With the conclusion of the 2016 presidential election still a year away, there is much yet to be revealed about this historic contest. Will Donald Trump continue to dominate the Republican slate of candidates, or will he implode and fade from the scene? Will Bernie Sanders gain ground against Hillary Clinton, or will the former First Lady claim the Democratic nomination with ease? Who among the more than a dozen Republican candidates will survive to the end, and who will fall away in bitter exhaustion?
There is much we cannot know this far from Election Day. Yet there is at least one, perhaps surprising, certainty: the 2016 presidential race will be as faith-based as any in American history.
In fact, it already is. Senator Ted Cruz helped assure this when he announced his candidacy at Liberty University, the Christian school founded by the father of the Religious Right, Jerry Falwell.
Governor Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, made the intentions of his campaign clear by complaining that courts are "criminalizing Christianity in demanding that we abandon Biblical principles," and that "the Supreme Court is not the Supreme Being."
Senator Marco Rubio is a former Mormon, a current Roman Catholic, and an active member in an evangelical mega-church. He is drawing from all three phases of his religious journey to appeal to faith-based voters.
Ben Carson, who currently leads the Republican pack in some polls, is a devout Seventh Day Adventist who is already taking heat for some of his denomination's beliefs and for some of his own novel, faith-inspired views.
There are similar narratives emerging in the campaigns of Carly Fiorina, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and nearly every other Republican presidential candidate.
They will all have to contend with Donald Trump, the billionaire frontrunner who claims to be a member of the Presbyterian Church but who also boasts that he has never felt the need to ask forgiveness for anything he has done. This claim is the complete inverse of traditional Christianity, but that didn't seem to bother the half-dozen religious broadcasters who were recently photographed praying for Trump and anointing him with oil in support of his White House dreams.
Nor will religious tensions arise only from the political right. Democrat Bernie Sanders, an admitted "socialist," stepped into the religious fray when he, too, chose to give a major speech at Liberty University, bastion of religious and political conservatism. Yet it is far more likely to be Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton who fuels the religious firestorm of the 2016 presidential debate from the political left.
Though most American voters do not think of her in these terms, Clinton is among the most religiously outspoken politicians of our time. She entered public life inspired by a distinctly Methodist version of the "social gospel." This ideal shaped her politics while she was the First Lady of Arkansas, the First Lady of the United States, a U.S. Senator from New York, and the U.S. Secretary of State.
In 2006, for example, she thought nothing of launching a faith-based attack on Republicans over the issue of immigration. "It is certainly not in keeping with my understanding of the Scriptures," she scolded. "This bill would liberally criminalize the Good Samaritan--and probably even Jesus himself." She expressed her disappointment with John Kerry's loss to George W. Bush in 2004 by insisting, "No one can read the New Testament of our Bible without recognizing that Jesus had a lot more to say about how we treat the poor than most of the issues that were talked about in this election."
More recently, she reversed her support for the Defense of Marriage Act--which her husband signed into law and which she once defended with biblical references--and became an outspoken champion of same sex marriage. The reason? "The guiding principles of my faith." She also described the typical woman seeking an abortion as doing so "based on her faith."
This left-leaning, faith-based political vision is certain to slam into the right-leaning, faith-based politics of the Republican nominee. All that comes before and after that moment will make the 2016 presidential race something most Americans have least expected it to be: one of the most religious political contests in U.S. history.