“Truth,” printed in capital letters, is the backdrop for 2024 Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy as he repeats a refrain from his well-worn stump speech — “God is real.”
The scene, duplicated in Iowa, New Hampshire and other primary hotspots over the last several months, finds different but familiar forms in the campaigns of fellow presidential hopefuls, Mike Pence, Tim Scott, Ron DeSantis and others, who have all taken great pains to broadcast their religiosity to their conservative audience.
Despite these appeals to shared religious values, however, most of the race’s Republican onlookers continue to throw their support behind former President Donald Trump, who has spoken little about his religious beliefs even as he remains the party’s far and away front-runner.
“If anything, Donald Trump is more explicitly secular than ever,” said Russell Moore, editor in chief of Christianity Today, in an interview with the Deseret News. “That was always the case, but really is at the moment, even more so than in 2016 or 2020.”
A similar discrepancy in how voters react to religiously infused politics is on display in a recent Deseret News/HarrisX poll. While religion remains an important factor in how Americans vote, voters are more cynical than ever about what politicians say about their faith, suggesting that messages of personal religious conviction may be less important to Republican voters than the policy or cultural positions of a given candidate.
These data points come amid ongoing disagreement over Trump’s impact on the GOP. Some claim the former president’s behavior has shifted the focus of religious appeals from personal testimonies to patriotic identity. Others insist Trump’s style is helping him achieve what his predecessors failed to do: translate a message of religious values into policies that actually do something to protect the future of the country’s faith traditions.
“The question is, would you rather have a public culture in which people were defending and propagating religious imagery as a positive thing? Or would you rather have a religious culture in which it’s banished to the realm of private life where it’s slowly dying an obvious death?” Yoram Hazony, chairman of the Edmund Burke Foundation, asked during an interview with the Deseret News.
How does religion affect who people vote for?
Regardless of party affiliation, roughly 70% of Americans say religion is important in their lives, according to a new national poll conducted by HarrisX for the Deseret News.
Maybe unsurprisingly, the weight many Americans give to religion is felt at the ballot box, with over half the country, 55% — including 61% of Republicans, 57% of Democrats and 46% of independents — saying religion is important in deciding who they vote for. And an even larger majority of Americans, 62%, including 69% of Republicans, say religion plays an important role in determining which policies they support.
However, the poll found both these preferences are dwarfed by a general skepticism towards politicians’ religious rhetoric.
When asked whether most politicians advertise their religious beliefs out of genuine conviction or as an attempt to get more votes, nearly seven out of 10 respondents opted for the more cynical take, with 62% of Republicans, 69% of Democrats and 78% of independents, sharing the perception that when a politician appeals to religious values, they are motivated by political gain.
The poll was conducted Sept. 8-11, among 1,002 registered voters, and has a margin of error of +/- 3.1 percentage points.
Skepticism towards politicians’ use of religious language appears to have grown over the past two decades. A Pew survey conducted in 2003 found that 62% of American adults felt comfortable with President George W. Bush’s frequent references to his evangelical faith, with nearly 80% saying they thought the president’s application of religious values to policymaking was appropriate.
The same survey found a significant percentage of American adults were comfortable with explicitly religious statements about topics ranging from a divinely inspired Constitution to religion in public schools, whether they came from a well-known political figure, such as Bill Clinton, or were left anonymous.
Has religious rhetoric changed in recent years?
Some of this shift from the last 20 years can be placed at the feet of generational changes, according to Moore, who headed the public-policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention from 2013 until his resignation in 2021.
“I find that baby boomer evangelicals are much more comfortable with a ‘God and country’ sort of appeal,” Moore said.
In his experience, Moore continued, millennial or Gen Z evangelicals “tend to see an explicitly religious appeal to be manipulative and inauthentic.”
According to Moore, this view held by younger generations might partially be the product of a new American right that has co-opted religious language in politics to make it more about partisan fighting than principles of faith.
“I think we see very little theology in American politics right now, and we see quite a bit of demonology,” said Moore, “in the sense that spiritual warfare language is used for political conflict which I believe to be very dangerous.”
Young people are being alienated by religious appeals because they increasingly seem to be tied to political extremism, Moore said, recalling the “Jesus Saves” signs and other Christian imagery being carried by the rioters that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
For Moore, that moment was indicative of a broader trend. In the years since Trump rose to the presidency, he said, more Republican candidates have used religious themes to exploit a climate of political polarization, claiming to be defenders of a way of life that is under threat.
But while this rhetoric may lead to increased cynicism toward politicians among some, it has been met by growing demand from others.
“There’s been a secularization of religious voters in terms of a preference for a kind of fighting mentality, and often even sometimes a cruelty,” Moore said. “What previously would have been seen as character flaws are seen by a lot of voters now to be indications that the candidate will fight for them.”
Is Trump’s religious rhetoric a return to Reagan’s conservatism?
While Hazony, a political philosopher and recent author of “Conservatism: A Rediscovery”, agrees there’s “been a big shift in recent years” in the way conservative politicians talk about religion, he rejects the claim it has been toward a more inauthentic or secular alternative.
Hazony flips the script, saying it is the “liberal Christianity” of the last 30 years and its abandonment of “religious morality” that is the outlier — not Trump and his brand of combative conservatism.
As for the increased public skepticism towards politicians’ religious rhetoric, Hazony says that has less to do with the moral failings of Trump and other leaders and more to do with the failure of ostensibly religious politicians to safeguard the nation’s Judeo-Christian foundation.
“There’s a change on the right in the direction of increased interest in what it is that the government and public figures can do in order to reverse what many people see as a disintegration of the culture in the direction of hostility to Christianity and Judaism, the Bible, and tradition in general,” Hazony said, adding the worry he and other national conservatives have is that American culture is in “the middle of throwing absolutely everything away.”
Hazony says Reagan-era, “moral majority” talking points need to make a comeback and that most conservative Americans support the government’s role in forming a culture based on Biblical teachings. And Hazony sees figures like Trump, as well as DeSantis and Ramaswamy, as those willing to make it happen.
It is this willingness to fight on behalf of faith communities that makes Trump so popular among religious individuals, according to Hazony, which he says explains poll results published by the Deseret News last month which found that more Republican voters saw Trump as a person of faith when compared to other politicians like his former vice president, Mike Pence, and Utah Sen. Mitt Romney.
Changes in religious rhetoric in politics
As the author of 10 books on the intersection of religion and American politics, Randall Balmer, who holds the John Phillips Chair in Religion at Dartmouth College, trusts that the American voter will be able to select what strain of religious rhetoric best serves the country.
“Politicians are not giving voters enough credit for being able to discern what is legitimate and what is being a show off in terms of religious commitments,” Balmer said in an interview with the Deseret News.
Balmer said political campaigns have been infused with religious overtones throughout U.S. history. But its intensity waxes and wanes depending on voters’ perception of the country’s leadership.
While a decreased focus on candidates’ religious commitments followed speeches given by John F. Kennedy during his 1960 campaign, this focus was reignited following Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal in the early 1970s, according to Balmer, who said this revival contributed to the elections of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, who made their personal faith journeys a central component of their campaigns.
After decades of declining importance, religion has again become a regular feature of political discourse after Trump’s disruption of the status quo, Balmer said, particularly on the American right.
However, as Hazony put it — in a sentiment echoed by both Moore and Balmer — there is “a ferocious debate over the question of whether this is a good change or not.”
Balmer said the answer to that question lies with voters — who he says need to look past religious rhetoric as a simple proxy for moral leadership and “probe a little bit further and find out exactly what they mean.”
Michael Wear, the founder and president of The Center for Christianity and Public Life, agreed.
“If politicians can get away with affective, personal appeals to religious voters that have no policy content, that’s an easy win for them because, because they don’t really have to sacrifice much of anything in terms of their agenda,” he said.
Wear said religious language can be, and often is, manipulated to trigger a sense of loyalty to an individual or a cause “detached from actual governance and what the politician is going to do when they’re in office, and, frankly, the kind of person they’re going to be.”
Wear’s vision for a healthier, more productive standard of religious rhetoric in politics — outlined in his upcoming book, “The Spirit of Our Politics: Spiritual Formation and the Renovation of Public Life” — relies on cultivating humility about “whether or not politicians are perfect translators of God’s will into our politics.”
Wear recognizes a more cautious and reflective approach to endorsing candidates is difficult in a polarized society that incentivizes tribalism and dogma. But he believes the country’s spiritual wells are deep enough to sustain lasting change. That’s what he’s bet his career on, he says.
“Yes, in this moment, we’re seeing polarization kind of have its way with many religious communities,” Wear said. “Yet those kinds of forces can’t eviscerate the inherent resources that are available to us in and through our faith to resist those impulses and push back on them and actually push back the tide.”