Douglas Todd: Forget the separation of church and state

Billionaire Donald Trump admits the Bible is better than even his own best-selling book, The Art of the Deal.

In regards to opposing abortion, Hillary Clinton says Christians, like herself, have to change their “deep-seated cultural codes and religious beliefs.”

Texas Senator Ted Cruz adopts explicit evangelical Christian imagery in his campaign, such as praying on stage: “Father God, please keep this awakening going.” And when non-observant Jewish Senator Bernie Sanders acknowledged this month he has “very strong religious and spiritual feelings,” many atheists felt betrayed.

In the supposedly secular U.S., which nevertheless has the world’s largest population of Christians, religion and politics are often in-your-face.

In Canada, by contrast, most politicians avoid the potential storms of religion. Canadians were inclined to cringe when Stephen Harper said “God bless Canada.” Now something similar happens when Justin Trudeau holds his hand over his heart, yoga-teacher style. Most Canadian politicians, left and right, soft-peddle or bury their involvement with evangelicalism, Catholicism, mainline Protestantism or Islam. One of the reasons Harper muzzled his MPs was roughly half were conservative Christians with religious doctrines that jarred with much of the electorate.

In the more strongly Christian U.S., on the other hand, leading politicians go out of their way to talk about religion, possibly because they really care about it, but often it seems to gain advantage.

U.S. politics, as a result, is polarized over religion or the lack of it. The Pew Research Centre found “half of Americans (51 per cent) believe religious conservatives have too much control over the Republicans, and more than four in 10 (44 per cent) think that liberals who are not religious have too much control over the Democrats.”

How do the front-runners stickhandle religion?

This month Donald Trump leads the pack of presidential nominees among Republican voters, with Cruz second. Among Democrats, Clinton outpaces Sanders, but he’s on the rise. Of these four contenders, Cruz in some ways sets the religious tone of the campaign, whether his opponents like it or not.

Cruz defiantly pledges his loyalty to evangelicals, particularly those who are white. He styles himself as a pastor leading a crusade. “Turning the country around is simple,” he said this month, “if Christians rise up as one.”

Born in Canada to American parents, aggressively against homosexual marriage and abortion, Cruz has gone out of his way to play to white evangelicals (even while he refers to them by the broader term, “Christians”) because they make up one out of four U.S. voters, the strong majority of whom vote Republican. It’s not easy for opposing politicians to ignore Cruz’s evangelicals-against-the-rest rhetoric nor would it be wise to mock it. Most American voters tell pollsters they want their politicians to have Christian, or at least religious, convictions.

Despite being a strong Republican contender, Cruz has many vulnerabilities. In addition to being polarizing, he’s often judged a hypocrite. He’s been attacked for not “tithing,” which is a common evangelical practice of donating 10 per cent of one’s earnings to the church.

What’s more, for a populist Cruz seems too closely tied to Wall Street, where his wife worked for Goldman Sachs, from whom Cruz took a secret loan. If Cruz stumbles, it could create an opening for the man currently running a close third in Republican polling, Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American Catholic. He is also seeking Christian support, but unlike Cruz he doesn’t alienate moderate evangelicals, including those who are black and Hispanic.

How is Trump handling Cruz? The startling thing about Trump, the Republican front-runner by a wide margin, is that his boasting, publicity-seeking, gambling-promoting vulgarity and often-cavalier approach to Christianity has not turned off all evangelicals.

Last year, Trump declared he’s a “proud Presbyterian” and “loves God.” He never directly asks God for forgiveness, he said, but he does participate in holy communion. “When I drink my little wine — which is about the only wine I drink — and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of asking for forgiveness,” he blurted. Despite his flip manner, Trump also insists he reads the Bible and, though somewhat open to homosexual unions, has grown more conservative on abortion.

Why is Trump’s approach working among some white evangelicals, not to mention other Republicans? How could he recently obtain the endorsement of former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, with her evangelical credentials? Christian author Jonathan Merritt says most of the mainstream media has not figured out that there are at least two or three kinds of evangelicals. Even though certain high-profile evangelicals denounce Trump as a wanton blowhard, Merritt talks about the differences between “populist evangelicals” and “cosmopolitan evangelicals” and how they don’t all believe what doctrinaire leaders want them to believe.

Indeed, despite Trump’s loose moral character, many evangelicals are lower and middle-class people who are drawn to his nativist policies about sticking up first for Americans. Some also follow the “prosperity gospel,” which highlights financial success.

Such evangelicals hope Trump is on their side when he calls for restricting undocumented workers who become competition for jobs, urges temporarily shutting off immigration to Muslims and proclaims (paradoxically, for a high-octane businessman) that welfare is essential and globalized capitalism is hurting too many average Americans. In the Democrat camp, the approaches to religion are different again, although not as colourful.

Front-runner Clinton, a longtime United Methodist, says she doesn’t “advertise” her religion. But she has been clear about liberal Christianity’s deep influence on her inner life and sense of social justice. Clinton quietly acknowledges her ongoing church attendance. “We need a new politics of meaning,” she has said. “We have to summon up what we believe is morally and ethically and spiritually correct and do the best we can with God’s guidance.” Although Clinton is too supportive of the right to abortion and homosexual marriage to attract more than a tiny proportion of white evangelicals, she performs well among moderate Catholics, mainline Protestants and black evangelicals.

For his part, Bernie Sanders is something new in U.S. politics, the first Jew to win a presidential primary. Firmly left wing on economic equality, he is non-committal about the religious tradition into which he was born.

According to polls, many members of the fast-rising group of Americans who say they are religiously unaffiliated (21 per cent) believe they have found their man in Saunders. Given their support, a few hardline atheists were disturbed this month when Sanders declared on CNN: “I would not be here tonight, I would not be running for president of the United States, if I did not have very strong religious and spiritual feelings.”

Sanders seemed to be speaking from the heart, but his indeterminate remarks may have also been tactical. They could help him avoid alienating the one of two Americans (unlike Canadians) who appear to be repulsed by, or at least not trust, atheists. We will likely never know Sanders’ complete motivation for talking about his “religious and spiritual feelings,” but it’s a testament to the pervasive power of faith in U.S. politics that he felt he had to highlight them at all.

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Douglas Todd: Forget the separation of church and state

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