By Michelle Krogius.
“Should a president’s faith matter?” NBC’s Chuck Todd questioned presidential candidate Ben Carson last Sunday, Sept. 22 on Meet the Press. Carson answered conditionally; faith should matter if it is inconsistent with the “realm of America.” When asked if one particular religion, Islam, is consistent with the Constitution, Carson responded with a firm no.
Carson has since altered his stance on Islam and politics, but the exchange last Sunday offers two insights into the role faith has come to play in campaigns. Yes, it will be talked about, and, yes, certain religions will be rejected.
America is a country often divided by faith, yet all religions can be viewed as a collection of values. Whether they stem from a belief in Jesus Christ and the Christian God, as they do for all fifteen GOP candidates, adherence to any non-Christian religion, or the way we were raised, moral standards and principles are at the core of every decision made by politicians voting in house chambers or citizens at the local polls.
The choice of candidates to proclaim their faith serves many purposes. Religion can humanize a candidate by giving insight into his or her’s personal life. It can offer explanation to stances on certain policy. Perhaps most importantly, it can sum up an entire spectrum of values by simply saying, “I practice ____.”
Why, then are some politicians persecuted for the faith they choose to claim? Not only was President Barack Obama questioned about his possible Muslim background, but a presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, was expected to defend the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) at every turn.
Even two years into his presidency, Obama released a statement confirming his religious views when he was questioned, “Why are you a Christian?” At the time, a Gallup poll revealed 40 percent of Americans would not elect someone of the Islamic faith. The president calmly explained his religious background, yet just last week the president’s faith was questioned again, this time in an election other than his own.
While campaigning against President Obama, Romney and his campaign team were careful not to publicize the nominee’s affiliation with the LDS Church too heavily. As a former ward bishop, it was no question that the Mormon religion was of immense importance to the candidate, yet whenever asked about it he would not go farther than vaguely citing his “Christian conscience.”
Due to the amount of attention to the subject has been given, Americans clearly care about the respective religions of those who lead them, but they are also one-sided in this interest. According to the most recent census, 91.5 percent of Americans who claim any faith identify as Christians. Why, then, was a Christian president with a potentially Muslim family history questioned so heavily when Islam and Christianity share the same deities and much the same values? Why did a Mormon nominee feel the need to distract from his religious background when he is in fact a Christian? If it is simply because voters are often uncomfortable with the unfamiliar, why not encourage familiarity with all faiths?
In a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, the greatest difference in vote by religious affiliation was in the 2012 presidential election among Mormons, the sole group measured that only one of the candidates belonged to. 78 percent of LDS members who visited the polls voted for the man who had held leadership in their own church. While this may have simply been because Mormons tend to identify with the Republican party (74 percent do, according to The Washington Post), recent politics of one specific state prove Mormons vote for Mormons, and not just Republican ones.
Ryan Erwin of Romney’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns claims anyone who reads national media accounts of Nevada demographics “might believe that every Nevada voter was a Mormon.” Though only four percent of the population, this extremely influential voting group accounts for 25 percent of caucus attendees, according to The National Review, and has contributed to Nevada electing only LDS senators for the past ten years . While Senator Dean Heller is indeed Republican, the other Mormon senator, Harry Reid, is a Democrat. Precisely because values stem from religion for most Americans, it is no surprise these voters, and others, gravitate toward those who are of similar faiths.
Voters are encouraged to educate themselves on “the issues,” but, if we are to make informed decisions, this is not where the education should end. In a country in which the majority of citizens say religion plays a very important role in their lives (a fact unique among all developed countries), it is safe to assume religion may play a very important role in the majority of voting decisions as well.
Controversies over such things as the phrase “one nation under God,” gay marriage, public school prayer, and abortion have thrust religion into the limelight. As values that stem from religion are becoming more and more involved in day to day political discussions, it should become a responsibility of voters to look into the tenets of religions other than solely their own. Religion should be used as a tool to learn more about a candidate, not a way to condemn those whose practices are unfamiliar.
The question Chuck Todd posed to Ben Carson is one that all voters should ask themselves. While for some the president’s faith does not play a role in their voting decision, for many it may. It is thus imperative that, rather than simply supporting whoever practices the most familiar religion, voters learn about the multitudes of faiths that exist aside from their own. It is important that we accept religion as a possible electoral factor and use it for voter education, not candidate exclusion.