Colleen Carroll Campbell Home
Pulpit and the ballot box

The New York Times
Room for Debate
March 24, 2015
By Colleen Carroll Campbell

Q: Why do voters care about a candidate’s religion? Does it matter?

Voters absolutely should take a politician’s religious beliefs into consideration. But that consideration should be shrewd rather than sectarian, driven by a desire to understand how a candidate’s worldview guides his decisions.

Make no mistake: Every politician, like every voter, comes to the public square with a worldview. Even if our beliefs about life’s ultimate questions are poorly thought out, haphazardly adopted or defined mostly by what we reject, they exert a powerful influence on our political actions and policy choices. So voters have a right, even a duty, to assess candidates’ deepest beliefs before entrusting them with public office.

There are wise, and foolish, ways to do this. The Scripture-spouting politico whose faith makes no discernible impact on his ethics or policies is a cliché for good reason. Too many voters still cast their ballots based on religious lingo and labels. They wind up the dupes of a politician who tosses her religious audiences rhetorical scraps without actually acting on their priorities.

Republicans are most often rapped for such religious opportunism. And indeed, Republican primary season can be a stomach-churning time for religious believers who see previously taciturn politicians suddenly tripping over each other to share their conversion stories.

But Democrats use God talk to their advantage, too. Barack Obama may rarely darken the door of a church to worship, but his two breakout political speeches – his 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote and his 2006 Sojourners/Call to Renewal speech on faith and politics – masterfully marshaled the power of religious rhetoric for the left, and made him a presidential contender as a result.

Bill Clinton benefited from a similarly deft use of religion. According to a 2004 tally by political scientist Paul G. Kengor, Clinton invoked the name of Jesus Christ in an average of 5.1 presidential statements per year, as opposed to George W. Bush’s 4.7. And Clinton spoke far more often in churches, especially during election years. Yet it was Bush whose religious rhetoric spooked secular Americans. Perhaps that’s because, as a Beltway journalist once told me, “they think Bush actually means it.”

And in fact, that’s the real question voters should be asking when they ponder a politician’s faith: Does he actually mean it? Even more important, does she have a track record of allowing it to influence the choices she makes in public as well as in private? And do I like those choices?

In today’s pluralistic society, the chances of finding your theological soulmate at the ballot box are slim. But voters can and should search for a candidate whose religiously derived moral and political principles mesh with their own most deeply held values. And they can know they have landed on the right pick when they find someone who not only shares their principles, but holds to them even when they become political liabilities.

Colleen Carroll Campbell is a journalist, former presidential speechwriter and author, most recently, of “My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir.”

Colleen Carroll Campbell
  • Colleen Carroll Campbell is an author, print and broadcast journalist and former presidential speechwriter. Her books include her critically acclaimed journalistic study, The New Faithful, and her award-winning spiritual memoir, My Sisters the Saints, which has been published in Spanish, Portuguese, Polish and as an audiobook. Colleen's journalism credits include contributions to the New York Times, Washington Post, Christianity Today, First Things and America, and appearances on CNN, FOX News, MSNBC, ABC News, PBS and NPR. She has served as executive producer and anchor of EWTN News Nightly with Colleen Carroll Campbell, a television newscast airing worldwide on EWTN, the world’s largest religious media network, and as creator and host of EWTN’s Faith & Culture television and radio interview show. In 2013, she anchored EWTN’s live television coverage of the historic election and installation of Pope Francis in Rome. A former speechwriter for President George W. Bush and editorial writer and op-ed columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Colleen is the recipient of two honorary doctorates and numerous other awards for her work. She serves as a religious liberty consultant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and speaks to audiences across North America and Europe. Colleen lives in St. Louis, Missouri, with her husband and four children, whom she homeschools. Her website is

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