With the selection of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s running mate, religious history was made. Some historians believe this is the first presidential, major party ticket that does not feature a Protestant running for president or vice-president. Romney is Mormon and Ryan is Catholic. Other historians have made the case that Eisenhower and Lincoln did not officially belong to a protestant church when they ran. Regardless of how candidates affiliated themselves with a religion, the 2012 election is different.
Could we have the first non-protestant president since John F. Kennedy?
Even though our Constitution specially outlaws religious affiliation as a qualifier for elected office, Americans generally like a president who invokes God, prays, receives counsel from religious leaders, and has a faith in the God of the Bible. A 2012 Pew Poll found that 67 percent of respondents believe it is important for the president to have strong religious beliefs. If religious beliefs play a factor in voting for a president, then Gallup’s discovery of 41% of voters claiming to be “very religious” plays a significant role in selecting a president. Back in the spring of 2012, Gallup also found that, “Highly religious Americans, particularly those who are white and Protestant, disproportionately support presumptive Republican presidential candidate Romney…This reinforces a basic pattern in American voting behavior that has been evident for decades.”
It seems that Americans generally like a president with faith, but how religious does the candidate need to be?
Certainly public displays of prayer and religious celebration are important for a segment of the voting block. Presidents routinely invoke prayer, reflection, and moral guidance from religion in times of national tragedy, as is the case with 9-11, the Aurora shootings and natural disasters. In many cases, presidents serve as the de-facto leader of civil religion — a quasi pastor-in-chief. Every year, presidents issue proclamations for the National Day of Prayer, Christmas, and Easter. Presidents end national addresses with “May God bless America.” Other presidents, such as George W. Bush and Barack Obama,have included Bible stories and biblical characters in their remarks — in almost sermonic ways. Presidents have met with religious leaders and spiritual advisers. Perhaps the most famous example is the Rev. Billy Graham, who has met with every president since the 1950’s.
Americans surely would be uncomfortable with a straight out, true pastor-president who serves as the religious pontificate and executive leader. Our country was founded so that the religious leader and the political leader were not one in the same. We live in a democracy, not a theocracy. However, we Americans like our president to serve that pastoral role at times — being both national leader and spiritual presence. prayer-in-chief, mourner-in-chief, and commander-in-chief.
The religious beliefs and actions of a president are not the ultimate deciding factor in voter allegiance, but it is an important factor. The religious behavior of our presidents will remain a quality that many Americans will look for in times of grief and celebration.