Whom Would Jesus Endorse?: Religion Still Dominates Presidential Race

Until the Religious Right’s base coalesces behind a single candidate, the religion-based pandering will not stop.

Real estate mogul and GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s knack for drawing his opponents into unproductive arguments has claimed yet another victim: Pope Francis.

As he’ll happily remind you, Trump is all about building a big ol’ wall between Mexico and the United States. And he wants Mexico to pay for it.

This matter is of concern to Pope Francis, who has been touring Mexico, which is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic. During one of his stops this week, Francis expressed his outrage at Trump’s proposal and attacked the mogul’s faith.

“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian,” Francis said. “This is not the gospel.”

Regardless of your take on border walls and doctrine, one has to wonder why Francis would want to engage with Trump – who immediately fired back.

“No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith,” Trump said in statement.

Whether or not this showdown with the Holy See will help or hurt Trump remains to be seen. But his comment has raised a few eyebrows, since Trump himself recently attacked the faith of one of this opponents – U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a longtime Religious Right favorite.

“I’ve never seen a human being lie so much,” Trump said while on the campaign trail this week in South Carolina. “I think he’s going to go down. I think a guy can’t be – I’m a Christian – but, you know, Ted holds up the Bible and then he lies about so many things.”

That the thrice married reality television star is trying to out-devout anyone has been something of a surprise, especially since Trump had never previously claimed to be a man of deep faith or any kind of faith, for that matter. He only started waving the Bible once he decided to run for president.  

Trump did recently score an endorsement from Jerry Falwell Jr., but the Religious Right establishment as a whole hasn’t warmed to him. His lead in the South Carolina Republican polls has those leaders pretty nervous – so much so that some are hitting the panic button.

Family Research Council President Tony Perkins tried to rally his troops recently to the Cruz cause. Perkins claimed, for reasons unknown, that if Cruz is not elected president America will not have another presidential election. Ever.

“We don’t have the latitude to get it wrong one more time,” Perkins opined at a Cruz rally. “If we don’t elect a bold, courageous, godly leader in this next election, I’m afraid we may not have another election for our republic. That’s not hyperbole. That’s the reality based upon what this president’s policies have done to this nation.”

When Perkins spews stuff like this, it’s amazing anyone takes him seriously. Despite his wild-eyes blathering, the fact remains that in every instance throughout the history of the United States, there has been a peaceful transition of power from one president to the next. Why would anything suddenly change? Of course Perkins gave no evidence that it would because none exists. He is just trying to scare his base into doing what he wants.

This sort of back-and-forth banter about faith will continue for one pretty simple reason: Evangelical voters can’t seem to make up their minds. In polls of evangelical likely GOP voters in South Carolina, Trump is ahead of Cruz 31 percent to 23 percent, a lead that has narrowed in recent days. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is next with 17 percent and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has 10 percent.

The bottom line seems to be that just like Iowa and New Hampshire before it, Saturday’s South Carolina primary may not bring much clarity to the GOP race. And until the Religious Right’s base coalesces behind a single candidate, the religion-based pandering will not stop.