DNC Showcases Biden’s Outreach to Religious Voters

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Joe Biden has cast his presidential bid as a battle for “the soul of the nation,” an epic high-stakes clash of opposing forces that will impact the moral and spiritual direction of the country for years to come. That framing touches on his Catholic beliefs and the important role he often credits his faith in guiding him through the many personal challenges he’s faced.

It’s a way that Biden can take on President Trump’s carefully cultivated appeal to religious voters – with an authentic but very different approach.

Democrats hope to showcase the former vice president’s ability to connect emotionally to voters and talk easily about his faith this week during their four-day virtual convention in Milwaukee. His campaign recently announced the creation of Believers for Biden and has sprinkled religious services and prayers throughout the convention schedule this week. The outreach, team Biden says, is an effort to court religious voters – and possibly chip away at some conservative voters of faith disenchanted with Trump.

The convention held an interfaith welcome event Sunday morning, along with a worship service with the Congressional Black Caucus that night. There will be interfaith meetings and events throughout the four days and a virtual Catholic mass on Thursday morning just hours before Biden delivers the marquee acceptance speech that night.

While similar-sounding events will take place during the Republican convention next week, expect vastly different messaging.

Democrats say they plan to use many of their faith outreach events this week to promote their topline values of social justice, diversity and equality. “The key religious issue of this election is systemic racism, and that’s something the vice president has talked about and continues to talk about because it’s very important to him — it’s important to voters of all faiths all around the country,” Josh Dickson, Biden’s director of faith engagement, told RealClearPolitics.

Even his characterization of the campaign as a fight for the “soul of the nation” is a reference to nation’s recent struggle with racial clashes and unrest. Biden first used the term back in August 2017 when he penned an op-ed for The Atlantic after the violent clashes at the white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va.

Dickson says the faith leaders tapped this week to deliver the invocations and benedictions each day represent Biden’s “commitment to amplifying and elevating diverse voices around the country and ensuring that we are promoting a message of inclusion and of redemption.” The goal, Dickson says, is to ensure that members of different faith communities see that Biden’s agenda reflects their values – the “values of loving our neighbors as ourselves … the values of caring for the world around us, the values of working to sweep down the forces of injustice and oppression.”

With the nation still gripped with racial unrest in the wake of the George Floyd’s death, the Democratic Party’s push for greater diversity and inclusion are reflected in the heavy emphasis on interfaith events during the convention. During the interfaith welcome service Sunday, Pardeep Sigh Kaleka, director of Milwaukee’s Interfaith Conference, delivered the opening prayer. Kaleka’s father was killed in the 2012 Sikh temple shooting in nearby Oak Creek.

After Biden tapped Kamala Harris as his running mate last week, media reports highlighted her interfaith background – that she attended services at both a black church and a Hindu temple growing up in California’s Bay area. In 2014, she married Douglas Emhoff, a Jewish attorney.

During a 2017 speech at a historic church in Atlanta, Harris talked about the lessons she learned as a child attending Oakland’s 23rd Avenue Church of God along with services as a local Hindu temple. She said that her mother taught her and her sister “to see that all faiths teach us to pursue justice.”

Still, Biden hasn’t been shy about giving his Catholic faith credit for shaping his approach to immigration, expanding Americans’ access to health care and on embracing the Green New Deal as a way to fight climate change. 

The Biden pitch to religious voters is a general appeal to voters’ better angels and is far less focused and transactional than Trump’s. Democrats’ religious outreach also is getting a late start; the campaign hired Dickson in mid-June and launched Believers for Biden in late July.

In contrast, the Trump campaign has been holding dozens of “Faith in America” outreach events, many headlined by Vice President Mike Pence, to its evangelical and conservative Catholic base since last year. The early organizing acknowledges the critical role the religious right played handing Trump his 2016 win and the power they still have to help close his polling gap with Biden come November. 

Since Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory over Jimmy Carter, GOP presidential candidates have benefitted from evangelical Christian voters, and they still make up a major voting bloc despite shifting demographics.

Evangelicals are the most common religious group, just ahead of those without religious affiliation, a Pew Research Center study found. And in 2016, national election pool exit polls found that 26% of voters self-identified as white evangelical Christians. Eighty-one percent of those evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016, helping him cross the finish line in key swing states such as Georgia, Michigan, Missouri and Pennsylvania, Pew found. 

Trump started fulfilling his campaign promises to evangelicals and Catholic pro-life voters just months into job. In May of 2017 he signed an executive order aimed at overturning Obamacare’s mandate that employers provide health insurance that covers contraceptives, including some pregnancy prevention drugs the religious right regards as abortifacients. A few months later, he lifted a ban that blocked houses of worship from receiving federal disaster aid.

More recently, as Democratic governors reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic by shuttering churches, along with hundreds of private Catholic schools, Trump has vocally condemned those actions and thrown his support behind lawsuits challenging the local laws. 

Trump also has stood up for persecuted religious minorities around the globe, appointing former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, a well-known conservative evangelical, to the position of ambassador at large for International Religious Freedom. Earlier this year, he passed an executive order aimed at advancing international religious freedom worldwide.

Biden’s move to the left will likely alienate many single-issue pro-life Catholic and evangelical voters. He recently released a campaign video in which he says he has drawn on lessons from Pope Francis and the example of nuns for personal inspiration, but his critics also point out that he has promised, if elected, to revive his legal battle with Little Sisters of the Poor, nuns who have fought the Obamacare contraception mandate in court.

Last June, as he was preparing to run for president, Biden also abruptly reversed his decades-long support for the Hyde Amendment, the measure that bans the federal funding of abortions. While he has long supported Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that made abortion legal nationwide, he had previously cited his Roman Catholic faith as the reason for backing the Hyde Amendment.

In choosing Kamala Harris, Biden is further alienating pro-life Catholics and evangelicals. As attorney general, Harris filed a brief with the Supreme Court asking it to refuse Hobby Lobby’s request to deny women birth control because it went against the arts-and-crafts chain store owner’s Christian faith. The high court disagreed, and Hobby Lobby won the case.

In 2018, Harris also angered Catholics by questioning a federal judge’s decision to join the Knights of Columbus, a 137-year-old all-male Catholic charitable organization, as a teen because the group opposes abortion.  The sharp questioning triggered a flood of criticism from Catholics, conservatives and religious freedom advocates who charged that Democrats were trying to impose a new religious litmus test on judicial nominees.

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics’ White House/national political correspondent.

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