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The Christian Vote on the Campaign Trail

Presidential hopefuls are wielding religion as a selling point.
(Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

(Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Super Tuesday, the biggest day of the primary season, is upon as. Over the next dozen or so hours, 13 districts and states head to the polls to help select the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees. As candidates try to woo undecided voters, religion has become a major talking point.

On February 18, leading up to the South Carolina primary, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton's campaign uploaded an explicitly religious advertisement to YouTube. Narrated by Morgan Freeman, the ad opens with a shot of a church, followed by the line, "Her church taught her to do all the good you can, for all the people you can, for as long as you can."

The video is part of Clinton's attempts to appeal to religious voters, particularly black voters, many of whom her rival Bernie Sanders has struggled to attract. In her victory speech after South Carolina, Clinton cited a Bible verse, and mentioned her now-familiar unofficial campaign slogan: love and kindness. Now, Clinton has kicked off her Super Tuesday campaign by attending church services in Tennessee and Arkansas.

Mother Jones reported on the speeches:

"Somebody once asked me a long time ago when my husband was president if I was a praying person," she added, drawing a murmur from the crowd. "I said, 'Well, I am, but if you've ever lived in the White House you know you have to be—there's just no alternative to it.'"

If you didn't know Hillary Clinton is a Methodist, you do now, and if her win last month in South Carolina is any indication, her strategy of more explicit religiosity is paying off. The appeal to religion makes sense: Hillary Clinton needs to be seen as relatable, especially when the most common critiques against her are that she's untrustworthy and distant from everyday Americans.

It isn't just Clinton who's wielded her religion as a selling point. Republican hopefuls Ted Cruz, who is a Southern Baptist, and Marco Rubio, who is Catholic, also anchor themselves to Christianity. Both candidates talk about defending religious freedom (Rubio's website has an entire section discussing his faith). Candidates have good reason to mention religion: According to a recent study, 51 percent of American adults say they are less likely to support a candidate who does not believe in God.

In October, Pacific Standard reported on the topic:

"Only Evangelicals said that they found atheists less likely to be moral," the researchers report. "Yet despite believing that it is possible for an atheist to be moral, the other religious identifiers express wariness of supporting an atheist for public office."

Seventy-eight percent of South Carolina residents consider themselves Christian, according to the Pew Research Center, with 35 percent of the population identifying as Evangelical Protestant. In this sense, South Carolina was a preview for today's events—Super Tuesday is also known as the SEC (Southeastern conference) primary, a nod to the seven participating southern states, all of which are largely Christian.

Here's the religious breakdown of the Super Tuesday states:

(Graphic: Pew Research Center)

(Graphic: Pew Research Center)

(Graphic: Pew Research Center)

(Graphic: Pew Research Center)

Religion in the United States is increasingly complicated. While the majority of Evangelicals are Republicans, 68 percent of Democrats in Super Tuesday states self-identify as Christian, which could provide a challenge for Bernie Sanders, who told the Washington Post that he isn't "actively involved with organized religion." On the Republican side, Donald Trump is once again the exception to a political rule, this time proving that a less religious candidate can win with conservative Christians, after carrying white Evangelical and born-again voters in South Carolina, where he won 50 delegates.

As the New York Times reports:

Mr. Trump's appeal with the religious right is debunking some long-held maxims about evangelical voters, showing that they are not monolithic; that they do not fall neatly in step with evangelical leaders, many of whom endorsed Mr. Cruz; and that within evangelical ranks lie fault lines of class and culture.

Despite what all this talk of evangelism might have you believe, religion is actually becoming less important to voters. While 51 percent of voters are less likely to cast their ballots for an atheist, this figure is down from 2007, when 63 percent of voters said the same. So pay attention to the exit polls this Super Tuesday—by 2028 you may be choosing between two atheists.