Democrat Christians Weigh Their Primary Concerns

Pastor Telley Gadson was the calm center of St. Mark United Methodist Church in Taylors, South Carolina, as the congregation prepared for a visit from Joe Biden’s presidential campaign and a North Carolina congressman who would speak on Biden’s behalf. The historic black church is known as the 9-1-1 because of its street address. And the church did seem like it was responding to a minor emergency Sunday morning as people rushed around to get ready.

An usher burst into Gadson’s office to announce a reporter from Christianity Today just as two deacons hurried out to make sure good seats had been saved for the Biden campaign staff. But Gadson was calm. “It’s just another Sunday at the 9-1-1,” she said.

The service kicked off with an organ trio, an amplified Hammond backed by thumping bass and drums. As the music started, about 100 people found their places in the purple upholstered pews and another 25 or 26 got up on stage. Everyone started praising Jesus.

A minister stood up and said the thing black Christians say across the South when they gather to worship: “I want to thank the Lord who woke me up this morning.” And the people sang more.

Then it was the congressman’s turn. G. K. Butterfield, a former head of the Congressional Black Caucus, got up in the pulpit to deliver his message, and the church got quiet. Butterfield said, “I’m here to ask you to support my friend Joe Biden. And it’s easy to do, because I’ve known Joe Biden for a long time.”

Democratic candidates are doing an unprecedented amount of faith outreach this presidential primary campaign. Some Democrats in the past have talked about their faith, like Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama. But now, almost every candidate is making a point of it.

This is more familiar territory for Republicans. The GOP has done extensive faith outreach since the 1950s, when Dwight D. Eisenhower promised church leaders that spiritual renewal would be part of the nation’s defense against communism. Opposition to abortion—a non-negotiable issue for many Christian voters—and support for public religious expression have long attracted many Christians to the GOP. President Donald Trump hopes to continue that alliance, solidifying his support from white evangelicals and expanding it among Latino evangelicals. Today, Christians are more than three times as likely to see the Republican Party as “friendly to religion.”

But about a third of all Democrats go to church every week. Nearly half say faith is very important in their lives, and polls show that 28 percent of evangelicals identify with the Democratic Party, along with 80 percent of black Protestants, 44 percent of Catholics, and 40 percent of mainline Protestants. And a lot of Christians are Independents, curious if a Democratic candidate might appeal to their faith values.

Two Democrats—Biden and Pete Buttigieg—have hired religious-outreach coordinators, who help their campaigns connect to pastors and articulate the moral visions undergirding their political plans. Elizabeth Warren set up an interfaith advisory council. Eight candidates have cited Scripture on the stump. Warren regularly quotes Matthew 25 at election events, giving a campaign speech/sermon about the sheep and the goats. Even Bernie Sanders, a non-practicing Jew, refers to the Golden Rule again and again.

For Christians, though, these efforts raise questions about when a candidate is using faith as a political prop. What’s the difference between appealing to the Bible and exploiting it? How can Christians discern when a politician doesn’t have a genuine commitment to shared values, but is just using the right words to get their votes?

ichael Wear worried about this when he was Obama’s faith outreach coordinator, working to get the president re-elected in 2012. Just as Wear got started, the president changed his position on same-sex marriage, saying he had “evolved” on the issue. During the 2008 campaign, Obama told religious voters he believed marriage was only between a man and a woman. “For me as a Christian,” he had said, “it’s . . . a sacred union. You know, God’s in the mix.”

“I was forced to ask myself,” Wear writes in his memoir, “would he really have used religious language to convince voters of something he did not believe?”

Wear doesn’t definitively answer the question in the book and still doesn’t seem to know for sure. But he does think Christians have reason to be cautious about being manipulated by religion in politics. Wear worries that some faithful voters just want to be “tickled in the right places.”

“It turns into a form of identity politics,” said Wear, chief strategist for the AND Campaign, a nonpartisan effort encouraging Christian political involvement. “It’s not good when we’re so easily appeased. We can easily fall into looking to politics for self-affirmation, instead of trying to use politics to advance human dignity and advance justice.”

These concerns come up for candidates as well. How can they be honest about their faith without turning it into a strategy to win over fellow believers? Tom Steyer—the former hedge fund manager and now philanthropist running a long-shot campaign for the presidency—fears bringing his Christian beliefs into the primary race could be a kind of betrayal, according to his campaign manager, Alberto Lammers.

At the beginning of 2020, Steyer was pulling about 2 percent support in national polls and a bit higher in some of the early primary states. His campaign was trying to help him make a personal connection with the electorate, but the candidate wasn’t comfortable using his religion to do it.

“He goes to church every week—usually Episcopalian or Methodist,” Lammers told CT. “He really listens, and he loves singing. He loves those churches. But he just goes. He sits wherever there’s space, and we don’t make any sort of arrangements for media coverage.”

Raised by a Jewish father and a Methodist mother, Steyer believes his religious upbringing has shaped his political vision for the country—but he doesn’t want to pander to get religious votes.

“He doesn’t go into a Bible verse just because the TV camera is on. He knows the Bible very well, but that’s not who he is and he’s not going to change who he is just to attract voters,” Lammers said. It’s a bit of a quandary, politically. Lammers hasn’t figured out how to solve it yet. But the candidate is insistent: “That’s not how he’s going to talk about his faith.”

Other candidates aren’t afraid to talk about faith. They talk about immigration, economic inequality, climate change, LGBT rights, and war as religious issues. The candidates haven’t tried to shift the party’s position on abortion to appeal to religious voters. Most of the campaigns leave little to no space for opposition to abortion, or even ambiguity, conflicted feelings, or compromise on the subject. Abortion is a major barrier for some who might otherwise side with the Democratic party on a slew of issues. This campaign, cycle only Amy Klobuchar has been willing to even say the party has room for pro-life Democrats.

The candidates have, however, talked about a lot of other issues in religious terms, and it seems to be working. Campaign fundraising reports filed with the Federal Election Commission show that more than 200 Christian ministers donated to Democratic campaigns over a six-month period in 2019.

Julián Castro, who emphasized his commitment as a Catholic to caring for the poor, received 53 donations from 13 ministers before he dropped out of the race in early January. Cory Booker, a Baptist who said he had also been deeply influenced by Buddhism, received $13,000 from 19 Christian clergy before he dropped out. Warren, a Methodist who can quote the King James Version of the Bible from memory, has received 250 donations from 51 ministers. Buttigieg, an openly gay Episcopalian who has made his faith a key piece of his campaign, received more support from clergy than any other candidate, with $36,000 in contributions from nearly 100 ministers over the course of six months.

Buttigieg got his first blast of national attention in the 2020 campaign by bringing up religion. In a CNN town hall last year, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, contrasted himself with his state’s former governor, Vice President Mike Pence. He said Pence had compromised his morality by supporting Trump for president and had misconstrued the Bible with his conservative politics.

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Source: Christianity Today