Q&A with Randall Balmer on religion and the 2016 election

by Joe Regan | 1/27/16 7:40pm

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Barnard Faculty/Staff portraits taken in the James Room, Barnard Hall, Barnard College, New York, New York on Tuesday, September 14, 2010. Photos by Ruby Arguilla Tull.
Source: Ruby Arguilla Tull

Presidential elections often make both direct and indirect references to religion, with the current 2016 race being no exception. The Dartmouth sat down with religion professor Randall Balmer to better understand the role of religion in American politics.

Could you become president without being Christian?

RB: I think that 20 years ago it would have been impossible to be president without being Christian. I think things have changed. In 1960, Kennedy made a famous speech where he argued that voters should bracket their faith when they go into the voting booth. My construction is what I call the Kennedy paradigm of voter indifference to candidates faith, really prevails in American politics until the mid 1970s. And then, because of the massive corruptions of the Nixon administration, all of a sudden Americans care again about this question. And so they want to know that their presidential candidates are good, moral, decent people.

I don’t think the issue is being Christian so much as it is we want to know if someone has a good moral compass — after Nixon. Nixon cured us of the Kennedy paradigm, he destroyed the Kennedy paradigm. And then the next president, Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher said, “I’m not going to lie to you.” What a remarkable statement that was in the mid 1970s. A president that is not going to lie to us? Johnson had lied to us about Vietnam, Nixon had lied to us about pretty much everything and here we had someone who said, “I’m not going to lie to you.” Although Carter’s presidency was complicated in many ways, no one has ever credibly claimed that he lied. My supposition is that the farther we get away from Nixon the less important religion is going to be. Religion in this country serves as a proxy for morality. What we really want to know is that we have presidential candidates who are decent people. We don’t know how to ask the question other than, “Are you religious?” Which is a bad question because the flawed premise behind that question is that you can’t be moral without being explicitly religious.

Do you think the influence of religion in politics is negative or positive?

RB: Voters too often settle for shorthand self-descriptions from candidates. My example would be George W. Bush. He came onto the campaign trail and said, “I’m an evangelical Christian, I have strong moral values” and so forth. He even said in the Des Moines Register debate, in the leadup to the 2000 Iowa precinct caucuses, that Jesus was his favorite philosopher. But no one followed up on his claims. Your favorite philosopher calls on his followers to turn the other cheek, to love your enemies, how is that going to affect your foreign policy? Your favorite philosopher expressed concern for the tiniest sparrow. Will that have an impact on your environmental policies? Nobody bothered to ask those questions. I think we settle for anodyne statements from candidates. Trump is another example of that. He claims he’s a Presbyterian and that he’s a member of the Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, which is not a Presbyterian church. Yet, no one seems to be challenging him on that claim.

How appropriate is it, and is there a need, for religion to be brought up in political discourse?

RB: I think that religion is a legitimate part of public discourse, I don’t think there is any problem with that. I am a passionate defender of the First Amendment. I’ve been an expert witness in some pretty high-profile First Amendment cases. Some people misconstrue that to say that because I believe in the separation of church and state, people shouldn’t bring their religious beliefs into politics. I don’t believe that at all. I happen to think that the arena of public discourse would be impoverished without those religious voices. Now, there are many ways to have that conversation. If you try and commandeer that conversation into a way that brackets out other voices, that is not appropriate. But can people bring their religious convictions in with them to the voting booth? Absolutely. I am a person of faith myself, I couldn’t separate that out from who I am. That is who I am. Now if the question is about candidates, yeah I think that’s legitimate. But again, as a voter, as a scholar who studies this stuff, I would like to see some of those statements of faith challenged.

Has religion always been important in politics?

RB: It was assumed to be important for a long time. Actually in 1952, the election was fascinating to me because over the course of that campaign Dwight Eisenhower was asked what his religion was and if he had been baptized. It turned out he had never been baptized. He is the only president to be baptized while in office. Can you imagine a candidate today saying, “Aw gee, I’ve never been baptized but I’m kinda busy right now, I’ll wait until I get into office?” You just couldn’t get away with that today.

This campaign is so interesting to me for all sorts of reasons. Bernie Sanders, in terms of religious rhetoric, he has all the passion of a Hebrew prophet. He’s arguably the most religious person in the race. In terms of having religious principles form his policies — I’m not sure that he would acknowledge them as religious principles — if you look at the Hebrew prophets in the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament, he is speaking their language. He is calling the wealthy to account, he is decrying the persistence of poverty in a world of plenty and in an affluent society. I think he is the most religious person running for president.

As the race heats up, do you think we should we expect more religious rhetoric?

RB: Yes I do. Hillary was asked a question in one of her appearances in Iowa a couple of days ago and she riffed rather extensively on her faith and what it means to her. Last fall I taught “Religion, Politics and the Presidency” and we had E. J. Dionne from the Washington Post come up. He said when he came to class, “I expect that Hillary will start ramping up her religious rhetoric.” He thinks that what she believes is utterly sincere on her part. It is utterly sincere. I think so too, that it is very much a part of who she is.

Do you think that perhaps it makes sense religion is referenced in United States politics, considering the U.S. is a very religious country?

RB: The First Amendment set up, to put it in economic terms, a free marketplace for religion. It means that no one religion or denomination or sect or religious group enjoys government favor over another. Of course over American history it hasn’t always worked that way, but generally it has. What that did is set up that marketplace where you have all these different religious groups competing against one another. That ensures that religion in America is vibrant and more dynamic. We have a richer religious culture in the United States than anywhere else.

Now it is changing. Americans are less religious than they were before. But compared to any other nation we are off the charts. We can have another conversation about the quality of that diversity, but in terms of quantity and how we see ourselves as Americans, we are very religious people.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and space. The full story can be found online.