Is Donald Trump Showing Republicans Can Win in the Bible Belt Without Being Overtly Religious?
Historically, the American South has been the nation's most religious corridor, and politicians courting Republican voters in particular are quick to point to their religiosity. In 2008, deep south states such as Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and Tennessee went to the pastor Mike Huckabee. In 2012, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee went to the avowed Catholic evangelical Rick Santorum.
But the country has seen a number of shifts in its religiosity. The number of Americans who identify as unaffiliated with any religion grew from 16.1 percent in 2007 to 22.8 percent in 2014, while the share of Americans who identify as Catholic, mainline Protestant and evangelical Protestant declined. This shift is particularly evident among young people; 25 percent of Americans born after 1980 say they are atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular.
This may explain why a candidate who is not religious at all — real estate mogul Donald Trump — is leading the polls in virtually every southern state.
Take Florida, where a recent poll showed Trump in the lead at 29 percent. Digging into the results of the poll, you'll find that Jeb Bush — who comes from a family that has long courted the Christian right as a political arm — had a remarkable zero percent of support from young voters, while Trump was capturing over half of them. In Alabama, Trump is nearing 40 percent of the vote, eclipsing the second candidate, Ben Carson, who is closer to 17 percent. In Georgia, Trump is at 34 percent and Bush is at 12 percent.
For Trump, who is a lapsed Presbyterian, religion really isn't important to his politics. When GOP pollster Frank Luntz asked him if he has ever “asked God for forgiveness” over the summer, he responded, “I’m not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so. I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.” This caused right-wing blogger and activist Erick Erickson to say that Trump made a “potentially fatal error” in admitting he was not very religious — a prediction that has fallen pretty flat.
When Ben Carson, who has managed an impressive second place in the polls over the past few months, was asked about the differences between himself and Trump, he pointed to religion. “I’ve realized where my success has come from, and I don’t in any way deny my faith in God,” he said. “And I think that is the big difference. By humility and the fear of the lord are riches and honor and life and that’s a very big part of who I am. I don’t get that impression with [Trump]. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t get that.”
This led Trump to fire back, tweeting, “Wow, I am ahead of the field with Evangelicals (am so proud of this) and virtually every other group, and Ben Carson just took a swipe at me.”
From the looks of things, Trump's point is correct. His candidacy is proving that religiosity is not very important to the GOP voter base. But bluster, candor and cultural affirmation, all of which Trump provides with his broadsides against various liberal boogeymen, from immigrants to Hillary Clinton, are key.