Faith comes to fore in Democratic 2020 field. Why now?

Why We Wrote This

In the political arena, expressions of religious faith have tended to come largely from conservatives. But with so many hot-button social issues at stake, more Democrats are sharing how faith guides their lives.

Bebeto Matthews/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Mayor Pete Buttigieg, from South Bend, Indiana, and civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton (r.), president of National Action Network, pray before their lunch meeting at Sylvia's Restaurant in Harlem, New York, April 29.

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Presidential aspirants in the Democratic Party have tended to keep their religious beliefs separate from their politics when making their electoral pitch.

“In the last couple of years it seems that the only people comfortable publicly talking about their faith tend to be on the conservative end, both theologically and politically,” says Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware. 

Among the candidates seeking the 2020 presidential nomination, however, there appears to be more appetite for speaking about their faith and using it to explain their positions and policies.

Questions about inequality and immigration have reframed long-standing debates about the role of faith in politics while at the same time highlighting many of the seismic cultural shifts that have transformed America’s religious landscape, observers say. As a result, more progressives have begun to urge candidates to express the faith that makes them tick.

“It’s very important that people understand what the core of my value system is,” Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey tells the Monitor. “I’m a big believer that faith without works is dead.”

When Bob Vander Plaats invited several Democratic presidential hopefuls to speak at his Family Leadership Summit in Iowa in July, a lot of people did a double take.

The summit is a gathering of socially conservative and politically powerful Evangelicals, and many consider Mr. Vander Plaats, the president of The Family Leader, to be something of a Republican kingmaker in the first of the nation’s nomination contests. It’s long been a must-attend for Republicans vying for Evangelical votes in their Iowa caucus. But no Democrat had ever been invited to speak there.

But like so many others this past month, Mr. Vander Plaats heard more Democratic candidates talking about their Christian faith in ways that broke with past election cycles and even in terms that Evangelicals like him hold dear.

“It just seems like a lot of them are talking about their faith as the centerpiece of their lives or even citing Scripture to explain their political beliefs,” Mr. Vander Plaats says.

He saw his invitation as a way to take up the candidates on their calls for unity and to try to bridge a nation’s polarized politics.

“There’s no gotcha questions, but just questions to basically provide an opportunity for a candidate to express who they are, what makes them tick, and what makes them reach the policies they are thinking about,” he says. “We want to hear who you are and what you’re for and what we can expect under your leadership.”

Brian Frank/Reuters/File
Bob Vander Plaats, president of The Family Leader, speaks at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, in 2014.

So far, most of the seven Democratic hopefuls he invited late last month have already declined, saying that they object to the summit’s treatment of their LGBTQ constituents’ rights.

“I welcome any opportunity to talk about how faith guides me, but I cannot – in good conscience – attend an event put on by an organization that preaches bigotry and sows hate against the LGBTQ community,” Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey tweeted.

Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts also declined the invitation. So did Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, who is gay, and former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas, who also declined saying the Evangelical group has “unapologetically provided a forum for dangerous anti-LGBTQ hate speech on numerous occasions.”

Still, Mr. Vander Plaats’ unlikely invitations point to simmering changes underway within mainstream political parties and the nation as a whole, many scholars say.

In general, liberals in the Democratic Party, even those of a devout faith, have favored “a secularist view” of the separation of church and state in which faith is a private and devotional matter while politics and governing are public and secular.

But on the right and the left, the issues of same-sex marriage, abortion, and the nation’s policies towards immigrants, minorities, and the poor have each been charged with religious questions, especially about the meaning of the teachings of Jesus and the message of Christianity.

These questions have in many ways reframed the nation’s long-standing debates about the role of faith in politics while at the same highlighting many of the seismic cultural shifts that have transformed America’s religious landscape, observers say.

What makes them tick

Indeed, many progressives have begun to echo religious conservatives like Mr. Vander Plaats, urging candidates to express the faith that makes them tick.

“I will say that in my nine years in the Senate, I’ve been struck by how many of my Democratic colleagues rely upon their faith, their personal religious values and experience, to motivate and inform their commitment to public service, and yet how few of them ever talk about that publicly,” Sen. Christopher Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, tells the Monitor.   

“In the last couple of years it seems that the only people comfortable publicly talking about their faith tend to be on the conservative end, both theologically and politically,” he adds.

He believes progressive values can’t be just secular values. “The American people have a very wide range of theological and political views and would benefit from hearing how progressive Christians see an intersection between their political views and their faith views,” Senator Coons says. “So I’ve encouraged a number of my colleagues to be more forthcoming about it.”

Evan Vucci/AP
Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla. (l.), President Donald Trump, and Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del. (r.), pray during the National Prayer Breakfast Feb. 7 in Washington.

 

White Evangelicals have long marched in lockstep with Republicans. Yet at the same time some have begun to question their religious subgroup’s outsize commitment to the GOP. And when it comes to same-sex marriage, nearly half of those under 35 – who are more likely to have met or befriended gay, lesbian, or transgender people – have begun to embrace a view of the Bible and a still-conservative theological perspective that nonetheless supports same-sex marriage.

And while that is far from the case for Mr. Vander Plaats, he has a deeply personal reason to invite Democrats to speak at the Family Leadership Summit: namely, to honor the legacy of Donna Red Wing, the late leader of One Iowa, the state’s largest LGBTQ organization.

Their relationship started with a series of conversations over coffee, Mr. Vander Plaats says, and bloomed into a deep if unlikely friendship. “Even though we had deep disagreements on some foundational issues as it related to marriage or God’s desire for sexuality, we also found out we had a lot of common ground,” he says.

“As I’ve told many, I would have done just about anything for Donna and that I truly loved Donna,” he says. After she passed away over a year ago, her family asked him to give her eulogy at a Universalist Unitarian Church.

A polarizing presidency 

Still, the polarizing presidency of Donald Trump and the full-throated support he continues to receive from white Evangelicals has led religious progressives to press Democratic candidates to articulate their deepest moral and religious underpinnings.

“What I see happening with some of the candidates is that they are being pushed by the movement,” says the Rev. Dr. William Barber II of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina, whose Moral Mondays movement has made him a national civil-rights figure.

He says Democrats are responding to voters who are using their faith to proclaim “a national call for a moral revival.”

Julie Bennett/AP
Rev. William Barber II, leader of the Moral Mondays movement, speaks during a town hall meeting in Hayneville, Ala. on Feb 21, 2019.

Indeed, like many black Protestants, Dr. Barber’s preaching and political activism spring from many of the historical elements of the Evangelical tradition. And unlike some of those in the traditions of mainline liberalism, he maintains an orthodox view of many of the traditional pillars of the Christian faith.

“What we’re beginning to see, and what we’re glad to see, is not so much the emergence of a ‘religious left’ or a ‘progressive Christianity.’ That is really not a way to talk about Christianity. That’s not biblical, and that’s not theological,” he says. 

‘A human perspective’

Senator Booker is one of the 2020 candidates who references Dr. Barber’s moral leadership. He’s also said that Democrats shouldn’t cede faith-based persuasion to Republicans and has drawn notice for weaving stories of his faith into campaign speeches.

“But I don’t come about this from a party perspective,” Senator Booker tells the Monitor. “I come to it from a human perspective. And for me it’s very important that people understand what the core of my value system is. I’m a big believer that you should speak your truth and religion has deeply – my faith is at the center of my life.” 

Cliff Owen/AP
Sen. Corey Booker, D-N.J., addresses the Human Rights Campaign National Dinner reception in Washington Sept. 15, 2018. Sen. Booker describes his Christian faith as being central to his life.

“So it’s something I think that all people should talk about,” says Senator Booker. “And again, I say it very openly in my remarks often: I’d rather hang out with a nice atheist than a mean Christian any day of the week. And some of the most soulful people with the strongest moral compasses are people who don’t subscribe to a religion. But as for me, my faith is sort of the foundation upon which I stand and the motivating force in so much of what I do.”

“I’m a big believer that faith without works is dead,” he continues, citing a famous verse from the book of James in the New Testament. “And it’s not necessarily even what you say. It’s what you do that speaks.”

A civil rights movement

That certainly applies to Dr. Barber, who models his activism on the civil disobedience traditions of the civil rights movement. His new Poor People’s Campaign picks up where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been working before his assassination in 1968.

But there has been a more aggressive religious tenor to Dr. Barber’s civil rights activism, many observers note. As he offers a “prophetic moral critique” of the political views of his religiously conservative counterparts, he has begun to challenge their Christian orthodoxy in no uncertain terms.

“We are challenging those who would go in with the president and pray over him and consecrate him and give him cover so he can prey on people who are the most vulnerable,” says Dr. Barber. “We’re challenging this kind of hypocritical faith that says, ‘Well, we’ll overlook everything Trump does so long as he’s against abortion.’”

“What we’re looking at is what kind of public policy violence is being covered up by this extreme and sometimes heretical presentation of the Gospel that refuses to critique injustice,” he continues. “An orthodox view of Jesus sees how, even in his first sermon, he lifted up the poor, the broken, and the unaccepted. So if a person’s spirituality does not produce a quarrel with the sins of injustice, then one’s spirituality, or claim of spirituality, is at least suspect.”

Jim Young/Reuters/File
Gretchen Larson recites the Pledge of Allegiance before the the start of the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, July 18, 2015. The Family Leader, a conservative organization, has invited several Democratic presidential candidates to speak at its 2019 summit.

But as progressives claim the mantle of orthodoxy and the true meaning of Jesus’ message, scholars like Bill Leonard, professor emeritus at the School of Divinity at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, sees what might be an alternative “religio-spiritual vision.”

This has been especially true of Mayor Buttigieg, who last month affirmed that “the left is rightly committed to a separation of church and state” in an interview with USA Today. “But we need to not be afraid to invoke arguments that are convincing on why Christian faith is going to point you in a progressive direction.”

Many took note of how he grounds his marriage to his husband, Chasten Glezman, a junior high school teacher, in his Christian faith. “My marriage to Chasten has made me a better man. And yes ... it has moved me closer to God,” he recently told a gathering of the Victory Fund, which helps LGBTQ candidates win office.

Yet at the same time Mayor Buttigieg has urged those who support LGBTQ rights not to “drag” those who don’t over to their point of view. “If someone feels harassed and put upon by us, at the very moment we’re demanding tolerance and acceptance, one consequence is that we can leave them with nowhere to go but the religious right.”

A values campaign

Scholars like Mara Suttmann-Lea, professor of government at Connecticut College in New London, says Mayor Buttigieg has focused on such humility to bolster an explicit values campaign. “As he wrote in his book, he wants to move beyond a superficial political strategy that is based on capturing constituency groups, and that has helped him brand himself as a leader whose values are able to connect across a very diverse coalition,” she says.

Professor Leonard agrees. “Part of Mayor Pete’s approach – indeed, his ‘witness’ – is his willingness to talk not only about his sexuality but to claim a spiritual ‘center’ that informs his entire personhood,” he says.

And it could be a particular millennial approach to faith, a “spirituality movement of the times,” he continues. “He finds his spirituality in the progressive Episcopal communion, not as doctrinal mandate but as ‘centering’ relationships, horizontal and vertical,” Professor Leonard says. “He articulates that spirituality not as moral diatribe against the ‘heretics’ but as a force in his own life. He’s also not afraid to own that spiritual side of himself, not as sectarian but as a connection to the larger and even more diverse ecumenical and interfaith constituency.”

But can religious progressives find common cause with conservative Evangelicals like Mr. Vander Plaats? In his view, marriage is between one man and one woman, and homosexuality is a sin; he also differs on how Christians should heed Jesus’ teachings on the poor.

“There can still be differences in policy,” Mr. Vander Plaats says. “People can say, no, the government should provide assistance for the poor, the government should step up and do this. But there is another side that says government should ... make sure that we continue to be the most generous country in the world for the poor” by promoting free enterprise.

“And the best thing we can do is offer them a job, and the other thing we can do is to encourage the church and people of faith to have the means and the tools to reach out, because they’d be way better at that than any government program.”

He’s still hoping some of the Democrats will change their minds and decide to attend his summit in Iowa in July.

“It’s no secret that we live in divisive and polarizing times,” he wrote over the weekend in an op-ed for the Des Moines Register. “My fear is we are embracing hatred versus understanding when we encounter disagreement. We are witnessing and growing numb to the senseless acts of violence in synagogues, churches, and nightclubs. There has to be a better way,”

“One way is to model what civility looks like,” Mr. Vander Plaats continued. “Thus, I encourage the leading Democratic hopefuls to accept my sincere offer for an honest, transparent, and civil conversation in a safe environment. While we may not leave agreeing and supporting one another, we’ll leave better and we’ll model a better way.”

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