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University of Wisconsin–Madison
School of Journalism and Mass Communication

Religion, politics and Trump’s inauguration

In exploring the political fractures of the United States at the moment of Donald Trump’s inauguration, one of the challenges for journalists is to understand the religious fractures that are part of today’s divisions.

Understanding the religious dimensions of America’s divides is not an easy task, especially when journalists treat it as a sideshow instead of something woven into the fabric of how Americans line up on public issues.

Yet if journalists are to be true to their profession and help the public gain a greater understanding of the forces that shape our nation, listening both to the voices of faith and the growing number of those who reject formal religion is integral to telling the American story in the second decade of the 21st Century.

The religious fractures will cut across the political fractures in some very public ways around the Inauguration. At the inauguration itself there will be Protestant and Catholic leaders offering prayers, a rabbi, no Muslim.  The selection includes two preachers of what is known as the “prosperity Gospel” – if you believe, riches will follow. One has been a vocal critic of Islam.  (You can read about the inaugural prayer line-up here.)

Meanwhile, leaders of the Christian left will be in streets, protesting the rhetoric and policies of the new president. (You can read about the efforts of the religious left here.)

But these are just the voices of some of the leaders. Underneath are the actions of people from the various religious traditions.

During the election, one view was that religion really didn’t matter much. Donald Trump certainly did not have any deep connections to a faith community, Hillary Clinton sometimes cited her Methodist roots, but religion often seemed marginal to their debates.

Others thought religion mattered a lot – including Trump’s campaign team. Recall his scathing attacks on Muslims as potential terrorists, his courtship of leaders of the religious right, his talk about religious liberty and bringing back “Merry Christmas” to the public square.

Some argued that this was the election that would mark the end of white, Christian America.  Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, released a book with that title in July about how the changing demographics of the nation were changing the politics as well – the increasing racial and ethnic diversity, the growth in the number of people who would not choose any religious affiliation. He noted that white Christians only account for 45 percent of the U.S. population.

But it turned out that when the votes were counted, 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump – the most for a Republican candidate since George Bush in 2004. Some 52 percent of Catholics voted for Trump, four points more than for Mitt Romney in 2012.

Yes, Trump has not exactly led what would be described as a model Christian life. Yet voters who claimed Christianity as their tradition – especially white voters – were willing to put that aside because they thought Trump would address their concerns about the economy, about terrorism, about abortion.

In response, other parts of the Christian spectrum have begun to react more vocally. Muslims are forming new alliances.  Even though a majority of Catholics voted for Trump, the bishops have been particularly active in seeking protection for immigrants.

So watch for the cross-currents of politics and religion in the months ahead. Those intersections may not often be the dominant story, but to understand both the way the politics play out in the halls of government and in the public reactions, spending time exploring the ways people’s spiritual beliefs affect their political views will help define whether the divisions of 2017 grow deeper or begin to ease back.

(One good resource for journalists exploring these issues is the current edition of ReligionLink, a project of the Religion News Foundation. It contains many links to information as well as to experts on a wide variety of subjects related to covering religion in the new administration.)

Phil Haslanger, who earned his MA in journalism at UW-Madison in 1973, is a long-time Madison journalist and now is pastor of Memorial United Church of Christ in Fitchburg. He is a former board member of the Religion News Service and the Religion News Foundation.