Faith in the Oval Office

by Maureen Fiedler

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Religion in government: it’s always a controversial topic. Our U.S. Constitution says there should be no religious test for public office. The First Amendment prohibits the establishment of religion and guarantees religious freedom.

But polling shows that the vast majority of Americans want their president to be religious. A candidate who is an atheist does not — if you’ll excuse the pun — “have a prayer.”

Moreover, just about every president in modern times has used religious rhetoric on stump, or in the oval office. Historian Gary Scott Smith believes that the religious faith of presidents has, in fact, guided some of their policies.

On “Interfaith Voices” this week, we spoke with Smith, author of Religion in the Oval Office: The Religious Lives of American Presidents. He argues that presidential religious beliefs have often affected policy, from Jimmy Carter’s decision to broker the deal between Israel and the Palestinians at Camp David to Ronald Reagan’s quest to defeat communism in Europe.

Thus, he argues, it is important to know the religious inclinations of would-be presidents. So this week, we began that process on "Interfaith Voices," focusing this time mostly on the declared candidates.

For that, we were joined by Kevin Eckstrom, editor-in-chief of Religion News Service, who follows all this like a hawk. Thus, we heard that:

  • Ted Cruz is “evangelical to the hilt,” having begun his campaign at Liberty University, founded by Jerry Falwell. His evangelical beliefs shape his social conservatism.
  • Rand Paul is nominally a Presbyterian, but unlike most of the other Republican candidates, he does not like to wear his religion on his sleeve.
  • Marco Rubio has an eclectic religious background: baptized a Catholic, later baptized a Mormon, still later attended a Southern Baptist Church in Florida, and today calls himself a Catholic and attends Mass.
  • Jeb Bush has not formally announced, but all the major pundits expect that to happen soon. He was brought up Episcopalian, but after marrying a Catholic, he was baptized himself, and by all accounts, is today a serious Catholic.
  • Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana, was Hindu, and converted to Catholicism. A few years ago, he wrote an article about an exorcism he observed for the New Oxford Review. Some worry that this could prove a political liability and might make him look “kooky” to the general public.
  • Hillary Clinton is a Methodist, who was affected in her younger years by the social justice teaching of Methodism. Her faith later helped her through troubling days when the Monica Lewinsky affair was brewing. Today, she does not make a “show” of her religion, but she is widely regarded as a serious Methodist.
  • Martin O’Malley, former governor of Maryland, is a progressive Catholic, who is in favor of same-sex marriage and is pro-choice. He might have some of the same problems as John Kerry when it comes to the Catholic hierarchy.
  • Bernie Sanders is Jewish, most likely a secular Jew. But, as Smith remarked, his views on Jesus are the same as those of four Unitarians who have been past presidents.

You can hear the full interview here.

As other candidates announce their intention to run, we will cover their religious preferences as well, and I will write them up for NCR.

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