Funk on Faith

6 things to know about religion in 2016 presidential race

President John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, and Charlotte-born Billy Graham, a Protestant minister.
President John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, and Charlotte-born Billy Graham, a Protestant minister. Observer file

Religion has been a part of our presidential campaigns since at least 1960. That’s the year Democrat John Kennedy, a Catholic, felt the need to travel to Houston and explain to a room full of Protestant pastors that, if elected, he would not take orders from the Vatican.

Four years ago, Republican Mitt Romney, a Mormon, traveled to Montreat for a photo op with evangelist Billy Graham – the seal of approval he needed to convince evangelicals to vote for a member of a religious denomination that many of them had long dismissed as a cult.

The 2016 race for president has begun, and here are six things you should know about the role of faith this time.

1. Wooing conservative Christians is key for Republicans looking to make an early splash in the Iowa caucuses.

Nearly 60 percent of the state’s GOP caucus-goers are socially conservative Christians – evangelicals and Catholics – who are motivated by issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. In the past two presidential campaigns, ex-Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee (in 2008) and family values Catholic Rick Santorum (in 2012) were able to break from the pack with wins in Iowa, the first state to actually vote for candidates in primary season.

So …

2. Republican Donald Trump recently raised questions about opponent Ben Carson’s religious affiliation.

The latest polls say Dr. Carson has brushed past Trump in Iowa and is now leading – thanks largely to his support among evangelicals. Trump’s response: In a recent speech, he mentioned that he was a “middle-of-the-road” Presbyterian and then added, “I mean, Seventh-day Adventist, I don’t know about.” He didn’t mention Carson by name, just his religious affiliation. Why that’s important: Seventh-day Adventists, who honor the Sabbath on Saturdays rather than Sundays, have had strong theological disagreements with Baptists and Catholics.

And yet ...

3. Carson has himself gone after another religion that is unpopular with many evangelicals.

Responding to a question on “Meet the Press,” Carson said that Islam was incompatible with the Constitution. “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation,” he said. “I absolutely would not agree with that.” The U.S. Constitution prohibits a religious test for public office. But the political reality is that, in polls of white evangelicals, only atheists are rated lower than Muslims.

4. A record number of Catholics – seven – are running for president in 2016.

Six of them are Republicans: Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal and George Pataki. The lone Catholic in the Democratic race: Martin O’Malley.

But ...

5. The Catholics in the GOP field have disagreed with Pope Francis’ stands on everything from capitalism to climate change to Cuba.

A sampling of what they’ve said: “I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope” (Bush); “His infallibility is on religious matters, not political ones” (Christie); and “It’s sometimes very difficult to listen to the pope and some of the things he says off the cuff” (Santorum).

6. If Democrat Bernie Sanders is elected, he’d make U.S. religious history.

Sanders would, of course, be the first self-proclaimed socialist to occupy the White House. But he’d also be our first Jewish president, though his Judaism appears more cultural than religious. Some have also described him as agnostic – a non-believing president would also be a first – but Sanders has said he does believe in God.