In a baffling political season, one of the more curious mysteries is why two of the least religious presidential candidates may be poised to win one of the more famously religious states.
In 2008 and 2012, Iowa’s Evangelicals helped propel conspicuously devout Republicans – Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, respectively – to unlikely victories. But as the state’s first-in-the nation caucuses approach Monday, leading the Republican polls is flamboyant New York billionaire Donald Trump, with self-described socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont running just 3 points behind former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Of course, Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, with his “God talk,” is running a strong second, and many Republicans are reasserting their religious bona fides. Clearly, religion still matters in politics. But it is about more than just church attendance and pronouncing II Corinthians correctly. So far this cycle, religion is shaping how voters view candidates, but not determining how they say they'll vote.
For Mr. Trump, for example, Evangelicals’ affinity with his vision for America is proving more important than his halting professions of faith. For Senator Sanders, a new generation of “nones” – Americans unaffiliated with religion, but who nevertheless believe in God – hear in his words an echo of their own worldview.
Taken with Senator Cruz’s respectable polling numbers in secular New Hampshire, the developments in Iowa suggest an electorate apparently open to looking beyond religion – as either a positive or negative – to find a candidate who shares their broader values.
“What matters most to a lot of evangelical voters is not Trump’s personal relationship with Christ, rather it’s his understanding of America and America’s place in the world,” says Carter Turner, professor of religious studies at Radford University in Virginia. “America, and American exceptionalism, is the overlap between Trump and Evangelicals. It’s not Jesus.”
Trump scored a major coup with the endorsement of Jerry Falwell, Jr., son of the late televangelist and president of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. on Tuesday. It adds to his already substantial list of support from prominent Evangelicals.
Yet most voters don’t think the New York businessman is very religious.
Some 47 percent of Republican voters say Trump is “not too religious” (24 percent) or “not at all religious” (23 percent), compared with 44 percent who say he is “very religious” (5 percent) or “somewhat religious” (39 percent), according to a Pew Research Center survey released Wednesday.
“Trump’s record on religion should be troubling to most Evangelicals,” says David O’Connell, a political scientist at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., and author of “God Wills It: Presidents and the Political Use of Religion.”
Recounting some of the candidate’s stumbles as he courted religious conservatives during the past few months, Professor O’Connell says: “He mispronounces the name of Biblical passages, he calls Communion a ‘little cracker,’ he shows no concern that he will be judged for his past actions.”
The majority of all the voters in the Pew survey – Republicans and Democrats – perceived Trump, a Presbyterian, as less religious even than Sanders, a secular Jew who does not practice any religion.
“Many religious voters are less worried about the specific religious affiliation of candidates than they are about those candidates’ positions on issues that matter to them as people of faith,” says Amy Black, a political scientist at Wheaton College, an Evangelical institution in Illinois. “They are more likely to vote on issues and perceptions of who has the best leadership skills than they are on religious affiliation.”
Trump has done enough to show Republican voters that he does share their common beliefs in God, allowing them to judge him more by more secular standards.
Among Democrats, religion is playing out in a different way as shifting views of religion shape the party.
Scholars have noted that Americans as a whole have become more secular. There has been a dramatic rise in the so-called “nones,” with 1 in 4 Americans not subscribing to any religion, according to research.
These trends are even more pronounced among Millennials, 35 percent of whom describe themselves as “nones.” And these younger voters have flocked in droves to the campaign of Sanders over the past few months.
In an interview published Wednesday, the Vermont senator expressed a view of faith common to many Millennial “nones.” “I think everyone believes in God in their own ways,” Sanders told The Washington Post, saying he was not actively involved with organized religion. “To me, it means that all of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appears to be staking out a middle ground.
On Monday, a Catholic voter at a town hall meeting in Iowa asked her about the role of her faith in her decisionmaking.
Mrs. Clinton, who rarely speaks of her faith on the stump, responded: “I am a Christian. I am a Methodist. I have been raised Methodist. I feel very grateful for the instructions and support I received starting in my family but through my church, and I think that any of us who are Christian have a ... constant conversation in our own heads about what we are called to do and how we are asked to do it.”
“And I think it is absolutely appropriate for people to have very strong convictions and also, though, to discuss those with other people of faith. Because different experiences can lead to different conclusions about what is consonant with our faith and how best to exercise it.”
Instead of emphasizing secularism, Clinton appears to be moving toward a coalition that attempts to hold together a growing religious diversity in the Democratic Party, many say. As testament to the diversity, surveys show that 35 percent Democrats under 30 identify as evangelical Christians.
“Democrats have long cultivated and mirrored particular approaches to religious pluralism with attention to ecumenism, interfaith, and other aspects of religious liberty for believers and non-believers alike,” says Bill Leonard, professor of church history at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. “Clinton, a lifelong Methodist, and Sanders, who is Jewish, reflect that pluralism in their own backgrounds and approaches to religious identity.”