In an election year when countless political norms have been shattered, the role of religion has likewise been thrown into disarray, a panel agreed on Oct. 18 at the Lincoln Center campus.
“Soul-Searching on the Eve of the Election: Religion and the Future of American Politics,” a panel discussion held by the Center on Religion and Culture, tackled everything from Catholics’ role in the 2016 election to the silence surrounding ISIS’ genocide of Christians and Yazidis.
A large part of the night was devoted to discussing white evangelical voters’ support for Donald Trump. David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, said that in 2016, race, gender, and partisan identity are more influential than religion. Levels of social capital and age are also a factor, as white evangelicals who are younger and have more social networks are resisting their leaders’ embrace of Trump.
Eddie Glaude Jr., the author of Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul (Crown, 2016), said in the black community, religion still has a place in the political arena. Bree Newsome, the woman who climbed a flagpole in June 2015 to remove a Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse, recited Psalms 27 as she was alighting from the pole.
Tom Reese, S.J., columnist for the National Catholic Reporter, pointed out parallels in the decline of both religious and political groups. In 2014, 39 percent of Americans identified politically as independents. Likewise, the number of people identifying as having no religious affiliation (“nones”) has increased to about 25 percent of the U.S. population.
Panelists criticized the Obama Administration’s inattention to religiously motivated killings. Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute Center for Religious Freedom, said that in March, the administration correctly labeled the killing of Yazidis by ISIS as a genocide, yet has done little to publicize the issue since then.
Perhaps due to her Methodist background, Hillary Clinton seems uncomfortable talking about her religion, said Father Reese. Her campaign is trying to simultaneously appeal to Hispanic Catholics, black Protestants and most importantly, young people who identify as “nones.” Push religion too hard, he said, and they risk alienating nonreligious voters.
“The Democratic party is quite conflicted when it comes to how they want to talk about religion. They’ll talk about [it]one way in the black community and with Hispanics, but with a different crowd, it’s just not an issue,” he said.
When it comes to Catholic voters, Father Reese said, although they traditionally lean Republican, it’s anyone’s guess how they’ll vote this year. The primary exit polls only asked if a voter was evangelical; not if they were Catholic.
What is clear, he said, is that many religious leaders have become like “generals without troops.” Black religious leaders championed Hillary Clinton in 2008 but then switched their support for Barack Obama when Obama started winning votes on the ground in primaries. In this election cycle, white evangelical leaders supported Ted Cruz, yet their followers backed Donald Trump.
Blankenhorn said the Church of Latter Day Saints is a rare exception. Its leaders and followers traditionally vote Republican, but are both shunning Trump in such numbers that Trump may lose the state of Utah. It’s not a coincidence that the church is growing, and members have high levels of social capital.
“One thing that’s interesting to me is this trend where a few groups take a different path,” he said.
Video of the discussion can be found here.