Faith and the 2016 Campaign

Jan 31, 2016

Photo credit: Pew Research Center

By Pew Research Center

The conventional wisdom in American politics has long been that someone who is not religious cannot be elected president of the United States. Most Americans have consistently said that it is important to them that the president have strong religious beliefs. And a new Pew Research Center survey finds that being an atheist remains one of the biggest liabilities that a presidential candidate can have; fully half of American adults say they would be less likely to vote for a hypothetical presidential candidate who does not believe in God, while just 6% say they would be more likely to vote for a nonbeliever.

On the other hand, the share of American adults who say they would be less likely to vote for an atheist candidate has been declining over time. Moreover, one of the candidates who is widely viewed by Republicans as a potentially “good” or “great” president, Donald Trump, is not widely viewed as a religious person, even by those in his own party. And on the Democratic side, the share of Americans who say Hillary Clinton is not a religious person now stands at 43%, which is sharply higher than it was in the summer of 2007, when she was seeking the presidential nomination for the first time.

These are among the key findings of a new Pew Research Center survey conducted Jan. 7-14, 2016, on landlines and cellphones among a national sample of 2,009 adults. This is the latest in a long line of research the Center has conducted on the role of religion in presidential campaigns. In 2012, for instance, polling found that Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith was a potentially important factor in the Republican primaries but was not likely to play a major role in determining the outcome of the general election. In the run-up to the 2008 campaign, voters who saw presidential candidates as at least “somewhat” religious expressed more favorable views of those candidates; but the Center’s research also showed that White House contenders need not be seen as very religious to be broadly acceptable to the voting public. And in 2004, a majority of the U.S. public thought it was improper for the Catholic Church to deny communion to pro-choice politicians like John Kerry.

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22 comments on “Faith and the 2016 Campaign

  • 1
    Stardusty Psyche says:

    On the other hand, the share of American adults who say they would be less likely to vote for an atheist candidate has been declining over time

    On the bright side, even the longest journey starts with the first step.

    50% negative and 6% positive. Americans are often said to root for the underdog, but, in this case, it’s not lookin too good for the home team this season, or the next, or the next, or the…

    Well, just goes to show one should not to let the mere fact that the majority is against you sway your rational positions 🙂

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  • Call me crazy, but I like this situation. I like being the underdog. Then you get to push back. If people stop caring about candidates being atheists, then I lose a talking point. At that moment I don’t get to have lively debates any more with people who would dislike to see me as a president because of my lack of faith.

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  • Good news indeed if mistrust in atheists is beginning to decline in America. But I can give a British perspective on this (almost all other established free-thinking democracies including the UK are more secular than America). Recently on holiday in Thailand I have had the privilege of watching in my hotel room, coverage by CNN and – dubious privilege – Fox News, of recent presidential debates in Iowa, and thus the chance to appreciate how religion plays such a major part in American politics. And it has been an eye-opener. Candidates (notably Republican) make frequent remarks about their faith-based ‘Judeo-Christian’ morality, and how it influences their policies – remarks which would be utterly ridiculed in the UK or most other democracies for their fatuous, cliched, substance-less rhetoric which owes nothing to careful analysis either of the state of the nation or fact-based evidence, and owes everything to jingoistic and mindless personal belief systems.

    Ted Cruz has won in Iowa – a man who believes that atheists are ‘not fit to be president.’ Such thinking in my view, makes Ted Cruz unfit to be president. And Marco Rubio – whose pronounements in the last Iowa debate were the most vacuous of all, and whose statements regularly invoke God and ‘His’ role in making America the ‘greatest nation on Earth’, has also risen dramatically in the polls. Ben Carson, who finished a creditable 4th, will never accept the enormous weight of evidence in support of evolution, preferring to believe the ‘evidence’ of ancient texts. In recent debates I have heard much about these politicians’ faith and how it guides them politically and morally, (yet apparently encourages them to relish the prospect of war and slaughter in the Middle East) but I have heard very little from such people about the issues that really matter, and the science-based evidence on such issues as climate change.)

    Too many Americans on the evangelical right can have no comprehension how this kind of standpoint makes them the laughing stock of other advanced democracies which in other respects have so much in common with America. However, I suspect that that would make no difference to them at all – in their eyes it does not matter how they are viewed in the rest of the world – in their minds, their ‘faith-based world view is right, and unarguable.

    My experience of watching these debates is that if any one of these people becomes president then the prospect is indeed frightening – a presidency based on factless conviction, ignorant of the science which drives world progress, and intolerant or dismissive of any viewpoints which differ from their own – ie: the viewpoints of almost every educated person in the developed world.

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  • Too many Americans on the evangelical right can have no comprehension how this kind of standpoint makes them the laughing stock of other advanced democracies

    Excellent post. I ponder without conclusion, how it has come to this. How has America’s train taken some detour to the right down some dead end right wing uncivilized siding. The civilized norms on the rest of the planet have marched forward while America is stuck in the cold war 1950s. American teeters on the brink of becoming the United Theocracy of America to join Iran and Saudi Arabia. Sad, and potentially dangerous if one of these republicans thinks he might like to hasten the Rapture with a little military adventurism.

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  • Just heard O’Malley (a democrat) who dropped out refer to “the hidden God.” Very convenient. He’s there; just hidden from us all.
    My horror of religion, religious people, religious rhetoric, and Republicans and their stupid religion and their lies and their twisted values, is at an all time high.
    I think Rubio is the most annoying person I have ever seen in a Presidential Primary. “The greatest country in the history of the world. We need to defeat ISIS and rebuild our military and take our country back, repeal Obamacare, etc.” Mr. Patriotic Tough Guy. Terrible, hollow man. Arrogant little reactionary prick who doesn’t care about climate change. Can’t stand that guy. He’s full of shit, and looks like a kid. A military junta is what we’ll get.
    One’s worse than the other: Carson, Cruz. Jesus f-ing Christ. I heard the mountains are beautiful in Australia. London? Rome? I think about leaving sometimes.
    Vacuous. Perfect word. But people like that. They want to be tranquilized. Nixon tranquilized the nation and then dropped 2.5 million tons of bombs on Laos.

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  • Thanks David. I am, of course, aware that there are plenty of very sane and wise Americans, and the hope for the future must rest with them. But at this time, it seems that one must proclaim at every opportunity the deepest possible faith in God and the Saviour, and the strongest possible war-like defiance against anyone who isn’t Christian, in order to get a round of applause in Republican political debates!

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  • I agree about Rubio! As a Brit, I’d never heard him speak before, but he didn’t say a single thing in that Iowa debate which wasn’t empty of all evidence, fact or substance. On the contrary everything he said was just cliched rhetorical ‘political-speak’ with a deeply religious twist. And yet not only was he regarded as having a successful debate – he’s also said to be more of an establishment candidate, when compared to Cruz and Trump!! I’m glad someone else sees him as I saw him – as a total idiot. For the record, in British terms, I’m actually quite Conservative, albeit a moderate one, but no doubt at all in America I would be thought of by these extreme right-wingers as a Democrat, a Liberal, and probably a Socialist – in addition to being an atheist lacking moral guidence! 🙂

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  • bonnie
    Feb 2, 2016 at 9:06 am

    One featured group’s main concern was student loan debt / economics. Do high tuition rates apply just to U.S. Demographics influence other’s choices.

    In the UK there is a mixed situation.
    The Liberal Democrats lost a lot of support because they promised to abolish student tuition fees in England, and then reneged on this when they joined the Tory coalition.

    Living in Scotland and going to a Scottish uni? Hoorah! You won’t pay a penny in tuition fees. Here’s what else you need to know about managing your student finances…

    2. No tuition fees for Scottish students studying in Scotland

    If you’re staying in Scotland to go to uni, then good news: your tuition fees will be paid for you by the SAAS – you don’t have to pay a thing back! This means you have to be living in Scotland when you apply to university; if you were born in Scotland but moved elsewhere and then applied, you are not considered a Scottish resident and thus won’t qualify.

    If you choose to study in England, Wales or Northern Ireland, you can apply for a student loan (non-income assessed) to pay part of or all your fees. Keep in mind that you may be charged upwards of £9,000 a year in tuition fees for institutions in these countries.

    If you live in England, Wales or Northern Ireland and wish to study in Scotland, you’ll be eligible to pay up to £9,000 a year in Scottish higher education tuition fees (though Welsh students have up to £5,161 of this paid for them by the Welsh Assembly).

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  • What precisely does it mean to say the you are quite conservative as a Brit and yet moderate? Just curious to know what you mean, Alun. I looked it up and the history of British conservatism is something one would have to study and I am too lazy to do that at that moment.
    As far as the U.S. goes, these terms mean nothing now, as far as I am concerned. One is either progressive, against what Cornel West has called free-market fundamentalism, or one is a bloody ass. (I have never been fond of black and white thinking, but now I am, as far as this issue is concerned, rather black and white, I’m afraid.)
    I have become crotchety, bitter, and filled with impotent rage toward the conservative movement in this country. There is very little that is good in American life now. I was born in 1962 and feel like I have entered a truly nightmarish time. Our greatest writer Norman Mailer predicted that, and it has happened. I have very little hope for the future of this country, and I am by nature a rather sanguine person (although I have suffered my whole life with long bouts of debilitating depression).
    I have been beaten down over the years. No reason to do anything it seems. Nothing left but to be trampled underfoot.
    My Best Wishes,

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  • Dan
    Feb 2, 2016 at 1:41 pm

    What precisely does it mean to say the you are quite conservative as a Brit and yet moderate? Just curious to know what you mean, Alun. I looked it up and the history of British conservatism is something one would have to study

    What Alun is saying, is that the British Conservative Party (or at least the moderate end of it) is to the left of US Democrats, while the British Liberal Democrats and British Labour Parties, would probably be described by the GOP as “Communists”, despite them being political opponents of actual Socialist Workers and Communists parties!

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  • Exactly. Thanks Alan. I can understand how the way I phrased it may confuse because in America these words ‘conservative’, ‘liberal’ and ‘socialist’ have different connotations don’t they? Dan, as Alan indicated, I was using ‘Conservative’ in the context of the name of one of the two main political parties in the UK. But all moderate supporters of the Conservative Party in the UK, such as myself, would certainly be regarded as ‘Democrats’ rather than ‘Republicans’ in the U.S.A, which is a generally far more right wing nation.

    Dan, usually I support the Conservative Party in the UK (6 times in the last 9 elections) because I believe generally in free enterprise, and the upholding of certain traditional values, but I also believe in many aspects of social welfare such as a free health service. No way would I describe myself as ‘conservative’ in American terms. Hope that (and the other Alan’s) explanation clarifies 🙂

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  • Suppose the GOP win the next presidency with someone other than Trump (and probably with Trump too).

    Certainly expect redoubled efforts to work around Roe vs Wade at the state level, until the day comes when they can swing the balance further to the right with new SCOTUS appointees and repeal it altogether. More moves towards a theocracy and the removal of church/state barriers.

    But perhaps more significantly in the long run:

    complete stop on medical research using stem cells and related areas
    evolution eliminated from school curricula and dumbed down or even removed at undergraduate level

    The latter two areas will surely cause the US to lose whatever edge it may have in the biological sciences.

    Does anyone think the cure for cancer, for example, will come from someone who believes the earth is 6000 years old and that evolution is bunkum? [Other than those who believe the earth is 6000 years old etc.]

    There must be clear-headed and far-sighted elements in the CIA or one of the even more secretive alphabet soups, who can see this is a Very Bad Thing for the USA, strategically speaking: the beginning of the end, perhaps.

    Will they act? (Or have I been watching too many spy movies?)

    I can see banned medical research going on in secret, as a matter of national security; but where will tomorrow’s generation of experts come from? Overseas?

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  • Simon Tuffen
    Feb 3, 2016 at 10:22 am

    Can it be an impartial survey if it lists certain traits such as “Catholic” as an asset and other traits such as “atheist” as liabilities?

    I think this is presenting the analysis of the expressed opinions, rather than outlining the format of the questionnaire shown to participants!

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  • It is only a matter of time. It will happen. As the number of atheists increase, the voting power of the secular population will be a huge attraction for an atheist to run for president. The first may not make it, but the nationwide debates and arguments will convince even more to join the ranks of the secular. Eventually an atheist will become a president of the US.

    It will happen, sooner or later.

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  • @bonnie

    Feb 5, 2016 at 5:01 pm

    Thanks for posting that link. I’m a big fan of Susan Jacoby’s writing.

    From that article:

    I spent a few years working for the Center for Inquiry, a humanist think tank that merged last month, in a rare union of secular forces, with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. Michael De Dora, the center’s public policy director, argues that secularists must work with liberal and mainstream religious groups on issues of mutual concern.

    Yet there is some controversy over coalition building between those who consider themselves “hard” and “soft” atheists. I suppose I must be a “soft” atheist for believing that there is a huge political upside to ad hoc coalitions with liberal religious groups.

    *AH-HAAAA! Great minds think alike then! 🙂

    Susan Jacoby has a new book out (almost out) and will be giving a book talk here in Boston (actually it’s the other side of the river which is Cambridge) on March 3 at the Harvard Book Store on Mass Ave. Here’s the link:

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  • bonnie: Good post! From that web site…

    As defined by many pandering politicians, “religious freedom” is in
    danger of becoming code for accepting public money while imposing
    faith-based values on others.

    Oh how liberal it is to have “religious freedom.”

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  • 21
    bonnie says:

    @ LaurieB – big fan

    Yes, and moreover, I think she’d be a great addition to the ‘coalition’. Now, before Dan has a coronary – intelligent, nervous energy can be put to good use. I’ll be the gofer for coffee and “brownies”, lol. Just kidding?

    Harvard link appreciated; she’s on video, also. e.g. 2015 – non-rationalism in the u.s.

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  • bonnie, LaurieB

    Jacoby is genius. I love her historical perspectives. I find them very strengthening. “Conversions” will be fascinating, the more so given her inclusion of non religious ideologies.

    She adds greatly to the thrill of the CFI RDFRS marriage.

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