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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Religion, Ethics, and the 2016 Presidential Election

boisi center for religion and american public life

On November 2—just a week before the election—the Boisi Center held a panel titled “Religion, Ethics, and the 2016 Presidential Election.” Panelists included MT Dávila, associate professor of Christian ethics at Andover Newton Theological School; Marc Landy, professor of political science and faculty chair of the Irish Institute at Boston College; Erik Owens, interim director and associate professor of the practice in theology and international studies at Boston College; and Alan Wolfe, the founding director of the Boisi Center and professor of political science at Boston College. 

None of the panelists anticipated a Trump victory, though there was some suggestion that anti-Washington and anti-establishment vitriol, combined with misogynist, xenophobic, and racist overtones from certain segments of Trump supporters, made the election cycle historic.

Wolfe observed that political norms, protocols, and precedent had all been completely shattered this election. The academic disciplines that typically explain elections and voting behavior, political science and economics, have been unable to do so, and Wolfe wondered if a turn to the discipline of psychology was needed.

Dávila said there was not an ethically informed electorate for this election cycle. She argued traditional constituencies of faith “had forces thrust upon them that have stunted the development of social virtues.” Catholic voters were disillusioned by the absence of a candidate sharing their views on the ‘non-negotiables’ of abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty. The moral failings of the candidates threaten the common good, leaving voters guided by ethics and at a loss. 

Landy believes that Democrats coalesce around a shared fondness for federal government and public policy, while Republicans are increasingly a “party of the rich.” The two-party system rests together uneasily, but parties seem unreliant on religion or ethics as their guiding principles when appealing to voters. 

Before moderating a discussion with the audience, Owens followed these comments with statistics and figures from this election cycle.  He observed different trends among voters who identified as religious. He noted that—like the electorate at-large—there were very clear racial divides among religious voters.  These numbers seemed to corroborate the other panelists’ propositions that religion might be less of a determinant in voting than other factors, such as race.  

During the discussion that followed the presentations, Wolfe opined that people with fundamentally Christian beliefs “can’t support Trump,” and that Trump’s ardent backers weren’t particularly religious. Landy disagreed, saying that rank and file evangelical Christians, a conservative constituency, have been led astray by their leadership and Trump. According to Dávila, deciding on a candidate is a balancing act for truly religious voters in this election. Owens said: “the idea that private well-being and wealth can exist in a vacuum without a relationship to the common good is wrong. The common good must be intertwined with the individual.” Questions from the audience focused on the unpopularity of both candidates; global macro trends, such as Brexit and the rise of right-wing nationalism; and the struggle for social scientists to explain or understand the election.