There have been so many memorable moments in the race for the Republican presidential nomination so far, but one really sticks out. Donald Trump, when asked to name his favourite book, declared: “As much as I love The Art of the Deal [the bestselling book he wrote], it’s not even close. We take the Bible all the way.”
This from a man who once called communion “my little wine and my little cracker,” and when asked if he preferred the New or the Old Testament said: “Probably equal. The whole Bible is just incredible.”
Trump’s comments are very difficult to take seriously, but they tell an important tale – of the outsized role that religious faith plays on the presidential campaign trail and among both Democrats and Republicans. Today it is practically a pro forma exercise for presidential candidates to talk about how their faith-based belief systems influence their policy views or include lines from scripture in their speeches. Indeed, back in 2000, George W Bush claimed his favourite philosopher was Jesus Christ – and in office pushed to include more “faith-based” groups in the provision of social services.
This year the Republican frontrunner, Ben Carson, has used his religious faith, which he also wears on his sleeve, to solidify support among evangelical voters. Indeed, their backing is one of the key reasons he leads in national polls of Republican voters.
Presidents every year trek to the national prayer breakfast – a bipartisan gathering of Washington’s elite – to discuss the role of God and religion in their lives. Indeed, Carson’s decision to run for president can be dated to the breakfast at which he attacked President Barack Obama, thus earning the love of social conservatives.
All this might seem strange – that in a country organised around the idea of separation of church and state such importance would be granted to the faith of the highest elected leader in the land.
Indeed, it was not always like this. Fifty-five years ago, when Senator John F Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, ran for president he faced scrutiny over whether he could separate his religious affiliation – and allegiance to the Vatican – with the responsibilities of being president. Declaring “I am not the Catholic candidate for president, I am the Democratic party’s candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic,” Kennedy made it clear that the “kind of church I believe in… should be important only to me.”
Suffice to say that this would be a tough position to take in the current political environment. But all of this is at pace with a larger inclusion of religion and faith in America’s political debates. Earlier this year, when a county clerk in Kentucky refused to provide marriage licences for a same-sex couple, several of the Republican nominees backed her stance – even after she went to prison for refusing to uphold her public responsibilities.
Indeed, it is practically an article of faith among social conservatives that, in the wake of the supreme court’s decision legalising same-sex marriage, religious believers are being persecuted and are under attack. To be sure, this view is restricted to those of the Judeo-Christian faith. When Carson suggested several months ago that a Muslim should not become American president, there was nothing to be heard from many of his faith-based supporters.
To be sure, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with presidential candidates talking about their religious faith. America is, after all, a pretty religious country. The problem, however, is that God has become a political football. Republicans don’t just talk about their faith; they present themselves as the defenders thereof, against heathen liberals. Faith has become yet another dividing line between liberals and conservatives – and one that has exacerbated the country’s already growing and debilitating political polarisation.
Michael Cohen is author of Live from the Campaign Trail: The Greatest Presidential Campaign Speeches of the 20th Century and How They Shaped Modern America.
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