Religious Conversion and Presidential Candidates

In The New Republic, Mark Oppenheimer remarks on the fact that so many major American politicians have had religious conversions while adults: Barack Obama, Newt Gingrich, Harry Reid, and George W. Bush, to name only a few. He can’t help but wonder whether their motivations were at least partly political. For Gingrich, conversion to Catholicism might be a way to obscure his earlier adulteries; in fact, on the campaign trail, he has pointed to his conversion to show he’s a changed person. For Obama, baptism in “a prominent, black, urban mega-church” would have been a way to ignite his political career in Chicago. And so on.

Oppenheimer notes that religious conversions do not seem to hurt American politicians. It’s easy to see why. Voters switch religions all the time, too. According to a recent study by Putnam and Campbell, at least one-third of Americans have switched their religion as adults; about 25% have searched for a new place of worship, not counting those who have searched for a new place because of a move. These are astonishingly high numbers in comparison with the rest of the world. In their propensity to change religions as adults, American politicians reflect the remarkable “churn” that characterizes American religious culture. Perhaps this is Mitt Romney’s real problem: he’s been in the same church his whole life.

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