Religion, Ethics, and the 2016 Presidential Election

Boisi event

MT Dávila, Andover Newton Theological School
Marc Landy, Boston College
Alan Wolfe, Boston College
Erik Owens, Boston College

Date: November 2, 2016

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Does religion really matter in 2016? Does it have any relevance at all to this toxic and topsy-turvy presidential campaign? Is there an “ethical” candidate for President of the United States? In a panel discussion, professors MT Dávila, Marc Landy, Alan Wolfe, and Erik Owens will discuss the roles religion and ethics are playing in the 2016 election cycle. Come join us for a lively conversation!

Speaker Bios

MT Dávila

MT Dávila, associate professor of Christian ethics at Andover Newton Theological School, has written about public theology, Latina ethics, the option for the poor, the ethics of the use of force, racial justice, and immigration. Her current project, Embodying the Option for the Poor, seeks to develop the option for the poor for a U.S. audience amidst cultural and ideological divisions.

Marc Landy

Marc Landy is a professor of political science and Faculty Chair of the Irish Institute at Boston College. In addition to instructing Boston College students, he regularly teaches public officials from Ireland and Northern Ireland about American politics through a series of executive programs run by the Irish Institute. He has written several books and numerous articles on the presidency and the American political system.


Erik Owens

Erik Owens is interim director of the Boisi Center and associate professor of the practice in theology and international studies at Boston College. His research explores a variety of intersections between religion and public life, with particular attention to the challenge of fostering the common good of a religiously diverse society. His interdisciplinary scholarship bridges the fields of theological ethics, political philosophy, law, education, international studies and public policy. 


Alan Wolfe

Alan Wolfe is the founding director of the Boisi Center and professor of political science at Boston College. He is on research leave during the 2016-17 academic year. Wolfe is the author and editor of more than twenty books. He served as an advisor to President Clinton in preparation for his 1995 State of the Union address and has lectured widely at American and European universities.


Event Photos

Boisi event

(From left to right) Alan Wolfe, Marc Landy, and MT Dávila spoke at a Boisi Center panel on November 2 about the role of religion and ethics in the 2016 Presidential Election.

Boisi event
Boisi event

Photos by MTS Photography

Event Recap

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.

Read More


Dionne, E.J. Jr. "This Election's Faith-Based Candidate." The Washington Post. September 11, 2016.

Eder, Steve. "Email About Qatari Offer Shows Thorny Ethical Issues Clinton Foundation Faced." The New York Times. October 15, 2016.

Reese, Thomas. "Religion Playing a Large Part in 2016 Election." National Catholic Reporter. July 28, 2016.

Schouten, Fredreka. "Donald Trump's candidacy raises novel ethics questions." USA Today. October 6, 2015.

In the News

Professor of political science and Faculty Chair of the Irish Institute at Boston College, Marc Landy, was recently interviewed with NECN to discuss reports that Donald Trump's campaign manager had ties to a pro-Kremlin political party in Ukraine.