In every election cycle some politician tells voters that “this is the most important election in a generation.” Yet it’s rarely true. Most elections are not that dramatically consequential. More often than not, our national elections do not produce lasting political realignments or tectonic shifts in the nation’s strategic priorities. There are exceptions, of course: 1932 and 1980 come to mind.
This year could also prove to be an exception to the rule. It should be clear by now that the two major-party presidential nominees have dramatically different visions for this country. Depending on whom America chooses, then, 2016 could prove to be a turning point. At the very least, it will prove to be an important election for the generation Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton represent.
If Bill Clinton was the first baby boomer to occupy the oval office, either Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Trump may very well be the last. So the faith profiles we offer in these pages (Mrs. Clinton’s appears in this issue; Mr. Trump’s will appear in a future issue) have to be read in light of the peculiar religious experiences of the postwar generation. “The kinds of religion that the baby boomers got was not like the religions of their parents or grandparents,” writes Kenneth L. Woodward in Getting Religion: Faith, Culture, and Politics From the Age of Eisenhower to the Era of Obama. During the boomers’ formative years, “Americans witnessed an unexpected exfoliation of religious belief, behavior and belonging” that paralleled “the cultural and political upheavals that convulsed American society as a whole.”
Mrs. Clinton’s journey, however, was different. At a time when many of her peers were abandoning the religious commitments they had inherited, Mrs. Clinton’s devotion to her Methodist faith only deepened. As Michael O’Loughlin reports, Mrs. Clinton’s church is “integral to how she lives her life and the decisions she makes.” That sets her apart, not only from her own generation but from the generation coming of age today. “Institutional religion is experiencing a long overdue winnowing effect,” writes Woodward. “American ‘belongers-but-not-believers’ and the vague ‘believers-but-not-belongers’ are properly identifying as Nones,” folks who have no institutional affiliation at all. For a new generation, “religion has become progressively less relevant to their own self-identity.”
By his own account, Mr. Trump has enjoyed “a good relationship with the [Presbyterian] church over the years. I think religion is a wonderful thing,” he’s said. At the same time, Mr. Trump’s faith commitments, like those of most of his generational peers, are still evolving. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, said in June that Mr. Trump had recently accepted a personal “relationship with Christ,” one that is more characteristic of evangelicalism. “I believe he really made a commitment, but he’s a baby Christian,” Mr. Dobson said.
No one, of course, should vote for either of these candidates simply because they are this or that sort of Christian. We have no religious tests for public office. Still, the faith lives of both of them offer clues to their general temperament and character. It’s also true that if we want to know where the next generation is headed, then we need to look whence they came. “Every new generation,” writes Woodward, “inhabits social structures created by their elders. If the young no longer understand themselves in relation to these inherited social institutions, neither do these institutions support, in the ways they once did, basic social needs.” The question then is what will take the place of the institutions and commitments largely abandoned by the boomers? How we answer that question could indeed make this the most important election in a generation.