Cameron Pollack / Sun Photography Editor

President Trump's proposed wall along the US-Mexico border marks the end of the American frontier, argued Prof. Greg Grandin, history, New York University.

May 4, 2016

Cornell Professors Weigh Role of Religion in Presidential Election

Print More

As the primary season winds down, several Cornell professors said they believe the role religion in this election — as seen in an increase of anti-Muslim sentiment and absence of religious values in the Trump campaign — breaks a trend established in previous elections.

Religion in American Politics

Prof. David Bateman, government, said he believes religion has been an important factor in American politics for decades, playing two interrelated roles.

“[Religion affects politics] as a shaper of broad public opinion and as a network of groups organized around religious identities or what they see as religiously mandated policy objectives,” Bateman said. “Since the 1970s, the latter has played an outsized role in Republican politics, while the former has and continues to influence the actions of officials from both parties.”

However, this influence may be changing, according to Bateman.

“I actually think it might be playing less of a role — or a less clear role — this time than in the past,” he said.

Prof. Ross Brann, near eastern studies, said the successes of Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s campaigns are evidence of the decreased role of religious values.

“On the Democratic side, Secretary Clinton is also known as devoted to her faith but otherwise does not gesture much towards it as a candidate,” Brann said. “Only Sen. Sanders deviates from this general picture. He speaks of his lack of religious belief but asserts that his Jewish heritage inspires his socio-economic outlook and policy proposals.”

Brann said that although Sanders has not made his religious beliefs central to his campaign, his candidacy reveals the integration of American Jews.“Because it is not regarded as a breach of what ought to be possible it is a reminder of the full integration and acceptance of Jewish Americans in American society,” Brann said.

Prof. Elizabeth Sanders, government, agreed with Brann, describing Clinton and Sanders as “thoroughly secular.”

“The most visible influence of religion would be the role of billionaires like Sheldon Adelson and Paul Singer, both strongly supportive of the Israeli occupation, and able to promote their candidates, up to a certain point,” Sanders said.

Trump’s ‘Anti-Muslim Rhetoric’

Despite religion’s decreased influence in the public’s choice of candidates, Bateman said that Trump’s anti-Muslim platform affected the outcome the election will have on religious minorities.

“Already the campaign has impacted religious minorities: there has been a rise in anti-Muslim violence and rhetoric, and this has had a chilling and potentially galvanizing effect on the Muslim community,” he said. “While this might not all be the result of Trump, he has provided an organized focus for anti-Muslim sentiment.”

One of the most significant roles religion has played in this election is in garnering Trump additional support, according to Bateman.

“Trump’s open and clear embrace of anti-Muslim rhetoric seems to have tapped into a broader sentiment that a white, Christian America is under siege, a sentiment shared it seems by many white evangelicals and non-evangelicals,” Bateman said. “This has flamed some divisions within the evangelical community.”

The Republican Evangelical Vote

Brann and Bateman both said the influence of religion has been most apparent in the Republican presidential race — and especially in the campaign of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who dropped out of the race Tuesday.

Cruz and Trump have both relied on their appeal to evangelicals to gain votes, according to Brann.

“[Cruz’s] campaign strategy aimed to consolidate support among evangelicals and then build out from there, with the idea being that the early states were heavily evangelical and so he would have a large lead by mid-March,” Bateman said. “The problem was that Trump started winning among evangelicals in the South and Northeast.”

Brann said he believes Cruz’s withdrawal from the race is evidence of the relatively small role of religion in this election.

“Clearly, this time around religion did not play the role it has been playing for a generation within the Republican primary electorate,” Brann said. “Was it the messenger’s [Cruz’s] failings, or the message itself?”

Trump’s Success: A Religious ‘Revolt’?

Sanders called Trump’s success in the presidential primaries a “real revolt” because of his lack of religious denomination.

“Working class men were asked to give their support for the Republican elite’s policy priorities: tax cuts, free trade, deregulation … in return for lip service to religious values,” Sanders said. “Clearly, that trade is no longer working.”

Brann added that although Trump has not yet incorporated religion into his platform, he may choose to do so once he has the Republican nomination.

“Anti-establishment elite fervor and celebrity-entertainment fixation won out this year. Yet I do not expect religion to fade as the significant force in American politics,” Brann said. “It will re-emerge … perhaps Trump, who has been trumpeting his success with ‘the Evangelicals,’ as he calls them, may test out its appeal to the Republican base in the coming months.”