02/03/2016 05:07 pm ET Updated Feb 03, 2017

Religion & The Candidates: We Need to Know More

Justin Sullivan via Getty Images

The 2016 presidential race is being shaped by religion in a manner that is rare in American history. This has largely been the doing of the candidates themselves, who particularly in the run up to the Iowa Caucuses had eagerly depicted themselves as the most devoted of religious believers. Yet journalists and voters cannot leave the matter of religion in the candidates' hands alone. We need to know more about what they believe and how their beliefs will shape decisions in the Oval Office.

Americans have long become accustomed to the religious symbols and throw-away lines that so often attend presidential campaigns. Usually, there is video of the candidate attending church, Bible in hand. The phrase "God Bless America" adorns the end of nearly every speech. Always, there are the meetings with clergy, the speeches in Sunday services, and the assurances that God has guided the political journey.

We see all of these in the current presidential race, but there is likely far more to come. The reason is that in this 2016 race every leading candidate for president but one, Bernie Sanders, is an outspoken person of faith, comfortable if not insistent upon with blending religion with politics. On the Republican side, all the candidates claim to be Christians and half are evangelicals. On the Democratic side, there is Hillary Clinton, who is--much to the surprise of many Americans--among the most faith-based politicians of her generation.

In the Republican debates just prior to the Iowa Caucuses, the religion of the right was on full display. Marco Rubio assured the audience "there's only one savior and it's not me. It's Jesus Christ who came down to earth and died for our sins."

Ohio governor John Kasich insisted that all Americans be allowed "to rise to their God-given purpose."

New Jersey governor Chris Christie promised to take on ISIS so that Americans can "conduct our religious affairs the way we find in our heart and in our souls. As a Catholic, that's what I want to do."

Throughout the debate, there were references to what the Bible commands, insistences that the next president should be influenced by faith and promises that religion would influence all decisions made in the Oval Office.

Grand assertions of faith have also come from the other side of the political divide. The week before the Iowa Caucuses, former president Bill Clinton explained that the best way to understand his wife, Hillary Clinton, was through the lens of her Methodist faith. At nearly the same time, Mrs. Clinton told a Methodist congregation in Iowa, "I am a person of faith. I am a Christian. I am a Methodist." She also said, "My study of the Bible, my many conversations with people of faith, has led me to believe the most important commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself, and that is what I think we are commanded by Christ to do."

Even Bernie Sanders, who has used the terms "secular" and "socialist" of himself, felt the need to define himself in religious terms. Though admitting that he is not traditional in his understanding of God, his faith does convince him that "what impacts you impacts me, that we are all united in one way or another."

Americans, having long ago concluded that the religion of the campaign has little to do with the religion of the office, pay little attention to religious campaign rhetoric. Yet recent history proves we cannot afford to do this any longer.

In recent years, Americans have watched a president reverse himself entirely on the issue of same sex marriage and cited the Sermon on the Mount among his reasons. In other words, his faith determined his policy. Another president has taken the nation to war in Muslim lands largely on the basis of the Christian "Just War" theory. Again, faith shaped policy. Presidents have deployed their faith in policy debates over abortion, welfare, capital punishment, prison reform and immigration.

The truth is that a faith sincerely held will shape conduct in office. We must ask the questions of faith that need to be asked. What is a candidate's faith? What are the implications of that faith for specific policy arenas? What does the candidate know about the faiths of the world? This last question is more important in our modern, religion-infused global society than ever.

We do not want to invade the prayer lives of our political candidates. We do not want to insist that they become theologians to appease us. We do, however, need to press for religious clarity from those who hope to govern us.

The 2016 presidential race is going to be as faith-filled as any in American history. It is up to the people and to journalists to make sure that it is also filled with a level of scrutiny in religious matters that does not allow religion to become an un-elected co-president in the next presidential administration.