Religious Literacy Outlook: Election 2016

Religious Literacy Outlook

2016 Election Post-Mortem

One day after the U.S. 2016 elections, what is the prognosis for religious literacy? What impact can we expect on public understanding of religion based on the candidates who won? Do the newly elected U.S. leaders support, by word or deed, any of the following?

sharing accurate information about religion based on sound logic, verifiable experience, and/or reputable sources

fostering informed discussion, including in cross-cultural, interfaith and ecumenical settings

introducing new questions or concerns about religion that are otherwise not widely known or acknowledged

challenging popular but demonstrably inaccurate claims about religion

training others in skills needed to discuss controversial issues related to religion in a sensitive and productive fashion

This post looks at some of the factors that are likely to influence the next 2–4 years based on the data I could collect this morning upon waking up to a very different America. I live in a rural, heavily Republican state in the Western half of the U.S., so if you have stories and/or perspectives to share from your part of the world, please be sure to share them in the comments section!

Disclaimer: Although I’ve tried to base my observations on data, any political opinions expressed or implied in this blog post are my personal views and not that of my employer.

Election 2016: Overview

The Republican candidate Donald J. Trump and his running mate Mike Pence were elected President and Vice President, respectively. The Republican Party retained control of the two governing bodies of the United States, Congress and Senate. This means we have Republican leadership, which traditionally favors conservative religious outlooks. However, there are a few complexities to this:

  • Trump was elected on an anti-establishment agenda, often without the endorsement of the Republicans elected to Senate and Congress. Intra-Republican diplomacy will be needed to achieve any goals, often before ever reaching across the aisle to Democrats and the handful of candidates elected from other political parties.
  • Although many evangelical Christian voters supported Trump for president, they did so with heavy reservations about his character. Trump does not regularly attend church and has made other lifestyle choices that are not generally supported by evangelicals. He doesn’t have enough of this large community’s trust to expect their consistent support, especially when it comes to religion-related issues. They may be more inclined to support measures taken by Vice President Mike Pence, who is widely known for his evangelical background and targeting of abortion and LGBTQ issues.

Religious Views of New Leaders

According to a CNN Politics article on the faith views of candidates, Trump was raised in the Protestant tradition and was influenced by Norman Vincent Peale, a pastor who blended pop psychology with the Bible. Today his spiritual counselor is Paula White, the pastor of a megachurch in Tampa, Florida, who believes in prosperity theology: “by pledging money to a minister, believers sow a seed, and God will reward them with a bountiful harvest, usually in the form of health and wealth.”

It is fair to conclude that Trump has not been heavily influenced by the evangelical stream of Christianity and often misunderstands typical evangelical language. Interestingly, this might mean he has more in common with “Nones,” people who don’t adhere to a particular religion, a huge percentage of whom are Millennials. For example, in Trump’s 1987 book The Art of the Deal describing a typical week, “other than a dinner with the late Cardinal John O’Connor of New York, there is no religion, no mention of God nor any hint of introspection.” As far as I can tell, this is an untapped conversation in this presidential race.

Meanwhile the Vice President Mike Pence is a vocal conservative “born-again Catholic” who frequently supports overtly evangelical causes in the political sphere. He is pro-Israel and signed a controversial “religious freedom” law in Indiana that would have allowed businesses to refuse to serve customers and clients who don’t align with their religious beliefs.

Congress and Senate leaders will be predominately Christian and at least 50% Protestant (not necessarily evangelical). There will be a sizable minority of Catholics and just a handful of other religious outlooks represented. As with previous years, “Nones” won’t have much representation in legislature. Ironically, this comes at a time when the percentage of “Nones” in the U.S. population are expected to continue to increase even as their numbers shrink worldwide. Over the next four years, the U.S. may struggle to relate with our increasingly religious international neighbors.

Outlook Prediction #1: As president, Trump is likely to reward what he perceives as hard work and positive thinking with financial and other governmental support. Only in cases where he needs evangelical support is he likely to make decisions that cater to traditionally conservative religious values.

Outlook Prediction #2: Christian values and concerns (on a spectrum from conservative to progressive) will remain the default among U.S. lawmakers, even though their constituencies are becoming increasingly secular.

Election 2016 and Basic Literacy

Religious literacy is not traditionally an important issue to Americans, who often prefer to keep conversations about religion in private spheres not public spaces. Even though technically it is legal to teach the history of religion and study of religion in K-12 classrooms, fears around religious freedom prevent it from becoming a normal classroom topic.

One of the huge silences of this campaign year is the topic of education in general. Education did not come up in presidential debates. Pew Research Center data shows that education ranked below (in order of importance) the economy, terrorism, foreign policy, health care, gun policy, immigration, and social security. The new president’s emphasis will be on school choice, not on curriculum.

Outlook Prediction #3: Education will not be a priority of the new administration, which means integrating general religious education into school curriculum is now highly unlikely without significant public advocacy for both education and religious literacy.

Religion and Science

Michael Zimmerman, leader of the Clergy Letter Project that fosters dialogue between religious leaders and the scientific community, was not able to endorse Donald Trump for president on the basis of the candidate's public stances on science. I’ll quote Zimmerman here at length since he did thorough research on Trump's positions on various issues:

Although the Trump campaign opted not to respond to The Clergy Letter Project’s questionnaire, it is possible to gain a sense of what his positions might be given what he and his running mate have said in other contexts in the past. Trump’s position on anthropogenic climate change has been very clear. On numerous occasions, over many years, he has totally dismissed the scientific consensus on the topic and referred to climate change as a hoax.

In his response to the on-line Presidential Science Debate question about climate change, Trump said that “There is still much that needs to be investigated in the field of ‘climate change.’” He then went on to offer suggestions on better ways to spend our “limited financial resources.”

Like others who have tried to determine Trump’s position on evolution, I’ve been unsuccessful in finding any public statements he’s made on the topic. CNN reported last August that Roger Stone advised Trump to respond to questions on the subject in the Republican presidential debates by saying, “I believe in both.” Perhaps we can read something from his selection of Mike Pence as his running mate since Pence has gone on the record on the subject. In 2009, in an interview with Chris Matthews, he refused to say that he accepts evolution. Instead, he repeatedly replied, “I embrace the view that God created the heavens and the earth and the seas and all that’s in them.” He went on to add, “I think, in our schools, we should teach all of the facts about all of these controversial areas and let our children and our children’s children decide.”

The record, such as it is, indicates that Trump and his campaign, have taken a position that is fully at odds with the world’s scientists and with The Clergy Letter Project.

A quick web search turns up many articles published in 2016 about lawmakers from Louisiana to Colorado to Oklahoma and beyond who are still advocating to teach creationism in schools, so this also remains an important issue to keep on the radar, even if the Trump administration did not make this an important platform.

Outlook Prediction #4: Science issues are likely to be controversial for once not because of religious views but because of climate deniers (regardless of religious view). Where religion plays a significant role, such as in teaching creationism in K-12 classrooms, it is likely to be driven by the VP and individual lawmakers.

Election 2016 and Islam

As the Pew Forum data shows, Americans feel a lot of concern right now about terrorism. While Christian terrorism does occur in the U.S., this isn’t what most Americans think of when they use the word “terrorism.” Mostly they are thinking about groups like ISIS. Many Americans also feel a lot of concern, rightfully or wrongfully, about statistics that suggest high support in many traditionally Muslim countries for so-called “honor killings” and other forms of violence often targeted at women and religious minorities. We could have long conversations about whether these groups and practices are Muslim, culturally Arab, the result of colonialism, a side-effect of environmental crisis, and so on and so forth. The point here is that when Americans think of “terrorism” they also think “Islam.”

On that front, the outlook is not rosy. The Trump administration is likely to continue to use phrases like “criminal aliens” to refer to people who enter the country illegally, and to highlight negative statistics among immigrants in general, such as murder rates. In speeches, Trump has said he will institute tests to “vet” the values and beliefs of immigrants coming from traditionally Muslim countries like Syria. In an 11/4/2016 Yahoo article, Olivier Knox notes,

In the aftermath of the Brussels attacks in March, Trump had suggested on NBC’s “Today” that his own rhetoric on terrorism, including his call for a halt to Muslim immigration and tourism to the United States, was “why I’m probably No. 1 in the polls.”

The Obama administration has been quietly hesitant to accept many Syrian refugees, so the extreme caution advocated by Trump is actually in line with the status quo. The main difference here is in rhetoric: Trump’s language does not foster productive conversations about the diversity of American values and beliefs. It is built on the assumption that it’s possible to develop a rigid set of questions that can reasonably determine a person’s moral character.

Outlook Prediction #5: Specifically when it comes to Muslims and Islam, the current administration is likely to intensify negative rhetoric and stereotypes rather than foster better understanding of the diverse cultures and sects of this world religion.


I foresee the biggest religious literacy needs in the next 2–4 years to center around three major issues:

  • Fact-checking claims made by and about various religious groups, especially Islam but also Christianity and the growing secular movement
  • More need for advocacy in environmental and climate-change issues, especially in ways that combat overly simplistic or "free market" solutions
  • More need to put education and basic literacy back on people’s radar, let alone religious literacy concerns such as incorporating even mundane religion knowledge into the K-12 curriculum

Do you have a story about how the 2016 election results could affect religious literacy in your local area? Do you know of some other information that I'm missing? Please share in the comments section at the bottom of this post.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

3 replies
  1. Gene Stecher says:

    Hi Cassandra, here are some thoughts. In an interview on Sunday with CNN, the Republican presidential frontrunner said that he does not regret never asking God for forgiveness, partially because he says he doesn’t have much to apologize for. “I have great relationship with God. I have great relationship with the Evangelicals,” Trump said in the interview before pivoting to his poll numbers among Evangelical voters. “I like to be good. I don’t like to have to ask for forgiveness. And I am good. I don’t do a lot of things that are bad. I try to do nothing that is bad.”

    Trump and many in the evangelical camp miss the point that forgiveness has first to do with how one responds to the behavior of others. The following perspective is found many places in the early Christian literature, including the Lord’s Prayer. “Whenever you stand praying, forgive. If you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” (Mark 11:25).

    Some weeks ago, I viewed an interview on PBS at a large mid-west evangelical campus. The interviewee stressed their ability to forgive Trump, with seeming no awareness that it must be tied to how trump forgives others.

    Based on a forgiveness quotient the religious literary page seems to be blank in Donald Trump’s book of life.

  2. Fr. Gerard Zabik says:

    I have started to refer to many Christians as Cino (Christian in name only). As an Orthodox priest, I am shocked and disturbed at what is coming out of Trump’s camp and who he surrounds himself with.

    We are a country with many faiths and no faiths. We have to keep faith out of the public arena. This is not an Evangelical Christian Country, we are neutral on the entire subject.

    Mike Pense might be worse than Trump. I would prefer an atheist as president than what we have now as politicians.

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