(RNS) — When Jaime Harrison lost his much-discussed U.S. Senate race to South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham last year, pundits were quick to debate the outcome, each offering different explanations as to why the well-funded upstart Democrat was unable to unseat his established Republican opponent in the deeply red state.
But as politicos dissected his defeat in the press, Harrison paid closer attention to a more spiritual analysis offer by his grandmother: To her, the occasion wasn’t a moment for despair, but a divinely ordained opportunity.
“She said, ’Jaime, sometimes in life, when one door closes, the Lord opens up others,’” Harrison said in a recent interview with Religion News Service. “That was so true, (and) prophetic in many ways.”
Indeed, it wasn’t long before the rising liberal star secured a new post as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, giving him broad sway over the party. It also provided Harrison, who speaks often of his own Christian faith, an opportunity to engage with religious voters — just as he did in his own campaign.
Harrison spoke with RNS earlier this month to discuss his plans for the Democratic Party, his thoughts about the intersection of religion and politics and the role of his own faith in his work.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The last time we spoke you were running for Senate and we talked about your engagement with faith voters in the Palmetto State. Is that something you hope to continue in this new role as DNC chair? Do you think courting religious voters, broadly speaking, is a priority for the Democratic Party moving into the midterms?
Just this past week I met with our interfaith council at the DNC, which is made up of religious leaders from all faiths — and even some that are agnostic. It’s really important, as is the commonality people have with the values that we have as a party: taking care of “the least of these” and fighting to make sure we can be the voice for those who cannot speak for, or advocate for, themselves.
Over the years, it seems like the Republican Party has tried to position itself as a values party. But when push comes to shove, actions speak louder than words. Your values — you can’t just talk about them. You’ve actually got to live them. We, as a party, have lived our values — and we’re showing that right now through legislative action that’s been taken in this (Biden) administration.
So we’re going to lean into our values, and we’re going to make sure we amplify the connections; that the values that we have as a party fit with the values that folks have as people of faith.
Are there any specific faith constituencies you’re hoping to either mobilize or also reach? Are there any efforts to make inroads in faith communities that might have trended away from the Democratic Party in the 2020 election, such as Hispanic Protestants and Hispanic Catholics?
I’m talking with our interfaith council on developing programs for this next election cycle and moving into 2024. We want folks to understand that we see them, that we hear them, that we value them and that we, as a party, are going to work on their behalf. That’s (for) people of all faiths.
But in each region you have various demographics, you have different pockets of folks of faith. We’re going to take an all-of-the-above approach, but we’re going to make sure we’re speaking to people where they are.
One of the interesting dynamics of the Democratic Party is that you claim some of the most and the least religious Americans when it comes to worship attendance or expressing a belief in God. How do you see the party shepherding a coalition where such strongly religious voters cast their ballots alongside some who are less comfortable hearing faith articulated by politicians?
It’s all about respect. I’m a man of deep faith, but I also try my very best not to push that onto other folks, to intrude in their realm.
I do live by my faith and my values — that’s important, and I don’t shy away from saying that to folks. But at the same time, I have a deep respect for other folks and their experiences; how they’ve been brought up, what they value. I think that’s one of the tenets of our interfaith council. Again, it ranges from folks who are agnostic to those who are deeply religious — Muslims and Christians and Jews and Buddhists, all of it. That’s part of the strength I believe we have as a party, that we can bring all of those folks together to push for a common purpose.
I’m curious about the Southeast in particular, especially given the recent pushback over election laws — often led by faith leaders — in states such as Georgia and Texas. Is the Southeast in play for Democrats, and will faith communities and religious voters play a major role in keeping it that way?
Anybody who knows me understands I haven’t given up on the South. As chair of the DNC, I’m very committed to doing all that we can — I am not ceding any territory anywhere in this country. We’re going to do everything we can to get into the arena of ideas and win some races, even in places as red as the South.
That means you go to where people are and engage them in things that are of value to them. Religion and faith is a huge component of that, particularly in the Sunbelt across the South.
We will be speaking with religious leaders and their organizations within their communities about the values of the Democratic Party, how this is the party of taking care of “the least of these,” making sure that we are feeding the hungry and taking care of the sick and helping those who have no shelter. Within the Christian view — I can speak clearly on that — that is a tenet of Christianity.
Recently faith-based activists have garnered attention for backing liberal-leaning federal legislation such as a $15 an hour minimum wage, granting Washington, D.C., statehood, reforming policing systems and expanding voting rights — much of which has been championed by Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock, who is a prominent pastor in his own right. Has the party had any conversations about partnering with these faith-based groups to get legislation passed?
We are always looking for folks who share our values and who share our mission of making sure the American dream is available for all. We are always looking at ways that we can partner with folks, and it was that greater Democratic ecosystem that allowed us to get control of the Senate back, because those groups — along with the Democratic Party at national, state and local levels — were all able to work together to get Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock elected in Georgia. I think that’s a model for how we move forward in future elections.
I had a really great conversation the other day with somebody I deeply admire — the Rev. William Barber II — and all he’s doing to highlight the issue of poverty, which is something that I’m very passionate about as well.
What role has your faith played since your Senate campaign ended and you took on this new position as DNC chair?
My grandma told me this. … “Sometimes we have our plans, and sometimes the Lord has his. You just got to know when you just need to follow his plan.” My grandma loves dropping that knowledge on me from time to time.
I’m happy to take the role that the Lord has given me, and I’m going to do my very best to try to live up to my values, live up to my faith and do the best for everyone.