WASHINGTON (RNS) — For years, pundits and political analysts have accused Democrats of having a “God problem,” insisting the party does not do enough to highlight the role religion plays in the lives of millions of Americans.
The accuracy of the critique remains a matter of dispute, but few, if any, politicos made that claim Thursday night (Aug. 20) as former Vice President Joe Biden closed out this year’s atypical — and atypically religious — Democratic National Convention.
“I found the best way through pain and loss and grief is to find purpose: As God’s children each of us have a purpose in our lives,” said Biden, a lifelong Catholic. “And we have a great purpose as a nation: To open the doors of opportunity to all Americans. To save our democracy. To be a light to the world once again.”
It was a perhaps small appeal to his Christian faith, one of only a few scattered throughout his closing speech. But while Biden’s faith mentions were uncharacteristically minimal, the convention itself was unusually spiritual. Speakers, organizers and delegates appealed to a conciliatory, inspirational form of religion with a fervency not seen at any party convention in recent memory — Republican or Democratic.
The noticeable focus on faith, though frequently offset by appeals to religiously unaffiliated voters who make up an ever-increasing percentage of the party, was tied to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and oriented partly to moderates and even conservatives, who Democrats hope have will abandon President Donald Trump on Election Day.
The surge in God-talk was inspired at least partly by Biden himself, whose Catholicism has been a visible component of his political persona for years and whose campaign slogan, “a battle for the soul of the nation,” doubles as a religious reference. Democrats at the convention, which was conducted primarily through virtual means, repeatedly cited Biden’s faith as a source of his personal and moral strength, often framed as a point of a contrast with Biden’s opponent, Trump.
“Remember, Joe Biden goes to church so regularly that he doesn’t even need tear gas and a bunch of federalized troops to help him get there,” quipped actress and comedian Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who operated as emcee for the convention on Thursday. The joke was one of many references at the convention to when protesters and a priest were forcibly expelled from a park and St. John’s Episcopal Church next to the White House shortly before Trump stood in front of the church and held up a Bible for cameras.
Headline speakers repeatedly went out of their way to note Biden’s religion during their speeches. Former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, referred to Biden as “a man of faith.” Former first lady Michelle Obama called him “a profoundly decent man, guided by faith.” Former Second Lady Jill Biden said her husband’s “faith is in the providence of God.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared that “Joe Biden’s faith in God gives him the strength to lead.” And former President Barack Obama described him as “someone whose faith has endured the hardest loss there is.”
Marie Griffith, director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis, said the emphasis on Biden’s faith is evidence of increasing comfort among Democrats when it comes to discussing religion in public.
“Plenty of Democratic politicians have been committed to a religious tradition — think Jimmy Carter or Joe Lieberman — but there used to be a sort of politesse around the subject, the sense that one’s personal religion was private and not a topic for public politicking,” she said in an email. “The accounts of religious commitment we’ve heard from Democratic presidential candidates in recent years — consecutively from Obama, Hillary Clinton and now Biden — aren’t so different from the story of Jimmy Carter; they’re just being told in a different cultural environment, where religiousness is seen as an asset rather than an embarrassing quirk.”
— Religion News Service (@RNS) August 23, 2020
But even when compared to past efforts by Democrats to engage with faith, the focus on Biden’s Catholic roots at this week’s convention was uncommonly explicit. Around 10 minutes of Thursday’s program was set aside to focus exclusively on Biden’s religion, complete with a video of Biden discussing his beliefs with a voter during a campaign town hall. After an opening prayer by Sister Simone Campbell, a Catholic nun and head of the Catholic social justice lobby Network, Delaware Sen. Chris Coons dedicated an entire address to discussing Biden’s faith.
“For Joe, faith isn’t a prop or a political tool,” said Coons, a Presbyterian and Yale Divinity School graduate, who is known for invoking faith on Capitol Hill. “Joe knows the power of prayer, and I’ve seen him in moments of joy and triumph, of loss and despair, turn to God for strength.”
Discussing the role of faith in grief has long been a refrain for Biden, who lost his first wife and a child in a car accident early in his career and his son to brain cancer in 2015. But Anthea Butler, who serves as associate professor of religious studies and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania, noted that the subject of mourning and loss is particularly resonant during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed 170,000 lives in the United States alone.
“The tenor of this election is going to be really mean, but it’s also going to be really grief-stricken,” Butler said in an interview with Religion News Service. “This is going to be the culmination of religion and politics, but not in the way we’ve talked about before.”
Several Democrats used religious phrases to mourn the recent death of the late congressman and civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, with Alabama Sen. Doug Jones and others peppering their speeches with references to the religious concept of the “beloved community” — something Lewis often mentioned in speeches.
The party’s vice presidential nominee, Kamala Harris, a Baptist with Hindu family and a Jewish husband, discussed her own faith as well during her remarks on Wednesday, weaving it into stories of her family.
“(I’m) committed to the values she (my mother) taught me, to the Word that teaches me to walk by faith, and not by sight,” she said.
The volume of religious rhetoric was enough to catch the attention of conservative evangelical Christians such as Tony Perkins, a longtime activist and head of the Family Research Council, although he suggested Biden’s policies do not match his faith.
“The DNC’s focus on Joe’s faith is encouraging and instructive,” Perkins tweeted. “Encouraging that the DNC is talking about faith, even in a generic sense. Instructive to know why the disconnect exists between Joe’s faith and his policies.”
God-talk wasn’t merely relegated to the virtual convention stage, where rabbis, priests, nuns and imams offered stories, invocations and benediction prayers over the course of the week — a long-standing convention tradition. Organizers also convened various religious events aimed specifically at religious Democrats, such as an interfaith service that kicked off the convention and a virtual Catholic Mass on Thursday morning.
The Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and RNS columnist who officiated the Mass, laced his homily with references to the pandemic.
“Pope Francis tells us that our faith does not allow us to bypass adversity, rather it teaches us how to pass through adversity,” Reese said. “Whether it is the loss of a family member, losing a job or some other disaster, a crisis either makes us better or worse as persons. … This is especially true today with the coronavirus pandemic and the economic recession.”
In addition, the DNC organized several delegate meetings for people of faith: namely, an Interfaith Council, a Jewish American community meeting and — for the first time — a Muslim delegates assembly. The events featured a range of religious voices — Jews, Muslims, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, among others — as well as celebrities such as actress Jennifer Garner, a Methodist who participated in a “Believers for Biden” watch party on Thursday.
“In the Biden-Harris administration the ‘evidence of things that are hoped’ for will be seen in the soul of America,” Valerie Biden Owens, Joe Biden’s sister, said in one of the Interfaith Council sessions, in a reference to Hebrews 11:1. “The soul will reflect you, it will reflect me, and it will reflect all the others that Donald Trump has so marginalized and vilified.”
To be sure, Democrats did not ignore the ideological diversity within their ranks. The Interfaith Council was unusual for how it included the voices of secular and religiously unaffiliated voters, the latter of which constitute roughly a third of all those who identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party as of 2017. Among the council’s co-chairs is Sarah Levin, the founder of Secular Strategies, a group dedicated to bolstering the vote of secular Americans.
“As a secular Democrat, I believe I must use this one life I have to make a difference,” Levin, who is listed as affiliated with the group Jews for a Secular Democracy, said during an Interfaith Council session.
Convention speakers also made a point to mention the influence of nonreligious Americans.
“(Biden will) be a president for Americans of all faiths, as well as people of conscience who practice no particular faith,” Coons said during his speech.
Even this qualified appeal to religion was not without controversy, however. Although Democrats repeatedly recited the full Pledge of Allegiance during the televised convention proceedings, the Christian Broadcasting Network noted that speakers at both the Muslim delegates and LGBTQ caucus meetings omitted the phrase “under God,” which was added to the oath in 1954 and has been challenged repeatedly in various courts, when reciting the pledge.
Yet the omission of “under God” did not appear to equate to antipathy toward faith or religious people. The Muslim delegates meeting was, of course, filled with prayers and references to the Quran, and one of the LGBTQ sessions included an appearance of former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, an openly gay Episcopalian who repeatedly referenced his faith when running for president earlier this year.
“It’s up to us: Will America be a place where faith is about healing and not exclusion?” Buttigieg said in a separate address before the convention.
There was also discord surrounding a Muslim delegates session that included Linda Sarsour, a longtime advocate for Muslim Americans and one of the co-chairs of the original Women’s March.
“The Democratic Party is not perfect, but it is absolutely our party in this moment,” Sarsour, who runs the Muslim advocacy group MPower Change and backed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primary, said during the session.
The Biden campaign promptly issued a statement distancing itself from the activist, who stepped down from the leadership of the Women’s March in 2019 after allegations of anti-Semitism. Sarsour, a child of Palestinian immigrants who is critical of the Israeli government, disputed the allegations.
But the campaign’s dismissal of Sarsour, who often works with liberal faith activists such as Poor People’s Campaign co-chair the Rev. William Barber, drew criticism from the Council on American-Islamic Relations and other prominent liberals.
“Linda is a fierce advocate for justice and freedom, and a leading antiracist and organizer against antisemitism,” tweeted Ady Barkan, a health care activist stricken with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis who addressed the convention earlier in the week from his wheelchair. “The Biden campaign must retract and apologize.”
Observers noted the controversy could cost Biden with Muslim Americans, who are well represented in Michigan — a key swing state.
“(Biden) has to do some work with the Muslim community,” Butler said.
Even so, organizers were quick to note the historic nature of the Muslim delegates session, which included Muslim speakers such as Keith Ellison, the Attorney General of Minnesota.
“Joe Biden is absolutely right when he says this is a contest for the soul of the nation,” Ellison said in one faith session, referencing Biden’s campaign slogan. Ellison later added: “Yes, we’re going to win this election, inshallah.”
Despite the back-and-forth over smaller sessions, Butler argued the overall approach to religion on the main convention stage — which mostly featured faith leaders and politicians describing faith as a moral compass, as opposed to the faith-based activists who have offered prime-time speeches at past conventions — sent a powerful message “that the Democrats should have been doing a while back.”
And, Butler noted, if Biden’s consoling approach to faith resonates with voters — particularly Black Protestants at the core of the Democratic Party’s base and white Catholic swing voters in the Rust Belt — it could be a warning sign for Trump.
“Biden’s faith is real, it’s not contrived, and he doesn’t need the props of church or religious people around him to get across that he’s a person of faith,” she said.
“Biden has a chance to pose a very strong juxtaposition against Trump, and I think Trump should be worried about that.”