As Democrats grow more secular, N.H. clergy press candidates on values

Why We Wrote This

In one of the nation’s least religious states, a group of faith leaders is trying to focus the political dialogue around our common humanity – and get a clearer sense of what’s in candidates’ hearts.

Courtesy of GSOP
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts meets with members of the Love 2020 project in New Hampshire, which brings together religious leaders, community organizers, and labor unions to tackle issues such as immigration and economic justice.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 4 Min. )

In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama’s campaign team called on religious leaders in New Hampshire individually, according to the Rev. Jason Wells, executive director of the New Hampshire Council of Churches. This cycle, campaigns don’t seem to be wooing faith leaders as they used to, Mr. Wells says.

Yet one group of local clergy has been working hard to secure a seat at the table – arranging a series of intimate meetings with White House hopefuls. The Love 2020 participants have raced, sometimes with just a few hours’ notice, to meet with candidates in churches, barns, anywhere they can get a brief audience with the person who might be their next president. They say they’re trying to reframe what faith-based political action can look like, and inject faith-based, moral concerns into Democratic presidential politics.

“We do not talk about abortion; we do not talk about the traditional faith-based things,” said Eva Castillo, a Venezuelan immigrant who directs the New Hampshire Alliance of Immigrants and Refugees. “We show them a different face of faith, you know? More open-minded, more equalizing.”

The Rev. Jonathan Hopkins wishes every candidate for president would grapple with a troubling truth about this city: Many working people aren’t making ends meet. Some are still in their Walmart uniforms when they’re fed at the soup kitchen where he and his congregants volunteer.

Now, with the Feb. 8 New Hampshire primary fast approaching, Mr. Hopkins is finding he doesn’t have to wish quite so much. He’s part of a group of New Hampshire clergy who have been meeting with White House hopefuls, in an effort to inject faith-based, moral concerns into Democratic presidential politics. For the candidates, these Love 2020 events offer a chance to get cozy with religious movers and shakers who, they hope, might sway some of the voters in their flocks.

Mr. Hopkins wants to know what each candidate will do to break the cycle of poverty for working people. So far, he’s participated in sit-downs with Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Indiana.

“We are asking questions that are not being asked of them in general,” says Mr. Hopkins, pastor of Concordia Lutheran Church in Concord. It’s an arena where spirituality is explored – even with candidates like Senator Sanders, who describes himself as “not particularly religious.”

“Bernie, for sure, he’s got some spiritual depth,” says Mr. Hopkins. “Maybe not religious depth, but spiritual depth. ... He said we all should care about the least among us.”

Sessions with 11 Democratic candidates and one Republican (former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld) were all open to the press, according to Love 2020 organizers. But when Mr. Buttigieg sat down with the group in early January at St. Paul’s Church in downtown Concord, campaign staffers insisted that this reporter wait outside, despite having been invited to cover the event. They gave no reason, saying only that the meeting was private.

Mr. Buttigieg, an Episcopalian, is hardly shy about his Christian faith, which he often invokes on the campaign trail as a moral guide for shaping policy positions. “What’s important to me is to make sure that I’m engaging with [faith leaders] and with those that they guide and care for,” he said after the meeting, as a black SUV waited to whisk him to a Nashua town hall event. With recent polls showing a tight race in New Hampshire, the campaign was perhaps taking no chances on a religion-charged gaffe.

Courtesy of Arnie Alpert
The Rev. Jonathan Hopkins speaks with Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, during a Love 2020 event Jan. 4, 2020, in Concord, New Hampshire. It’s an effort to connect clergy with candidates in a Democratic Party that’s increasingly secular.

Navigating the sensitive terrain where faith meets progressive politics is par for the course for Love 2020, a project of the Granite State Organizing Project (GSOP), which brings together religious leaders, community organizers, and labor unions to tackle issues such as immigration and economic justice. It’s an effort to connect clergy with candidates in a Democratic Party that’s increasingly secular and cautiously experimenting to find where faith fits, if anywhere, in its political mix.

For candidates, courting clergy support is nothing new – not even here, in what is, according to Gallup and the Pew Research Center, one of America’s least religious states. In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama’s campaign team called on religious leaders individually, according to the Rev. Jason Wells, executive director of the New Hampshire Council of Churches. Inspired by the outreach, Mr. Wells, who was then a parish rector, volunteered for Mr. Obama by canvassing door to door in his time off.

This time around, campaigns don’t seem to be wooing faith leaders individually as they used to, Mr. Wells says.

Indeed, Love 2020 was born to fill a void, organizers say, amid a growing dearth of meaningful dialogue with candidates. Campaigns are often most concerned with preventing unscripted soundbites, notes Arnie Alpert, co-director of the New Hampshire Program of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker-based activist organization. For example, when Senator Warren does her famous selfie line for photos, “her staff people take your phone from you, and then they take the ‘selfie,’” Mr. Alpert says with a laugh. “What that does is keep you from using your phone to actually record the interaction.”

Progressive faith leaders believe Love 2020 provides a meaningful alternative – and they’ve been working hard to secure a seat at the table in New Hampshire. They have raced, sometimes with just a few hours’ notice, to meet with candidates in churches, barns, anywhere they can get a brief audience with the person who might be their next president. They say they’re trying to reframe what faith-based political action can look like.

“We do not talk about abortion, we do not talk about the traditional faith-based things,” said Eva Castillo, a Venezuelan immigrant who directs the New Hampshire Alliance of Immigrants and Refugees. “We show them a different face of faith, you know? More open-minded, more equalizing.”

All the major Democratic contenders, with the exception so far of former Vice President Joe Biden, have carved out time to meet with the Love 2020 group of clerics, each of whom has a local following and a measure of clout.

“This spotlight on our state gives us a chance to influence the national dialogue,” says GSOP Executive Director Sarah Jane Knoy. “To focus on our shared values and our common humanity – because the current national dialogue is very divisive and, I think, really kind of hateful.”

For local religious leaders, Love 2020 also provides a platform to ask the kinds of values questions candidates don’t always hear elsewhere. In a video of the Buttigieg session, provided by Love 2020 organizers, the Rt. Rev. Robert Hirschfeld, bishop of the Episcopal Church of New Hampshire, can be heard asking: “What’s in your soul? What’s in your heart that is going to help us reknit together the torn social fabric?”

Mr. Buttigieg responded that when he’s campaigning, his soul is “just out there for everyone to see.”

“There is a crisis of belonging in our country that I think is propelling everything from the brokenness of our politics to mental health issues” including rising rates of suicide and drug addiction, he told the group. “Holding the American project together depends so much on whether we can create that sense of belonging. ... It may well be the most important function of the presidency.”

The clergy also minister to the candidates they meet, much as evangelical leaders have done when laying hands on President Donald Trump and praying for him. Mr. Hirschfeld led Mr. Buttigieg and the assembled group in prayer.

The Rev. Sarah Rockwell of St. Andrew’s Church in Manchester offered another kind of spiritual support to Mr. Buttigieg, as he navigates the pressures and personal tolls of running for president. “Keeping a marriage intact – it is not easy,” Ms. Rockwell quietly said to the candidate as they left the meeting room. “You are in my prayers, and so is he.”

“Thank you,” Mr. Buttigieg said with a smile. “Keep the prayers coming.”

Give us your feedback

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

 
of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.