Trump injects faith into GOP race

Religion has moved to the forefront of the Republican race for president.

While the social conservative movement isn’t as strong as it used to be, matters of faith remain a potent force in GOP politics and could play a pivotal role in the crowded Republican contest.

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In a move seen as an attempt to undercut his main rival, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpClinton and Ocasio-Cortez joke about Kushner's alleged use of WhatsApp Missouri Gov. declares state of emergency amid severe flooding Swalwell on Hicks testimony: 'She's going to have to tell us who she lied for' in Trump admin MORE implied over the weekend that Ben CarsonBenjamin (Ben) Solomon CarsonHousing and health care go hand-in-hand Carson's calendar includes trips to Florida on Fridays: report The Hill's Morning Report - 2020 Dems grapple with race, gender and privilege MORE is outside the religious mainstream.

During a rally in Florida on Saturday, Trump said, “I’m Presbyterian. Boy, that’s down the middle of the road, folks, in all fairness. I mean, Seventh-day Adventist, I don’t know about. I just don’t know about.”

Carson is a Seventh-day Adventist, a religion some other Christians soundly reject.

Seventh-day Adventists — Protestants who observe the Sabbath on Saturday — embrace a literal interpretation of the Bible. There are more than 18 million Seventh-day Adventists globally and an estimated 1.2 million in North America.  

Carson has risen past Trump in several recent polls in Iowa, which holds the first caucuses in the nation. According to a Monmouth University poll released Monday, Carson holds a 14-point lead over Trump. He also bests Trump 36 percent to 18 percent among evangelical Christian voters.

Some experts told The Hill that they believe Trump is clearly hoping to win political points with evangelicals but is making a tactical mistake.

Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, said the business mogul is “going down a treacherous path because people of faith don’t like people bashing other people of faith.” But, she added, in reference to Trump, “They wouldn’t do it unless someone were telling them it would work.”

Trump declined to apologize for the comments during an appearance Sunday on ABC News’s “This Week,” telling anchor George Stephanopoulos: “I would certainly give an apology if I said something bad about it. But I didn’t. All I said was I don’t know about it.”

Christian conservatives are a powerful constituency in Iowa, as demonstrated by the fact that the two most recent GOP caucuses in the state were both won by candidates whose religious conservatism was central to their appeal: former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2008 and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum in 2012.

Trump’s remark on Carson’s Seventh-day Adventism was in some ways reminiscent of a comment Huckabee made during the 2008 campaign regarding Mitt Romney’s Mormonism.  

Huckabee, asked by a writer for The New York Times Magazine whether he considered Mormonism a religion or a cult, replied, “I think it’s a religion. I really don’t know much about it. … Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?” 

Huckabee later apologized.

More generally, the issue of religion is an intriguing one during this campaign because of the divergent experiences of several candidates. 

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) identifies as Catholic, though he also regularly attends a Southern Baptist megachurch. During his childhood, Rubio also spent around three years as a Mormon, according to the Religion News Service website and a number of other sources.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Catholic altar boy in his youth, is now an Anglican who often splices religious language into his appeals to the GOP to be concerned with the poor and marginalized. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush became a Catholic as an adult, after meeting his wife, Columba, a shift from the mainline Protestantism of his parents. (Former President George H.W. Bush is an Episcopalian, and his wife, Barbara, was raised Presbyterian.)

Speaking to donors Monday, Bush reprised the story of his conversion to Catholicism, saying that he had made the move “to show respect to the church of my wife and the church that my children were going to participate in.”

Carson has also caused a stir with remarks relating to religion, including his comments on NBC News’s “Meet the Press” last month that he would be opposed to a Muslim being elected as president.

Many GOP candidates are trying to appeal to the evangelicals and religious conservatives who remain an important part of the Republican coalition. The Pew Research Center on Religious and Public Life found that by 2011, 70 percent of evangelicals said they supported, or leaned toward, the GOP. Only 24 percent felt the same way about the Democratic Party.  

William Martin, of the Religion & Public Policy program at the Baker Institute at Rice University, said, “one of the reasons, quite clearly, that Ben Carson is rising is because a lot of evangelicals believe he holds a solidly evangelical faith.”

Martin added that “one of the things that evangelicals don’t like is other people who say, ‘Well, you don’t belong to an important group like I do.’ Among evangelicals, this is only likely to hurt Trump.”

Still, as with so much else in his campaign, Trump has weathered skepticism before about his comments regarding religion. In July, Trump raised some eyebrows when he described taking communion as “when I drink my little wine … and have my little cracker.”

A month later, Trump said the Bible is his favorite book and praised evangelicals as “incredible people” who “want to see the country thrive.”