Why Does Religion Matter in Politics?

Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

America is a religious nation, there’s no arguing that. Yes, there are a select group of atheists and agnostics, but statistically most in America identify with at least some degree of religious affiliation, though the variety of religions is immense given the melting pot reality of the U.S. demographic (not to mention the First Amendment). Now, when it comes to politics, religion has a complex relationship. On the surface, it’s completely separate (legally it’s required to be separate), but public opinion isn’t subject to a religious filter, and politicians need not feign unaligned views. In fact, many are very open about their religious preferences.

And many are openly religious for a very good reason; it plays well with certain groups of voters. This is true across party membership, from President Barack Obama, to Hillary Clinton, to Mike Huckabee. First, let’s take a look at Vox’s mapping of religious identities across the United States, and then see how it affects and applies to elections and key political issues.

It comes as little surprise that two of the top categories in the United States are Evangelical Protestant and Catholic, with many under the Christian umbrella term. What is somewhat surprising is the number of states and citizens who self-identify as “Unaffiliated,” as demonstrated in the map below.


According to Gallup, this is a trend that is increasing in the U.S.’s polling on religion; more and more people are stating that they are not religious. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re atheistic, but that they do not strongly align with any particular religion. That could include agnosticism, spiritualism, and other non-specific categories, but is not the same as a non-answer, which was a separate answer. In 1998, 6% of respondents answered “none” for their religious affiliation. This number increased by small increments every year until it reached the most recent 16% listed for 2014.

However this still doesn’t represent the overwhelming number of Americans, which is why it’s more common to see politicians openly displaying at least some form of religion. Hillary Clinton, for example, is a Methodist, and she has been very open about its importance in her life and her decision making, as have many politicians. She has spoken to Methodist groups, and has openly interviewed about her religion, but has also said, according to the New York Times, that “my faith has always been primarily personal,” but that “it is how I live my life and who I am, and I have tried through my works to demonstrate a level of commitment and compassion that flow from my faith.”

She wrote in her book Living History, that she and Bill Clinton prayed on election night together in 1992. “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you,” she wrote, quoting a passage from the Bible. But of course, presidents sworn into office often go to church just prior to the ceremony, and it’s really a very public act, this prayer. Why is that? The truth of the matter is that with so many Americans practicing religion of some sort, being an atheist, or even just distinctly non-religious, is not to the advantage of a candidate, and it’s obvious most politicians realize this.

When Bush was sworn into office, he first had the inauguration made in honor of Jesus Christ by a Protestant Evangelist minister, according to the L.A. Times, and in doing so, “excluded the tens of millions of Americans who are Muslim, Jews, Buddhists, Shintoists, Unitarians, agnostics, and atheists from his blessings by his particularistic and parochial language.” Of course, what the L.A. Times doesn’t mention — because the thesis was about normative issues, not practicalities of running an election — is that tens of millions of voters are not very many voters in the grand scheme of things given that America’s population is more than 300 million.

When President Obama was sworn in, one of the main headlines seen had to do with how he began his day: “With Visit To Episcopal Church,” according to the Associated Press. This was a particularly big deal because of the number of Americans who believed either through misinformation or through prejudice that his professed religious beliefs were false, and that he is a Muslim. This sort of prejudice reveals just how much stock certain subsets of voters put in religious identification. Not all voters are driven by this sort of prejudice, of course. Some simply prefer a spiritually guided leader, regardless of specifics. And for some politicians considering a 2016 presidential run, like Huckabee, a religious persona draws only a very specific electorate.

He attracts conservative votes in many southern states, especially with “born-again and evangelical Christians,” according to FiveThirtyEight. This could help him draw a specific group of voters away from his conservative competitors, but it doesn’t mean he’ll be able to play a wide enough field to succeed — and as a general rule religion as a characteristic follows that same theme. It matters, and it could have a fairly serious effect on certain groups of voters; a fact supported by Gallup polling as well, but that doesn’t guarantee an election. Still, it explains why so many politicians are comfortable, and even purposeful in sharing their religious affiliations and believes.

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