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Making Sense of the 2016 Election

December 21, 2016

In the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, many people are trying to find answers to understand what happened and what impact Donald Trump's win will have on the United States. Samuel Freedman, visiting professor at the University of Minnesota, Columbia University professor and The New York Times religion columnist, offered students, staff and community members insight to the religious aspect of the election during "Altar Call: American Religion in Presidential Politics" held on December 14.

According to Freedman, the United States has a historical trend of white, protestant presidents. Barack Obama and John F. Kennedy have been the only exceptions out of the 45 presidents the United States has had.

Al Smith, who strayed from that norm, ran for president in 1928 in what Freedman called "one of the most bigoted presidential campaign's in U.S. history," because of his Catholic religion.

"People saw it as an existential threat to have a Catholic as president," Freedman said.

John F. Kennedy was the first Catholic since Smith to run and took a much different approach to how he presented his religion.

"Kennedy went through great pains to downplay his Catholicism," Freedman said. "He gave a famous and, in some ways, unfortunate speech during his campaign saying he wouldn't take orders from the Pope."

Reagan's administration was the first time there was a mass mobilization of Evangelical voters on behalf of the Republican Party.  It was also the beginning of Catholics and Evangelicals getting to know each other and looking past decades of conflict.  "1980 is when the religious majority came to become major players," Freedman said. "It began to brand being religious with being conservative."

During this time, religious issues, anti-discrimination rights from LGBTQ individuals and abortion rights, came to the forefront as well.

In the past 20 years, the U.S. has seen both advancements and push-backs in religious tolerance of politicians. Al Gore's decision to choose an Orthodox Jew as his running mate was met with welcoming reception. Yet, in 2008 the idea that Obama was not truly an American Christian ran rampant in negative campaigns.

"The idea that he's not really American is not only a form of religious intolerance, it's a coded form of race hate," Freedman said.

Fast forward to the 2016 election: Donald Trump was not the predicted preferred candidate of Evangelical and other religious voters, yet he still won 81 percent of Evangelical voters, 60 percent of white Catholics and 60 percent of Mormons. Freedman believes there's a lot to learn from this election and its religious takeaways.

First, he believes the Evangelical movement lost its soul and identity in this election. He also found that the Supreme Court nomination was worth everything else to Republicans, who wanted to see a leader of their party take office.

In addition, Freedman believes that this political environment is an opportunity for Jewish people and Muslims to create a coalition that supports each other in the United States because of their cultural history of injustice. "I hope it sticks together. It'll be a binding source in our society," he added.

Now more than ever, Freedman believes the United States' staying power will be tested.

Laura Billstein attended the lecture because she wanted to debrief from the election. "It was really well done. Religion is very prominent in the political sphere and it's always going to be here," she said. "People try to separate it, and you can't."

Conversations like this are crucial to have in order to understand current events in society.

"We have to have conversations like this to move past what happened. It opens up a dialogue for people," Billstein said.

The event was a collaboration between the following departments in the College of Liberal Arts:  English, the Minnesota Journalism Center at the School of Journalism & Mass Communication, History, Jewish Studies, Political Psychology, Political Science, and Religious Studies.