As a professor of religion, I’m always looking for ways to emphasize to my students that the signs and symbols of religion are still important when it comes to American public discourse. And on that score, the first presidential debate left me scratching my head with little to say. Neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump made even a passing reference to faith amid the verbal feints and jabs that characterized their performance last week at Hofstra University. If that presidential debate drew record viewership without mentioning faith once, the vice-presidential candidates may very well be cautious and circumspect themselves in their undercard match tonight.
Nonetheless, I do expect that Mike Pence and Tim Kaine will try to draw upon the language of faith not only to introduce themselves to the American public, but to humanize their “faithless” running mates.
“Faithlessness” is actually something new on the presidential level. Just look at Barack Obama. He’s arguably the most explicitly Christian president in American history. Historian John Fea has pointed out his speech references—not only to the mystery of God, but to religion itself—as an inspiring and transformative force. Of course, President Obama’s religiosity has been a source of contention, given his past relationship with the firebrand preacher Reverend Jeremiah White, who had made controversial comments that called for the metaphorical “damning” of America and its racist institutions.
But George W. Bush’s religiosity was no less evident, and for that reason no less controversial. His statements about the “axis of evil,” his characterization of the war against terrorism as a “crusade,” and his reliance on Evangelical Christian imagery rankled some and scandalized others. But like Obama, Bush did not shy away from speaking his life journey in and through religious themes.
By contrast, neither Trump nor Clinton referenced their own personal religiosity during the presidential debate—even though Clinton has spoken previously of her Methodist faith, while Trump has seemingly accepted being a kind of prodigal son to a certain group of Evangelical Christian pastors. Both candidates actively shied away from any mention of faith, even in an attempt to connect with large swaths of voters who view one, the other, or both, with suspicion—and sometimes disdain.
But even while eschewing faith talk of the denominational kind, both Trump and Clinton could have spoken more about the faith that’s needed to renew the democracy we say we love. Trump could have talked about the faith needed to take risks: to be bold, transformative, and willing to lay it all on the line. Clinton could have talked about faith needed to see the best in one another when facing divides of race, gender, and class. In any case, whichever candidate becomes president, she or he will have to hope for the best—an act of faith if there ever was one—in order to deal with an opposing political party that most certainly will not be amenable to their proposed policies.
And so, as antidote to “faithlessness” of our presidential contenders, we’re left with the vice-presidential candidates, Pence and Kaine.
Both men were brought up Roman Catholic, and Pence later “committed himself to Christ” and now calls himself “a born-again Evangelical Catholic.” Kaine has also referenced his Jesuit education and Catholic faith quite explicitly on the campaign trail, especially in talking about his struggles with issues such as gay marriage, capital punishment, and abortion rights.
For his part, Pence has the opportunity during tonight’s debate to shore up support among Christian conservatives—both Catholic and Protestant—who hesitate to support Trump, given the New York developer’s “libertine” lifestyle. Kaine could reach out to liberal Christians who are struggling to find their place within an increasing secular and secularizing Democratic Party.
But both candidates will have to tread carefully if they don’t want their faith commitments to appear to ride-roughshod over other important constituencies. Pence has already tangled with the archbishop of Indianapolis when it comes to supporting Syrian refugees. He wanted to cut off aid to a Syrian family sponsored by Catholic charities because he felt his fellow “Hoosiers” needed to be protected. And while conservative Catholics are not exactly lining up behind Trump, they are lining up against Kaine and his progressive variety of Catholicism that does not put opposition to abortion at the center of public policy. Kaine’s work for the Jesuit mission in Honduras has also raised suspicions among a coterie of ill-informed Catholics who suspect that the future vice-presidential candidate might have been a Marxist sympathizer.
Even with “faithful” asides and interludes, it will be clear by the end of the debate that Mike Pence is no Bush and Kaine is no Obama. Oddly enough, it very well may be that Bush and Obama’s presidencies, in spite of their often-divisive social effects, have set a high watermark for religion’s influence upon political discussions and policy debates—even if that influence has to do more with symbols than with substance.
As the election moves to its climax, many will surely lament that our politics has become “faithless,” if faith is understood in denominational Christian terms. But faith matters in this election—and for the foreseeable future. In Hebrews 11:1, faith is described as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Once the debates wrap up and Election Day looms, many voters will prepare to cast their ballots in an act of faith, for all those things hoped for, but as yet unseen.
Mathew N. Schmalz is an associate professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. He is the author of Mercy Matters: Opening Yourself to the Life-Changing Gift.