A cross bearing a purple sash outside of the First Baptist Church in Boone. (Jesse Barber)
A cross bearing a purple sash outside of the First Baptist Church in Boone.

Jesse Barber

On Election Day, religion plays a key factor for some voters

November 3, 2020

When President Donald Trump was elected in 2016, he courted evangelical voters with promises of filling the Supreme Court with justices who could nullify Roe v. Wade and with the nomination of Mike Pence, an evangelical Christian, as his running mate. 

In 2020, much is the same for Trump. After almost four years in office, he continues to attract evangelical voters. But now, he’s facing former vice president Joe Biden — only the fourth major-party Catholic presidential nominee. 

In this election, both have made abortion — a key issue for many of faith — a topic of discussion.

Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court just weeks after Ruth Bader Ginsburg died. Barrett — who was confirmed to the court by the Senate — had signed her name to ads against abortion

Biden, on the other hand, has promised to make Roe v. Wade the “law of the land.” 

Christianity is the predominant religion among North Carolinians with 77% of adults in the state identifying as Christian, according to the Pew Research Center. 

And with North Carolina a battleground state, courting the religious vote is key for each candidate seeking to win one of the proclaimed Bible Belt states.

Love your neighbor as you love yourself

For the majority of his life, Kyle Sigmon wasn’t involved in politics. When he preaches to his congregation as a pastor, he doesn’t tell people how to vote or talk about politics in general. 

He doesn’t see church as a place to tell people how to vote, but rather a place for people to form their opinions. 

Kyle Sigmon, associate pastor of FaithBridge United Methodist Church, wants people to look at the words Jesus said and apply them to their lives. (Jesse Barber)

“I want my church, my congregation, my people to just look at Jesus and to learn more about what Jesus wants, how we should live our lives,” said Sigmon, an associate pastor at FaithBridge United Methodist Church in Blowing Rock. “I think that will automatically affect how we vote.”

Sigmon said he started to focus more on politics because of his religious beliefs. Jesus’ teachings and America’s history — the good and bad — really helped Sigmon think about politics in a broader sense and how it can affect others.

The Sermon on the Mount — the longest of Jesus’ sermons recorded in the New Testament —  helped Sigmon realize politics are important because the message is about living as one of God’s followers and politics can be part of being a follower of Christ. 

The teaching of loving your neighbor as you love yourself is an important factor to Sigmon. Some people go to church every Sunday. Others go multiple times a week. And even more go when they can. Despite attending church or not, their faith has an impact on their lives and when they vote. 

“I think as Christians, we actually have to go to the polls and think, ‘how will this person look out for others?’” Sigmon said. “If we really want to love our neighbor, it’s not just literally loving the person who is next door to me, but do I actually have influence systemically?”

And for Sigmon and other people of religious beliefs, voting is a way to bring those values to society.  

Historically, religion has always been a key factor in politics — from the time of people riding in horse drawn carriages to self-driving cars. 

A History of Religion and Politics

Photo illustration/Liberty Missionary Baptist Church in Meat Camp, North Carolina. (Jesse Barber)

Lerone Martin is an associate professor of religion and politics at Washington University in St. Louis. He is also the director of American cultural studies at the university and teaches African American studies. 

“Religion has always been central to political behavior in the United States,” Martin said. 

Martin said religion in American politics can be traced back to the abolitionist movement. Abolitionists, Martin said, felt compelled by their faith to fight the legalization of slavery and its practice in the U.S.

“On the other side, you had folks whose faith compelled them to believe that slavery was not just a coherent aspect of their Christian faith, but actually that Christianity gave permission, or directed people, to engage in enslavement,” Martin said. 

Lerone Martin is a religion and politics professor at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis. (Courtesy of the John C. Danforth Center)

And to Martin, probably the most outstanding example of religion affecting politics and society is the Civil Rights Movement. 

“There were countless civil rights workers who believed that their faith compelled them to demonstrate against the unequal treatment of people of color in this country and to change laws that they believed were unjust,” Martin said.

For example, Martin said, someone like Martin Luther King Jr. would be guided by their faith to know that God is a God of justice. Therefore, because God was a God of justice, the destruction of society should be regulated and geared toward making sure every American is justly treated.  

“(His) faith would say what matters — in addition to one’s personal piety — is to make sure that the structures of American society are set up in such a way that every citizen is treated equally and fairly,” Martin said. 

People who have that perspective sometimes call themselves “social gospelers” where they would have a “social gospel” that relates to how society should be shaped in a way that treats people equally. 

“Throughout American history, some of the largest political movements — both in terms of legislation, but also in terms of activism — have been compelled by a very, very, very strong commitment to religious faith,” Martin said.

Today, Martin said, certain faith groups are associated with particular political parties, which was not always the case. 

According to Pew Research, 56% of Evangelical Protestants and 70% of Mormons lean Republican. On the other side, 44% of Orthodox Christians and Catholics lean Democratic. 

“People exercise their faith in the way that they vote and I think that’s always been the case historically in this country,” Martin said. “I think we should anticipate that it will continue to be important.”

Religious Influence on Politics 

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” – The Amendment of the United States Constitution.

In this long exposure photograph, a billboard along the side of highway 321 near Boone, NC reads, “Jesus is the answer to all your problems.” (Jesse Barber)

In North Carolina, 39% of adults go to church at least once a week while 36% go at least once or twice a month, according to Pew. Another 24% seldom or never attend church Despite attending church or not, faith has an impact on voting. 

“Whether consciously or unconsciously, their faith has shaped those ideas of the good, of the moral, and of the ethical,” Martin said. “When they go into the voting booth, they look for the candidate that they believe can help to bring about that kind of society.”

Mikaela McAdams attended The Lamb’s Chapel –– one of the largest churches in her area — while growing up in Burlington.

McAdams wouldn’t just go to church on Sundays, she would practically live there. McAdams said she would be at church seven days a week, and sometimes even slept there. 

At the time, her church and her Christian views had a heavy influence on her politics. 

“When I was active in church, I wasn’t able to vote, but at the time it had me mentally in this state of ‘Oh, I have to vote for this person, I have to vote for this Republican or Democrat just because I have a Christian belief,’” McAdams said. 

McAdams’ is no longer active in the church and lives in Boone with her fiance. She said she could see how much religion affected people’s political views during the 2016 election. McAdams said there was so much bitterness and divide in the church during the election, which distanced her from religion. Because she grew up in the church, she mostly follows people she grew up with in church on social media. 

Preachers on Sanford Mall giving sermons out loud about the “sins of man” and “judgement of god.” (Jesse Barber)

“I still see stuff from my family and friends in the church that push their religious beliefs for a political agenda,” McAdams said. 

For Alexander Paunovic, religion has a direct bearing on who he votes for. 

“I think that the only authority the government has is the authority that’s been granted to it by God,” said Paunovic, who received his religious studies degree from App State. “I’d really have to take anything the Bible says and weigh it up against a political candidate.”

Paunovic, who is a seminary student at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, holds himself to the original Westminster Confession of Faith, which in part assumes the Bible is the word of God. It gives Paunovic a system of ethics and principles to follow.

“That being the case, the Bible must be our starting point in determining any political position that we hold, or determining what we believe about the role of government in general,” Paunovic said. 

Paunovic considers himself an establishmentarian, meaning he believes the government should establish Christianity as the national religion.

One of the only reasons Paunovic would vote for a political candidate is if they declared Christ as king and would enact laws according to that belief. 

“Unless that be the case, I probably would never vote for a political candidate,” Paunovic said. 

Paunovic does not plan to vote in this election and said he would most likely write in a candidate if he did.

Maggie Watts, a freshman, has a different outlook on how her Christian faith influences her politics. 

Watts grew up going to a nondenominational church every Sunday and still goes to church in Boone. She says Christianity influences her vote.

“The biggest thing for me definitely, growing up as a Christian with politics, is always to choose the party or choose a leader that will unify the country the most and would treat the poor and the oppressed with love and give them respect and dignity,” Watts said. 

Watts does not believe President Donald Trump lives those Christian values in his life and that his campaign is built on hate — which she said is everything Christianity goes against. 

Both conservatives and liberals believe that faith should be more than spoken, it should be lived, Martin said. But, how it’s lived out can be different, which can separate someone from being liberal or conservative based on their faith. 

Some believe it’s not just about personal piety, Martin said, but also about thinking about society and making society more just — like Martin Luther King Jr.. 

“There are others who believe that the primary aim of faith is to the salvation of souls and that’s what we should focus our energy on — not on changing society, but just on changing souls,” Martin said. 

A Conservative Leaning  

Political science major River Collins, senior, has been the president of the College Republicans at Appalachian State University for about a year. His concentration is in American politics and is hoping to work his way up the political ladder to Congress. (Kara Haselton)

Arianna Moore is the president of the Orthodox Christian Fellowship chapter at App State. She knows some evangelical Christians who are stereotyped as being more conservative. But to her, that comes also from conservatives weaponizing evangelical Christianity. 

“It controls its base with manipulative rhetoric and cheap images — like Trump holding the Bible outside of that church for a press conference,” Moore said. “Abuse of these symbols for political gain is a mockery of Christianity and I find it reprehensible.”

Moore is referring to the time President Trump walked across Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., to hold a Bible up in front of the historic St. John’s church for a few pictures. Before he walked across the square, thousands of demonstrators — protesting against police brutality — were removed with tear gas and other forcible measures. 

When she tells someone that she’s a Christian, Moore said she feels people automatically assume she’s conservative.

River Collins, president of the App State College Republicans, said he thinks a lot of people associate Christians with the Republican Party. 

“Christians are over stereotyped as conservative,” Collins said. 

According to Pew Research, 78% of those who “believe in God; absolutely certain” are conservative while 59% of those who “believe in God; fairly certain” are moderate. 

Those who attend a religious service at least once a week are 50% more likely to be conservative, according to Pew. 

Abortion: A Religious and Political Issue

In 1973, the Supreme Court decided in Roe v. Wade that a woman had the right to choose to have an abortion without excessive government restriction. 

“When it was decided, many of the Protestant denominations, including the Southern Baptist, for example, were fine with Roe v. Wade,” Martin said. “They were like, ‘You know, this is a decision that should be between a woman and her doctor or a woman, her husband and her doctor.’”

In recent years, many states have introduced laws that have severely restricted a woman’s access to an abortion. In June, the Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana law requiring a doctor performing abortions to have admitting privileges to practice at nearby hospitals. 

According to the New York Times, that would have left the state with only one abortion clinic. 

Many are concerned that Roe v. Wade will be overturned with the confirmation of new Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett — a conservative Catholic appointed to the court by President Trump. 

During his campaign in 2016, Trump won over voters with promises to combat abortion and nominate Supreme Court justices who would be open to dismantling Roe v. Wade

In a June 2019 poll by Monmouth University, one-third of Americans said abortion would be a top issue for them in the 2020 election. Two percent said it was the most important issue. 

“What we’re talking about here is what’s been determined as single-issue voters and folks who feel like there’s one major issue for which they vote,” Martin said. 

Single-issue voters are typically devoted to one public issue, especially a political one. In terms of abortion, 4% of U.S. adults say they will vote only for a candidate who shares their views on the abortion, according to Gallup.  

Paunovic understands why someone would have a single issue when voting. 

Arianna Moore a junior studying Public Health stands with her Orthodox study bible outside of her student apartment. Moore said her favorite verses are Proverbs 31:8-9. (Ashley Foreman)

“If it’s something as substantial as millions of babies being killed in the womb, then I would say that that’s a pretty good position to base your politics on,” Paunovic said. 

Emma Albertino is the president of App State’s pro-life club, Students For Life. To her, abortion is one of the biggest issues when she goes to vote. 

She sees abortion as a topic that surpasses and discussion of religion and politics. 

I am pro-life, because I believe that every life has value from conception until death,” Albertino said. “I do not think that a person’s value changes based on religion, politics, race, sex, gender or any other difference. Philosophically, life has value.”

Without the right to life, Albertino said, no other rights can exist, “including the rights to freedom of religion and freedom of political choice.”

Collins said he’s met Christians who can’t stand the idea of any form of abortion. 

Because of that, Collins said he feels people with that belief often gravitate to the Republican Party, which ordinarily supports pro-life candidates and policies.

Despite being pro-life, some Christians still favor the Democratic Party. 

“I am very pro-life,” said Sigmon, who is a registered independent. “I think unfortunately, a lot of the people who are very anti-abortion, their pro-life stance kind of ends at birth.” 

Sigmon said he feels people aren’t fighting for the life of people after birth. 

“They are not also fighting for universal health care, so that that baby and that mother can continue to live healthily and that they have what they need,” Sigmon said. “It’s simply just about birth and I think we should look at all of life if we ought to be pro-life.” 

Growing up in the church, McAdams felt she was pressured to vote for a Christian, pro-life candidate because if not, then she wouldn’t be Christian. 

“If you don’t vote Republican, if you don’t vote for the pro-life candidate, whoever that may be, you’re wrong,” McAdams said. 

Moore and Watts are both Christians and both said they would not get an abortion because it violates their religious beliefs. 

Moore, a public health major, looks at the broader aspect of why someone gets an abortion. 

According to an anonymous study by the Guttmacher Institute in 2004, one-fourth of women reported they were not ready for another baby as a reason for getting an abortion. Of those women surveyed, 23% reported it was because they could not afford another child. 

“Issues like abortion and gay marriage, while important, take the center stage and blind voters to the destructive policies that cut Medicaid, food stamps, and other welfare programs,” Moore said. “If we don’t lift these people out of poverty, if we don’t give them options and support, they’ll feel trapped.”

Florida records every reason for an abortion that occurs in the state. In 2018 in Florida, about 74% of reported abortions were elective and 20% reported it was due to economic or social reasons. 

Watts doesn’t just think about abortion when she votes, but the lives of people who are suffering right now from oppression or poverty. 

“They need to realize that they are just as important as the lives of unborn children, and that they have to just look to the candidate that’s going to treat them as Jesus would treat them,” Watts said. 

Watts said she knows people have questioned how a Christian could vote for a pro-choice candidate, but she views it as voting for someone who is loving and more open to those who are poor. 

“And that is exactly what the faith is about — loving thy neighbor, helping the poor,” Watts said. “Neither political party is Biblically sound, so there is no right or wrong answer here in regards to faith.”

Moving Forward

Perkinsville Baptist church’s stained glass illuminated in the night. (Jesse Barber)

Martin said religion will continue to influence politics, but he believes in the future that there are certain trends to watch. One is how people are becoming less affiliated with a religion –– not necessarily those who are not religious, but those who don’t identify with a religion. 

From 2009 to 2019, those who identify as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” increased from 17% to 26%, according to the Pew Research Center.

Martin also predicts that younger adults will move toward a more liberal understanding of faith. For example, Martin said younger people of faith may not be interested in abortion as much as climate change; or more concerned about poverty over same-sex marriage.

“That might have an impact upon how we understand and experience religion and politics,” Martin said. 

Moving forward, Pastor Sigmon hopes more people take the teachings of Jesus Christ more seriously. 

“I would like to see more people caring for the marginalized, the oppressed,” Sigmon said. “I would like to see more people fighting for equality and for that to not be a polarizing, partisan issue.” 

This story was updated the include that the Westminster Confession of Faith in part assumes the Bible is the word of god. 

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  • F

    Frank Sterle Jr.Nov 4, 2020 at 5:37 pm

    What I find exceptionally disturbing is how Trump’s supporters so blindly cling to him—particularly the supposed followers of Christ; the latter, being the precise opposite of the president’s character, was all about compassion, pacifism, modesty and charity. He definitely was not permissive towards hording morbid, superfluous wealth!

    Could the angry human need for having what we perceive we’re entitled to, including retributive ‘justice’—regardless of Christ (and great spiritual teachers) having emphasized unconditional forgiveness and love—be intrinsically linked to the same unfortunate aspect of humankind that enables the most horrible acts of cruelty to readily occur on this planet (while making our creator’s nature in our own vengeful and even violent image)?

    The same general human flaw that greatly help elect and reelect the very worst people into the highest, most powerful offices?

  • J

    J.W. WilliamsonNov 3, 2020 at 9:35 am

    That’s some good writing right there! Excellent on-the-ground reporting, including history, context, salient quotes from a variety of people. Congratulations on an in-depth piece of work!