Commentary: Republicans prefer a religious candidate, but...

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Call it the Trump God gap: A lot of Americans who are religious and say they want to elect someone who shares their beliefs are this year supporting Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, whom they don't see as very religious at all.

The gap hit the news Tuesday when Jerry Falwell Jr., son of Moral Majority giant Jerry Falwell and head of the hugely influential evangelical Liberty University, endorsed the New York businessman.

It's spelled out in new data released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center that shows religiously observant GOP voters are just as interested in Trump as less-religious ones - and in some cases more so. In the poll, Americans describe Trump as the least-religious presidential candidate, more so than Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

Sixty-one percent of GOP and GOP-leaning voters who say it's important to have a president who shares their religious beliefs say that Trump would be a good or great president, compared with 46 percent of GOP voters who say the religiosity of the president isn't as important. The share of Republican voters who think that Trump would be a good president is the same among churchgoing and less-churchgoing Republicans.

The findings about Trump are unprecedented, say Pew pollsters and other experts. Religious conservatives have supported other presidential candidates - Rudolph W. Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney, among them - whom they have perceived as less religious or with whose faith they identified with less.

But "we haven't seen this large a number who think a leading contender isn't religious," said Greg Smith, an associate director of research at Pew.

Smith and other researchers outside Pew said there is no evidence Republicans overall are becoming less religious or changing their metrics for assessing candidates' religiosity. "They aren't changing, but there is something else entering into their consideration this year, and that's harder to put your finger on about him in particular. Look at [Ted] Cruz, [Marco] Rubio - you don't see that disconnect. Few people think they would be good presidents who also think they aren't religious."

"That's unique to Trump," Smith said.

Some experts on religious conservatives say that Trump is riding a powerful wave of voter concern about terrorism and national security and disgust with mainstream politics, including the traditional Republican Party, that doesn't appear to be ending anytime soon.

"It used to be that you had to pass a faith test. Because national security and voter anger at Washington and the political system are the two guiding principles, I think that qualification of are-you-religious has diminished," said Brett O'Donnell, a longtime speechwriter and consultant to GOP candidates and a former Liberty debate coach under Falwell Sr. "That's playing out with Trump. They will hold their nose on a lot of things he's about because he's using the language they want to hear."

Tim Goeglein, a longtime lobbyist for the evangelical group Focus on the Family who worked on President George W. Bush's campaigns, said the Republican Party has experienced a significant shift since the early 2000's. Libertarian, tea party and generally populist voters make up a much larger percentage of the party, and they don't care as much about the religiosity of candidates, he said.

"Religion remains important for those voters, but it's relative to their frustrations," he said. "It's not always the first preference."

Kathy T. is a churchgoing Southern Baptist from Georgia who has voted for Republicans and Democrats. She is interested in Trump because "he's different." She strongly dislikes President Obama's health-care program and is opposed to gun control. She prefers that candidates be God-fearing Christians, but what she means by that isn't something you put on a checklist.

"You can't judge a book by its cover. You don't know what's in a person's heart," said the 60-year-old corrections officer, who declined to have her full name published because she works for the government.

Going to church won't get you into heaven, she says.

She adds that she doesn't believe Trump knows the Bible well. "I'm not that stupid." However, asked to describe his faith, she said: "I think he's like me. He may need to study his Bible more, but hey . . . I don't study the Bible like I should. I'm trying. I just try to get better, so maybe he will."

Some of Trump's opponents have been pushing hard on this point, working to raise questions about the sincerity, depth or even basic reality of his Christian faith. Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore called the attraction to Trump "the third temptation of Christ." Prominent evangelical columnist Michael Gerson said that Christians who support Trump are "suspending their deepest, lifelong beliefs." On Tuesday, when asked whether Trump is Christian, Jeb Bush said: "No - I don't know what he is."

Trump self-identifies as a Presbyterian, referring to the mainline Protestant Presbyterian Church (USA) denomination, although church leaders in Manhattan say he is not an active member in their congregations.

Pew's research shows subtle but important changes at the intersection of religion and politics. One is that Americans are becoming somewhat more open overall to the idea of an atheist president. In 2007, Pew found, 63 percent of Americans said they'd be less likely to vote for someone who didn't believe in God. That is now 51 percent - although most of the change is on the Democratic side, Smith said.

In general, to the vast majority of Americans, being religious is still seen as an asset in a presidential candidate. But what that means and how partisan our lens is seems to be changing.

Some sociologists have concluded that Americans are becoming more malleable and allowing their religious preferences to be shaped by their politics and are sorting themselves by faith community based on people who share their political views.

The new Pew poll found that Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to assess Democratic candidates as religious, and Republicans do the same on their side. "These things are still bound up with one another," Smith said of religion and politics. When Americans reject or feel skeptical about a candidate, they also question their faith.


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