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Grace Eberly

Rethinking Religion: Are the presidential candidates running for president or for priest?

Columnist Grace Eberly writes about the 2016 presidential candidates' relationships with religion.

The 2016 presidential election will be one for the books. In November, the American people will either elect their first female president, their first Hispanic president, their first (and oldest) president who identifies as a democratic socialist or their first reality television show host turned president (a Trump presidency would also be unprecedented for a great number of reasons that are precluded by the word count of this column). 

But what about religion? All of the remaining candidates have expressed a belief in God and, in that way, they have much in common with their presidential predecessors.

Almost all U.S. presidents have been Christian and nearly half — 19 — have been Episcopalian or Presbyterian. There have been four Baptists (Clinton, Carter, Truman and Harding), three Methodists (George W. Bush, McKinley and Grant), one Catholic (JFK) and two Quakers (Hoover and – wait for it – Nixon). There are only two U.S. presidents whose formal religious affiliation is unknown or disputed (Lincoln frequently spoke about God but never joined a church and Jefferson was probably a Deist).

Most of the remaining presidential candidates fit neatly into one of the categories described above.

Hillary Clinton is a Methodist and speaks often about her faith. Sen. Ted Cruz, the son of a pastor, is Southern Baptist. Ohio Gov. John Kasich is a Catholic turned Anglican who goes to church because “that’s what you do.” Former candidate Sen. Marco Rubio is Catholic (though as a child he did spend three years within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints).

Candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are unconventional in many ways – and religion just might have something to do with it.

Trump identifies as Presbyterian and so, at least on paper, he would join the ranks of Reagan, Eisenhower and the like. But Trump’s religious commentary is anything but ordinary. Over the course of his campaign, Trump quoted “Two” Corinthians, referred to communion as his “little wine and little cracker” and admitted that he has never asked God for forgiveness. Most recently, he publicly sparred with Pope Francis after the head of the Catholic Church suggested that “a person who thinks only of building walls anywhere – rather than building bridges – is not a Christian.” Though Trump is the Republican front-runner, his electorate might agree. As reported in a January 2016 poll conducted by Pew Research Center, 37 percent of American adults believe that Trump is “not at all religious.” 

If elected, Sen. Sanders would be the first Jewish president in American history. But Sanders’ religious profile is peculiar in other ways, too. On a stage where it is often hard to tell if the candidates are running for president or priest, Bernie’s secularity stands out like a sore thumb.

Though Senator Sanders is proud of his Jewish heritage and has said that it’s an essential part of who he is as a human being, he has been accused by some of downplaying his Judaism, having admitted that he is “not particularly religious.” When asked about God, he often speaks in general moral terms that appeal to secular humanists, agnostics and atheists alike. 

At a CNN Democratic town hall event last month, the presidential candidate said that his faith boils down to the fact that “we have got to work together.” 

“It’s very easy to turn our backs on kids who are hungry or veterans who are sleeping on the street, but I believe that what human nature is about is that everybody in this room impacts everybody else in all kinds of ways that we can’t understand,” he said. “That’s my religion. That’s what I believe in.”

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And so it seems that Sen. Sanders reflects the growing trend among the American public to identify as spiritual rather than religious. Indeed, the “religious nones” – a shorthand term researchers use to refer to people who self-identify as atheists, agnostics, or secular humanists – now make up roughly 23 percent of the U.S. adult population. This is up significantly from 16 percent in 2007, the last time a similar study was conducted.

Does a president’s faith matter when it comes to electability? Should it?

Some say yes. In September, former candidate Dr. Ben Carson controversially remarked that he “would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation.”

As reported in a Pew Research Center poll from January of this year, 42 percent of respondents indicated that they would be less likely to vote for a Muslim candidate. The only religious affiliation (or lack there of) seen as more of a political liability? Atheism. 51 percent of respondents said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who doesn’t believe in God.

When speaking at Liberty University, Sen. Sanders said, “I am motivated by a vision which exists in all of the great religions – in Christianity, in Judaism, in Islam, Buddhism and other religions – and which is so beautifully and clearly stated in Matthew 7:12. And it states, ‘So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the law and the prophets.’ That is the golden rule. Do to others what you would have them do to you.” 

He added, “It is not very complicated.”

Maybe it doesn’t have to be.

Grace Eberly is a senior studying world religions and biology. Does a candidate's religious beliefs affect your opinion of him or her? Email Grace at

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