During an interview with CNN last Friday, Florida Senator and Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio made a passionate defense of his faith, talking over the interviewer while explaining why his religious beliefs inform his politics.
“I’m happy that my faith influences my political positions,” Rubio said. “Because my faith teaches me to care for the needy, my faith teaches me to respect and love even my enemies, and my faith teaches me to forgive those who slight me. So people should hope that my faith influences my political position.”
Rubio was speaking about how his Catholicism impacts his position on abortion, which he opposes in all cases (except when he doesn’t) because he shares the Catholic Church’s belief that life begins at conception. It’s a classic Republican tactic we’ve all seen before: State a policy position, argue it’s rooted in your faith, then move on — presumably because progressives or even fellow conservatives won’t argue with you about it. Although this tendency to claim an unchallenged faith prevailed among party faithful for decades, it ascended to national prominence during the tenure of former president George W. Bush, who rose to power in 2000 due in part to support from evangelical Christians.
But as the 2016 primary season begins to heat up, many Republicans are starting to see the right-wing monopoly over “religion” fade away. Instead, attempts to appeal to faith are becoming more inert, as progressives and even conservatives are citing their own religious beliefs as reason to oppose the policies of GOP White House hopefuls.
Attempts to appeal to faith are becoming more inert, as progressives and even conservatives are citing their own religious beliefs as reason to oppose the policies of GOP White House hopefuls.
Take Chris Christie’s recent public confession that he uses contraception. The remark, spoken off the cuff at a town hall campaign event last month, made news mostly because it contradicted the teachings of the Catholic Church, of which Christie is a member. But lost in the media blitz about the New Jersey governor’s sex life was what triggered the quip in the first place: He was responding to a man who asked him a question by citing three Bible verses, using scripture to argue that Christians should stand against foreign wars and support environmental conservation.
Although the man was never identified, his line of questioning is being popularized by an unlikely foil for GOP candidates: The pope. While Pope Francis hasn’t changed the Church’s position on abortion or same-sex marriage, he has come out strongly in favor of immigrants, progressive economics, and action on climate change. These positions aren’t new among Catholics, but Francis has forced them into the global spotlight, making things politically and theologically awkward for Republican Catholic candidates such as Rubio, Christie, Jeb Bush, and Rick Santorum. All these men have made a point of their Catholic faith on the campaign trail, yet oppose laws that would curb the impact of global warming, raise the federal minimum wage, and — with the possible exception of Bush — comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship.
Bush and Santorum have struggled the most to dance around Francis’ rhetoric this year, even as they repeatedly claim that their faith informs their politics. When pressed on the question of how their beliefs jive with Francis’ repeated push to address global warming, both have tried to dodge the question — Santorum by dismissing the pope because he’s not a professional scientist, and Bush by saying, “I don’t get my economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope.”
Rubio offered a similarly evasive response when pressed on the pope question during a Republican dinner event in June. In what amounts to a polite rebuttal of the pontiff’s teachings, Rubio posited that concern for the environment comes second to economics — even though Francis’ encyclical on the environment explicitly argued that hurting the climate negatively effects the poor.
“I have no problem with what the pope did. He is a moral authority and as a moral authority is reminding us of our obligation to be good caretakers of the planet,” Rubio said. “But I also believe it’s in the common good to protect our economy. There are people all over this planet and in this country who have emerged from poverty in large respect because of the availability of affordable energy.”
All of this might be forgettable to the average voter were it not for something else: Pope Francis is planning to address a joint session of Congress in September, when he will undoubtedly speak about the environment, immigration, and the perils of unchecked capitalism. Rubio, a sitting U.S. senator, is expected to be in attendance, and the event is likely to garner international attention.
Thus, Francis and the Vatican are forcing these candidates to own up to one of two realities: Either their faith only occasionally informs their politics, or religious belief is complicated, meaning blanket statements about who Christians should vote for won’t fool Americans anymore.
Either their faith only occasionally informs their politics, or religious belief is complicated, meaning blanket statements about who Christians should vote for won’t fool Americans anymore.
But the loss of an absolute political claim over religious belief is not just an issue for GOP Catholics. Large, progressive faith traditions have started to unsettle once simplistic understandings to “traditional” belief. Both Rand Paul (R-KY) and Donald Trump are affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA), a Christian tradition that — unlike either candidate — now openly embraces same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, Ohio governor and Republican candidate John Kasich is challenging conservative ideas that Christianity has to toe a party line: He publicly defended his decision to expand Medicaid in his state during last week’s GOP debate by citing God’s call to care for the poor.
And while evangelical Christian heroes such as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz regularly articulate faith-based opposition to marriage equality to scare up support among the Christian Right, that support is not absolute. All three oppose immigration reform legislation that includes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, something conservative Christian groups overwhelmingly endorsed in 2013. (Walker actually backed a path to citizenship in 2013, only to switch positions in May).
This has led to several uncomfortable moments for evangelical candidates, such as when Huckabee attempted to skirt the question of immigration reform during a press conference at the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC) in April. Huckabee doubled down on border security when asked about the issue, even though the head of the NHCLC — who was sitting next to Huckabee at the time — had announced the day before that “Republicans must cross the Jordan of immigration reform to step into the promised land of the Hispanic faith electorate.”
To complicate matters further, several ongoing American social movements include prominent progressive faith leaders who decry right-wing policies using faith rhetoric. Clergy participating in the Black Lives Matter and Moral Mondays movements have made headlines, for example, as have efforts by American Muslims to accrue the same rights and privileges afforded to other religious groups — arguments that challenge conservative appeals to religious liberty.
Granted, religious belief has never been monolithic in the United States, and disagreement among the faithful is as old as faith itself. It’s also unclear if these internal theological disputes are enough to turn the tide come Election Day — assuming they sway voters at all.
Regardless, the American religious landscape is far more multifaceted — politically speaking — than it was 15, 10, or even five years ago. That’s making it harder for Republicans to appeal to their faith without being challenged, and could force the GOP to rethink how it talks about religion.