Will Christians, in particularly Evangelical and ‘Born Again’ Christians be a deciding factor?
Joining John Harrison to discuss this in this week’s Level Talk are: Paris Dennard, a political and social commentator and former White House staffer; Rob Taub, an American television news commentator and satirist and Dr. Robert P Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute.
John Harrison started by asking Dr Robert P Jones how powerful the ‘God Right’ factor is in US politics today?
‘We have a situation where we have the Republican party in particular being still very reliant on white Christian, even Evangelical voters. And it’s actually becoming a shrinking pool of voters. And I actually argue in my book — The End of White Christian America — that Mick Romney’s campaign was the last one where a White Christian strategy — that is piling up super majorities of voters in order to compensate for the growing number of other types of voters in the country — was going to be viable. We may have a real test case on our hands as it seems that Donald Trump is really doubling down on this strategy.’
Rob Taub then chose to highlight the varying degree to which religion has been a factor in US politics throughout history. He referred to the historical example of President Kennedy – the first Catholic President of the US – who was then questioned about the extent to which his religion would unfairly influence his ruling of the country. Kennedy answered that his religious beliefs would not affect his work as President. But in more recent years, Taub maintains, things have changed completely to the point that George W. Bush claimed he was ‘told by God’ what to do.
Dr Jones highlighted that there is still a racial divide amongst US voters, to which Paris Dennard added:
‘I can tell you that the Black Christian community in the US is actually very conservative, …When it comes down to the issues, Black Christians align themselves more with the Republican party but in terms of their party affiliation it tends to be with Democrats. …You cannot go through specific primaries in the southern regions – what they call the Bible belt – without winning a significant number of Evangelical votes.’
John Harrison noted this contradiction – that conservative Black Christians tend to vote Democrat, although Democrats are traditionally non-conservative. Rob Taub agreed that it is an extremely complicated issue and almost impossible to predict how different religious communities will vote:
‘I’d find it tough to predict how the Evangelicals are going to respond to Trump, however, having Rick Santorum and the backing of people like that, is going to galvanise support for Trump, it’s undoubtable.’
Indeed, Paris Dennard agreed with John Harrison’s proposition that the majority of Americans, who attend church, would vote for Trump. He argued that Trump has more trust from the Christian community and compared to Hillary, is a much more attractive candidate:
‘When they look at Donald Trump, he is perceived to be – and I believe he is more – honest, trustworthy and authentic – tells it like it is and you know exactly where he stands…The born-again Christian is again a value voter…And I think there is an opportunity for Donald Trump to pick up more of their support than there is for Hillary Clinton.’
Rob Taub explained Trump’s appeal further:
‘He’s said ‘look if I’m President I will restore power to the Christian churches’. Trump relates on a very simple level to a lot of people….It’s a style of conveyance that he has that’s going to make them feel comfortable.’
He believes that the values which are important to Evangelical Christians will be better represented by Donald Trump than Hillary Clinton. But his campaign has also suffered from him being labelled as a bigot, sexist and racist. Indeed Dr Robert Jones believes that Trump’s record with the non-white community has been poor, primarily due to his controversial comments regarding migrants.
Rob Taub agreed, commenting: ‘He’s going to have to be careful about exactly what he says because the one thing the DNC has done very well is have negative ads about him and they’re going to find things he’s said in the past – I’m sure he said he was pro-abortion – and they’re going to nail him on a lot of those things so he’s got to be careful how he approaches this.’
Opinion differed however regarding the overall role played by religion in the current US presidential campaign. Rob Taub stated:
‘I think it’s going to be less important in this election than it has been in the past because when you had a candidate like George Bush in the past – he was a true believer and he could faithfully and believably spout his religious beliefs but you have neither candidate now who can do that and come across as sincere. And there are just other concerns in this country about terrorism, about the economy and there are so many other issues that are prevalent and predominant that I don’t think religion is going to be as impactful as it has been in the past.’
Whereas Paris Dennard believes religion will still play a key role behind the scenes, driving voters:
‘I think there is some undercurrent of the values and things that people in this God Right political movement believe in and understand that will be intertwined in the political debate. Will it be a number one issue, no, but there will be some undercurrent and you will hear it,…and you will see it underneath as a subset of the overall election.’