll: I think this is a fascinating election because it’s the first time that not a single one of our four major-party candidates for president are white Protestants. The vast majority of our presidents and vice presidents in the past have been white Protestants. Now we have a black Protestant (Obama), a Mormon (Romney) and two Catholics (Biden and Ryan).
One of Obama’s challenges has been to assure religious voters that he is, in fact, a committed Christian, as opposed to a secular atheist—or even a devoted Muslim! Romney faces a similar challenge: to assure religious voters that he is also, in fact, a committed Christian. The irony is that two self-identified Christian presidential candidates have both faced similar pressures to assure religious voters that they are, in fact, both Christian.
Q: Will religion be a topic during the presidential and vice presidential debates? If so, how will it be brought up?
Knoll: I imagine this topic will come up somewhere in the debates. Romney may be asked at some point to discuss how his Mormon faith might affect his decisions as president, and Obama will certainly try, like John Kerry in 2004, to assure religious voters that he is a committed Christian.
Jefferson: It’s less obvious, but a religious issue has come up with Paul Ryan, as a Catholic and a huge supporter of Ayn Rand, who was an atheist, and Randian theories. His beliefs don’t correspond with large robust history of social justice in the Catholic church. Catholics and Catholic leaders dislike notions from Randian thinkers that disregard the poor. Ryan is an ardent supporter of Rand, and has said that her works were constructive to his political philosophy—as a Catholic, that doesn’t really measure up. Social justice is an important component of Catholicism, so it contradicts his religious background. So that’s something that possibly could emerge at the debate here—I would see that as a possible religious issue emerging rather than the Mormon question, which is more of a hot potato that wouldn’t be tackled by either camp.
Knoll: If I were the moderator for the upcoming Vice Presidential debate, I would take advantage of the fact that both VP candidates are Catholic and ask something like, “You’re both committed Catholics but have vastly different political views. How do you come to widely different political opinions from the same religious background? What does that teach us about the role of religion in politics?”
Jefferson: There are other big issues that are somewhat religious in nature, including foreign policy. A major example of recent note is the issue of Islamophobia with the “Innocence of Muslims” film and the backlash that has been fostered in different countries in the Middle East. Romney was severely criticized for attacking the administration’s response after the Libya attacks. This offers an opportunity to correct the leap towards Islamophobia and not understanding the hundreds of millions of Muslims who are not extremists. That’s one issue that will likely be raised.
The other issue deals with Israel and Palestine, and the issue of the United States’ support of Israel will be raised by both sides. On the backburner for now is the issue of how the United States deals with emerging leaders in the Middle East, such as the new Egyptian president who’s a the Muslim Brotherhood representative—that’s groundbreaking and important since the US is a close partner with Egypt. New footsteps in that relationship will be something to pay attention to—and while that issue may not emerge in debates, any new president will have to deal with that.