Since I last wrote about the GOP presidential candidates in May, the already-crowded field has seen its membership double in number. It is time, then, for an update on the religious affiliations and moral positions of the nine candidates who have now joined the race. (Click the link above to go back and read about Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Mark Everson, Jack Fellure, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio).
Such a “cheat sheet” is necessary not only for the pure pleasure of amassing trivia. Indeed, it’s not trivial at all. In recent years, a rapidly growing field of scholarship on the New Christian Right and the Culture Wars of the 1970s and 1980s has begun to reveal the significant, nuanced, and long-lasting influence of conservative Christian movements in American politics across the twentieth century. As we gear up for the 2016 election, the populous field of Republican candidates speaks to the continued relevance of this history as well as some important shifts over the past four decades. Many of the central issues are the same: abortion, homosexuality, government overreach, and the crumbling Christian foundations of the nation. The denominational diversity of the candidates reveals a continuing trend toward conservative Christian ecumenism, while the similarity of the rhetoric from candidate to candidate evinces the still-overarching influence of certain evangelical Protestant frameworks. More than anything, the prevalence of religious and moral framing among the GOP candidates contrasts sharply with the priorities and language of their Democratic opponents, indicating important assumptions about the place of religion in twenty-first century American politics, even despite a long history of leftist religious activism in this country.
Without further ado, then, part two of our examination of the religious orientations – personal and political – of Republican presidential candidates for 2016.
Chris Christie (announced on June 30): The governor of New Jersey (since 2010) has a reputation for outspoken brashness, which he embraces in his campaign slogan: “Telling it like it is.” He explains this tendency by way of ethnic identity in a video on the front page of his campaign website: “I had an Irish father and a Sicilian mother.” Readers of Matt Jacobson’s excellent book Roots, Too will recognize that this proud claiming of these national heritages ties Christie firmly to a particular narrative of American immigrant identity, connecting him to a romanticized notion of the Ellis-Island-era immigrant, once downtrodden but now firmly pulled up by bootstraps. Christie’s ethnic heritage is also deeply connected to his identity as a Catholic, which has informed his opposition to abortion and his support for government vouchers for parochial schools. His position on gay rights has been more complicated, however. Christie stated in 2011 that: “My religion says it’s a sin [but] . . . I think if someone is born that way it’s very difficult to say then that that’s a sin.” In 2013 he signed a statewide ban on reparative therapy (popularly known as “ex-gay” or “pray the gay away” therapy) but also vetoed a bill to legalize same-sex marriage in New Jersey, and he recently criticized the Supreme Court’s decision on this matter.
Lindsey Graham (announced on June 1): Graham has represented South Carolina in the U.S. Congress for twenty years, first as a member of the House of Representatives (1995–2003) and now as a Senator (since 2003). A lifelong Southern Baptist, Graham generally hews to the moral positions typical of the religious right. His campaign website identifies “Securing Our Values” as one of Graham’s top three priorities, elaborating that: “Strong families, constitutional liberties, and the sanctity of life form the bedrock on which our nation was founded.” He recently reintroduced a bill into Congress that would criminalize abortion after 20-weeks’ gestation, even naming the bill for himself on his campaign website. His opposition to “Radical Islam” is the centerpiece of his foreign policy platform and has also informed his response to domestic issues. Last month, he reacted to the massacre at a historically black Charleston church by comparing the shooter’s motivations to “Mideast hate.” He has also recently made headlines for advising the GOP to “accept” the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage, but notably – in the same statement – renewed his commitment to “protect the religious liberties of those who believe that opposing same sex marriage is part of their faith.”
Bobby Jindal (announced on June 24): The son of Indian immigrants, Jindal was raised Hindu but converted to Protestant Christianity, based in part on the influence of a high school classmate (who was Southern Baptist). In college, he converted to Roman Catholicism and now identifies as an “evangelical Catholic.” Religiously and politically, Jindal speaks the language of evangelical Protestantism. In 2014, he gave the commencement address at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, focusing on his conversion to Christianity but glossing over his move to the Catholic branch of the faith. At a Good Friday prayer breakfast in April this year, he eloquently captured a core premise of modern conservative Christianity in his statement: “I don’t know about you, but sometimes it feels like evangelical Christians are the only group that it’s okay to discriminate against in this society.” In May of this year, Jindal signed an executive “Marriage and Conscience Order” in response to Louisiana legislators’ refusal to pass a religious freedom bill similar to the recent Indiana law that sparked controversy for its potential to promote discrimination against members of the LGBT community. Jindal has also been an outspoken opponent of abortion and “radical Islam.”
George Pataki (announced on May 28): In a GOP field with a surprising number of Catholic candidates, some (like Jindal, Bush, Rubio, and Santorum) have foregrounded their faith and underscored their commonalities with other conservative Christians. Others (including Christie and Pataki) have chosen not to make religion a central feature of their campaigns. Pataki served as Governor of New York for nine years, from 1995 to 2006. He frequently highlights his service as governor during and after the September 11 attacks, and has said that “radical Islam” is one of the most pressing threats to American freedom. However, he has not made his opposition to radical Islam central to his campaign in the way that both Graham and Jindal have done. Instead, Pataki’s campaign announcement centers on an appeal overcome “those things which might seem superficially to divide us.” He has chastised the national GOP for focusing on issues like same-sex marriage and abortion, which he sees as “a distraction” in federal politics. As governor, he signed an important 2002 gay-rights bill and more recently asserted his opposition to Indiana’s religious freedom law in light of its potential to authorize discrimination against gays and lesbians. Pataki’s record on reproductive issues is more mixed. He identifies as pro-choice, and signed a 2002 law requiring insurers to cover contraception regardless of religious objections. However, he also vetoed a 2005 bill that would have made emergency contraception available without a prescription, and he supported a measure requiring parental notification for minors seeking abortions.
Rick Perry (announced on June 4): The former Texas governor (2000–2015) was raised as a Methodist, but now attends the nondenominational Lake Hills megachurch in Austin. In 2014, he publicly renewed his commitment to his faith with a baptism in Little Rock Creek, where Texas hero Sam Houston was baptized 160 years earlier. This easy mixture of religious and political symbolism is typical for Perry, who famously announced during his 2012 presidential campaign that he had “been called to the ministry,” while comparing his political career to a “big . . . pulpit.” Perry is also a staunch opponent of abortion and gay marriage. As governor, he passed an omnibus abortion bill that included some of the most restrictive legislation in the country and that resulted in the closure of most of the state’s abortion clinics. His response to the recent Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage neatly summarized his multivalent stance on this matter: as an issue of tradition, of states’ rights, and of government overreach.
Rick Santorum (announced on May 27): The former U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania (1995–2006) is another Catholic candidate who fluently speaks the language of the religious right. He recently made headlines for criticizing Pope Francis’ stance on climate change, asserting that the pontiff should “leave science to the scientists.” His initial response to last month’s shooting in Charleston mirrored early Fox News coverage of the massacre, acknowledging it as a “crime of hate” but connecting it to “assaults on our religious liberty we’ve never seen before” rather than to racial animus. (He later said that the shooting was “clearly racially motivated.”)The father of seven is strongest on “family values” issues, including his committed opposition to abortion and homosexuality. His 2003 statement that the “definition of marriage has never included man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be” prompted sex-columnist Dan Savage to “memorialize the scandal” by popularizing a new, sexually explicit definition of the word “santorum.” The former senator has also expressed broader concerns about threats to the institution of marriage, including not only the legalization of same-sex unions, but also declining marriage rates and a concern that “marriage is not about children anymore.”
Donald Trump (announced on June 16): Trump is Presbyterian, but religion has never been a conspicuous feature of his public persona. His most extensive commentary on his faith comes from an interview that aired on the Christian Broadcasting Network in 2011, when Trump was considering a possible presidential run in the last election cycle. He emphasized his belief in God and asserted that “the Bible is certainly the book; it is the thing,” but he also made it clear that church attendance is not necessarily a top priority in his life, although he said that he goes to church as often as he can and always on Christmas and Easter. Not mentioned in the interview was his daughter Ivanka’s 2009 conversion to Judaism; he told the Jewish Voice this year that he feels “very honored” to have a Jewish daughter and Jewish grandchildren. Trump has been an outspoken opponent of radical Islam, and this week criticized President Obama for being too “politically correct” on the subject. His campaign website largely focuses on his business accomplishments, but also asserts that Trump’s priorities include promoting “the Free Market, the importance of a strong family, a culture of Life, a strong military and our country’s sacred obligation to take care of our veterans and their families.”
Scott Walker (announced on July 13): Governor of Wisconsin since 2011, Walker made a national name for himself less than one year into his governorship, when the protests surrounding his Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill made national headlines. Walker is also socially (and religiously) conservative. He grew up as a pastor’s kid in the First Baptist Church of Plainfield, Iowa. He attended Underwood Memorial Baptist Church in Wauwatosa, WI until 2003, when that church joined the LGBT-friendly Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists. Walker denied that he left Underwood for that reason, however, stating that his family wanted a church with a larger youth group for his two sons. He now attends the Meadowbrook Church in Wauwatosa, which is nondenominational in affiliation but strongly evangelical in leaning, emphasizing Biblical inerrancy and the necessity of personal redemption. Walker has said that he would support a constitutional amendment to allow states to overturn the Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage. He has also been a strong supporter of a Wisconsin bill that would ban abortion after 20-weeks’ gestation, with no exceptions for cases of rape or incest. His campaign website centrally emphasizes personal freedom and small government: “In America we celebrate our independence from government, not our dependence on it.”
Emily Johnson is a Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Tennessee. She recently completed her doctorate at Yale University, including a dissertation entitled “Authors, Activists, Apostles: Women’s Leadership in the New Christian Right.” Her work focuses on gender, politics, and popular culture in recent American religious history.
*Image Credits: Christie (Official Portrait); Graham; (Official Portrait); Jindal (Gage Skidmore); Pataki (Michael Vadon); Perry (Gage Skidmore); Trump (Michael Vadon); Walker (Gage Skidmore).