One of the major challenges Donald Trump has been facing from conservative voters is his history of religious faith.
It’s an issue that comes up in every presidential election. Especially over the past few days, with candidates like Ben Carson making controversial comments about Islam and the role of religion in government, candidates have been asked how their faith influences their outlook on issues.
It’s the same thing Barack Obama faced in 2008, when he had to not only deny rumors that he was a Muslim but also distance himself from his longtime pastor’s inflammatory statements.
Although the Republican Party has historically been favored by Christian conservatives, the role of religion in the party is undeniably changing. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Mormon, earned the nomination in 2012. Self-described “constitutionalists,” like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, understand that personal faith has no place in government. Cruz and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee also interpret the same concept of religious freedom as an excuse for Kentucky clerk Kim Davis to deny people marriage licenses.
Trump’s religious history is documented, but his more conservative supporters want to be sure that he actually is a Christian like he says he is.
In a recent interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, Trump referenced his oceanside golf course while describing his relationship with God.
“Here we are on the Pacific Ocean,” Trump said, according to The Hill. “How did I ever own this? I bought it 15 years ago. I made one of the greatest deals, they say, ever. I have no mortgage on it as I will certify and represent to you. And I was able to buy this and make a great deal.
"That’s what I want to do for the country, make great deals. We have to, we have to bring back, but God is the ultimate. I mean God created this, and here’s the Pacific Ocean right behind us. So nobody, nothing, there’s nothing like God.”
This statement about God is typically Trumplike; an honest, off-the-cuff remark with little substance. It’s still difficult to tell whether Trump, who claims to be Presbyterian, is religious at all. The likely answer is he's not overly religious.
By 2016, the religion of a presidential candidate should not matter. Faith can obviously be a personal factor in a candidate’s life which could spill over into their political decisions, so it is at least somewhat important to know how candidates feel.
Yet the fact that Trump associates with a religion and claims the Bible is his “favorite book” should be enough. It doesn’t matter whether he actually practices or not. The only thing that matters is he’ll lose conservative Christian voters. As constitutionalists like Cruz claim, there should be a separation of church and state. Conservative Christian voters need to realize that as well.
Trump isn’t the only candidate that could change the relationship between religion and politics. Bernie Sanders has said he’s both “proud to be Jewish” and “not particularly religious.” There has never been a Jewish president or vice president of the United States. There’s also never been a candidate that speaks so openly against organized religion. Sanders, who is gaining in the polls, also talks highly of Pope Francis but focuses on the pontiff’s messages about climate change and income inequality rather than his faith.
With Trump leading on the right and Sanders surging on the left, 2016 may be the first major election year in history in which the religion of a presidential candidate loses its importance.
How much religion and religious freedom have been discussed in the campaign already, of course, shows that faith is still important to many voters. Trump may lose supporters for his nonsensical comments on his own religion. Yet the trend seems to be moving in the opposite direction, away from religious values and towards the political values of the candidates themselves.
Sometimes those two concepts are interrelated, but hopefully there will soon be a day when they can truly be separated.