Donald Trump recently told a group of Evangelicals that he has doubts about the Christianity of both President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Some were turned off by Trump’s accusation, while others winced at the use of religion in a campaign.
Like it or not, religious language has become affixed to American politics. Every campaign season now has a faith component in which candidates use the language of the faithful to attract attention and convince voters that their policies are in line with divine teachings.
What is missing is that while the candidates are espousing a particular political ideology, they are also expressing a religious ideology.
Religious language, practices and beliefs are now used as a proxy for political language. As candidates tout their faith, they are using it as a tool to both inspire and shame people into supporting their policies. Even though many cringe at the use of religion in campaigns because it can be divisive, religion has a rightful place in politics. However, in order for it be a positive, people must be willing to thoughtfully engage their own religious beliefs.
By recognizing and investigating the religious ideologies articulated by candidates, this rhetoric can help people gain both a better understanding of what their religion requires of them and how it can be applied to politics. However, an unwillingness to do this can erode American civil society and make religion even more divisive.
One of the reasons for the continued relevance of religion in America is that the U.S. lacks an official religion, which provides the opportunity for various religious faiths to develop and create a vast religious marketplace. This is especially true of Christianity, the most prominent religion in the U.S., which seems to have more flavors than a Baskin-Robbins.
This variety is beloved, but it is also the cause of tension. This competition intensifies during election years as candidates have tapped into these differences and used a variety of religious ideologies to advance their political ideologies.
This year’s election has seen Trump promote both the gospel of prosperity and religious nationalism. The prosperity gospel emphasizes individualism and personal wealth acquisition, while religious nationalism argues that the nation is divinely inspired, favored and directed.
These belief systems are manifested in slogans such as “Make America Great Again,” proposing temporary bans on specific religious groups, and emphasizing the need to reinforce the nation’s Christian identity. In contrast, Hillary Clinton has worked to tap into the social gospel tradition, which stresses actively working to change societal structures to create a more just society.
What many seem to miss is that this is not a conflict between Evangelicals and non-Evangelicals. Research has shown that Evangelicals are split on their ascription to the various religious ideologies that exist. The battles over the dominant religious ideology are being waged within and across faith traditions.
As religion became increasingly intertwined with American politics, candidates picked up on these divides and used them as tools for mobilizing religious populations. In doing this, the competition moved from being a theological debate to a political debate.
Those who believe America is the land of opportunity that provides everyone with a fair shake see the criticisms of American political, economic and social structures as blasphemy. Those who believe discrimination and oppression are rampant argue that America has forgotten or ignores religious mandates to protect the powerless.
What all of this demonstrates is that there is no consensus on what it means to be religious. The constant use of religious rhetoric in political campaigns, however, has made the battle over what it means to be religious a political fight.
Moving forward, we should not just dismiss it as pandering to religious groups, but as signals of what it means to be religious in America and what Americans are divinely mandated to accomplish. Once we appreciate this, we can better understand both the religious and political conflicts in America and what this means as we enter our places of worship and voting booths.
Eric McDaniel is an associate professor of government at The University of Texas at Austin.
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