I have been searching in vain for an earlier column of mine in which I predicted that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders would surge, Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush would be in trouble and Ben Carson would show unexpected strength in the race for the White House.
The way faith is playing out in the campaign is also a surprise. Donald Trump says he is Presbyterian, part of a New York congregation, which said he is not an active member. He admitted the Bible is a better book than his The Art of the Deal but could not identify any verses that guide his life. He cannot remember asking God for forgiveness but added “when I drink my little wine...and have my little cracker, I guess that’s a form of asking for forgiveness.” This thrice-married former supporter of Planned Parenthood and single-payer health care who attacks immigrants and women who dare to challenge him is the Republican front-runner.
Five Republican candidates are Catholics. Mr. Bush has fallen back and Marco Rubio has failed to gain. Mr. Bush deserves credit for resisting Mr. Trump’s nativist polemics, but he responded to Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical by saying, “I don’t get my economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope” and added that religion “ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm.” He had a different message at Liberty University, where he called upon Christians to oppose abortion and support religious liberty.
Bobby Jindal and Rick Santorum are at the back of the pack. Chris Christie is also far behind, but volunteered “I’m a Catholic, but I’ve used birth control. And not just the rhythm method.”
Ben Carson says he got into the race to answer God’s call and is gaining in Iowa. Governor John Kasich is doing well in New Hampshire and defends his Medicaid expansion by saying that St. Peter is “probably not gonna ask you much about what you did about keeping government small, but…what you did for the poor.”
Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz are offering fire and brimstone homilies. Carly Fiorina and Ron Paul talk a lot about “Hillary’s failures” and little about faith. Scott Walker, a preacher’s son, has faded as he echoes Mr. Trump without his persona. Republicans speak of their faith but rarely about “welcoming the stranger” or a priority for the poor. Rick Perry’s best moment was his departing comment: “Demeaning people of Hispanic heritage is not just ignorant, it betrays the example of Christ.”
Among Democrats, Hillary Clinton returned to thank her Methodist congregation in Washington but is struggling to overcome the perception that she has a problem with the Eighth Commandment about bearing “false witness.”
The candidate who most quotes Pope Francis is not Martin O’Malley, a Jesuit-educated Catholic who barely registers in the polls, but Bernie Sanders, known more for his socialist label than for his Jewish identity. Democratic candidates seem to worship at the altar of “reproductive rights,” reflecting liberal orthodoxy more than a consistent ethic of life.
The most compelling discussion of these matters came on “The Late Show.” Stephen Colbert and Joe Biden talked about faith and family, personal loss and public service. The vice president anguished over whether he could fully commit himself to a presidential race after the death of his son Beau. Colbert asked, “How has…your faith helped you respond?” Biden replied: “My religion is just an enormous sense of solace…. I go to Mass and I’m able to be just alone even in a crowd…. I say the rosary. I find it to be incredibly comforting.
“What my faith has done is it sort of takes everything about my life with my parents and my siblings and all the comforting things and all the good things that have happened…around the culture of my religion and the theology of my religion, and I don’t know how to explain it more than that. But it’s just the place that you can go.”
I differ with Mr. Biden and Mrs. Clinton on abortion, with Mr. Bush on the death penalty and with Mr. Trump on deporting immigrants. But on religion in public life, I believe both faith and politics are better served by the honesty and anguish of Mr. Biden than the cynicism and glibness of Mr. Trump.