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By John Pierce

flaggA new study from Pew Research, released yesterday, sheds light on what has become rather obvious in this and recent election cycles: a candidate’s religious identity and commitments don’t mean as much as they once did.

Of course, that doesn’t keep a candidate from playing up — or making up — a religious identity for a particular subgroup.

Even being an atheist is not the death knell it once was in American politics, the study showed. But it’s still a liability — as about half of the Americans surveyed said they’d be less likely to vote for an atheist.

So some kind of belief in God is politically advantageous. Yet, many Americans are much less concerned that political candidates mirror their own particular religious convictions.

That would be good news for both Sen. Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side — who is of Jewish heritage, holds a general belief in God but is not religiously active — and Republican frontrunner Donald Trump who … you, know.

According to Religion News Service, past Pew surveys found that 7 in 10 Americans said it was important that a president have strong religious beliefs. However, the new survey posed the related question differently.

The 2,009 U.S. adults surveyed earlier this month were asked: “How important is it to you to have a president who shares your religious beliefs?’

For Republicans, 64 percent said it was very or somewhat important while only 41 percent of Democrats fell into that category.

Other political matters such as the economy, terrorism and foreign policy trumped — uh, surpassed — religious uniformity.

Of course, evidence of this shifting goes back a ways — at least to Ronald Reagan who, while not a strong churchman, endorsed political concerns of importance to religiously conservative voters and defeated a faithful Sunday school teacher and Baptist deacon whose policies were deemed liberal.

More overtly was Gov. Mitt Romney’s nomination as the Republican presidential candidate in 2012 causing Mormonism to magically drop its cult identification on the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association web site.

Such easy “forgiveness” is surely troubling for a struggling candidate with real religious creds like The Rev. Gov. Mike Huckabee who lamented being left out of Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore’s earlier event that featured rivals Jeb Bush, a Catholic, and Marco Rubio, a Catholic-evangelical merger.

That’s despite Huckabee having seminary training, an ordination certificate and a file full of sermons. And not only can he pronounce each book of the Bible, Huckabee probably has them memorized from years of Sunday school and Vacation Bible School.

More than anything, this survey helps explain something of The Donald phenomenon. Most Republicans (56 percent) consider him to be good or (as he considers himself) to be great.

With growing religious diversity, one has to wonder if there is justifiable concern for any candidate who might push his or her religious identity on the nation. And as we’ve seen with the current president, one’s own religious confessions and practices are not enough to ensure a public religious identity if detractors want it be something else.

Perhaps the bottom line is that the religious identification of a candidate matters — but doesn’t matter as much as some might think.

However, that won’t keep them out of unfamiliar churches on Sunday mornings or religious gathering throughout the week in hopes of stirring up revival-like fervor for their own political salvation.

My main conclusion is that a religious standard works primarily in reverse.

That is, most religiously-oriented people criticize the religious/moral underpinnings (or lack thereof) of political opponents while excusing or ignoring those aspects in a favored candidate.

One can only imagine what Robert Jeffress, Jerry Falwell Jr., and other right-wing religionists would be saying if the leading Democratic candidate was a thrice-married, Bible-bungling, casino-building billionaire who speaks mostly of his own greatness and confesses that he’s never confessed any sin.

The pulpits would be a-pounding.

 

John Pierce

About John Pierce

John D. Pierce is editor of Nurturing Faith Journal — the signature publication of Baptists Today, Inc. He is also publisher of Nurturing Faith Books and Resources. Previously he served as managing editor of The Christian Index and as Baptist campus minister at Georgia Tech and Kennesaw State University. A native of Ringgold, Ga., he is a graduate of Berry College (B.A.), Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (M.Div.), and Columbia Theological Seminary (D.Min.). He speaks frequently in churches, consults with congregations concerning communications and holds interim pastorates.