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Why should Democrats talk about faith if half of the country isn’t listening?

Democratic presidential candidates are talking more about faith now than in 2016, but confusion about their party’s relationship to religion persists

Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, Ala., on Sunday, March 1, 2020.
Butch Dill, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Joe Biden has released a video on his Catholic faith, written a column on his religious upbringing and taken breaks from campaigning to attend Mass.

But, according to a survey released last week by Pew Research Center, 39% of U.S. adults doubt he’s even a “somewhat” religious man.

The disconnect between Biden’s statements on faith and voters’ assumptions should be familiar if you’ve paid attention to Democratic Party politics over the past few decades. Candidates on the left have long struggled to convince a sizable chunk of Americans that they care about religion.

“I’ve met so many religious people around the country who think that when they go to the ballot box they have to choose between voting for the religious party, the GOP, and voting for the secular, liberal party, the Democrats,” said Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, a fellow with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress.

This belief will likely become even more common as the share of registered Democrats who identify as religiously unaffiliated — which was at 28% in 2016 — grows. One-third of U.S. adults (33%) already believe religious “nones” have too much control over the Democratic Party, Pew reported last year.

“The candidates (in 2020) are up against a pretty strong headwind in terms of people recognizing that Democrats can be religious and are,” Graves-Fitzsimmons said.

But widespread doubt about their sincerity hasn’t stopped Biden and, to a lesser extent, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., from talking about faith. They’ve credited their religious upbringings with inspiring their activism and promised to partner with faith communities in the pursuit of their policy goals.

Democratic presidential candidate and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders waves to supporters before a speech at This is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City, Friday, March 18, 2016.
Democratic presidential candidate and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders waves to supporters before a speech at This is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City, Friday, March 18, 2016.

“There’s been more religious rhetoric this campaign season than in 2016,” said Michael Wear, the founder of Public Square Strategies, a consulting firm that works at the intersection of faith and public life.

But, as Pew’s survey showed, this rhetoric has done little to clear up confusion about the Democratic candidates and faith. Just 55% of U.S. adults believe Biden is “very” or “somewhat” religious and only 34% say the same about Sanders.

Those results can be explained, in part, by the fact that some Americans, especially registered Republicans, have yet to tune into election coverage, Wear said. But they also stem from the stereotypes about the Democratic Party that Graves-Fitzsimmons described.

“In the minds of some people, it’s inconceivable that you would be religious and not a Republican,” said Wear, who previously worked on faith outreach for President Barack Obama.

Is it time for religious Democrats to give up on trying to convince them?

Temptation to stay quiet

John Carr, the founder and director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, worries a growing group of “Democratic elites” would say, yes.

As the party has increased its outreach to religious nones, some leaders have expressed a desire to leave religious language behind.

“My sense is that Democratic elites think ... faith is less important to people than it really is,” Carr said.

Even Democrats who identify as religious or see the value of religion in society sometimes think its best for candidates to downplay their faith, Graves-Fitzsimmons said.

“We live in a pluralistic society and to some, (religious language) feels exclusive,” he said.

But sharing your own religious experience isn’t inherently insulting to people who believe different things, Graves-Fitzsimmons said. He highlighted Sanders’ comments about his Jewish faith, noting that these comments on Judaism haven’t prevented the candidate from forging strong bonds with the Muslim community.

“We shouldn’t try to keep religion out of the public square. One of the things that makes America so special is the diversity of our religious beliefs,” he said.

Most voters crave religious language from candidates, even if they’re not always good at remembering what they hear, Wear said.

“We’re in a profoundly religious country. Voters want to feel like they know not just the policies that a candidate supports, but also who they are. Faith is part of that,” he said.

Even among Democratic voters, religious affiliation remains far more common than disaffiliation. Sixty percent of registered Democratic voters identify as either Protestant or Catholic and around 10% are members of minority faiths, according to Pew.

Religion is central to the lives of many African American and Latino voters, who are core constituencies within the Democratic Party. It would be foolish for a Democratic candidate to refuse to campaign at churches or discuss their relationship with faith, Carr said.

Candidates “who ignore (faith) ... are making a mistake and may pay a political price,” he said.

The political system, as a whole, suffers as well, Carr added.

“What politics at its best is about is fundamental choices about life and death, about war and peace, about who moves ahead and who gets behind. If we don’t bring our deepest convictions to those questions, then it’s just about power, money and ego,” Carr said.

Is there a right way to talk about religion?

However, Democratic candidates do need to be sure they’re talking about faith for the right reasons, Carr said. Their goal should be to help voters understand their upbringing and vision for the future, not just to earn a few more votes.

“I think a fundamental question for all of us, not just the candidates, is does your faith shape your politics or does your politics shape your faith? Do you use faith to justify the positions you already support or does your faith challenge your assumptions?” he said.

Carr applauded Biden’s approach to religious language over the past few months, noting that he talks about the significance of personal faith not just in the context of his political career, but also his personal life.

“He’s talked about how his faith gives him purpose and hope in times of loss,” he said.

Despite this embrace of religious language, Biden doesn’t have the support of every Democratic voter who identifies as religious. And President Donald Trump, who often stumbled over religious messaging during the 2016 election, still earned the vote of 81% of white evangelical Protestants and 58% of Protestants overall.

Faith is just one factor among many that people consider as they make their decision, and that won’t change no matter how often or how well Democratic candidates talk about religion, Carr said.

“We vote on our class and our race and our interests and our prejudices, as well as our moral and religious convictions,” he said.

In other words, talking about faith won’t guarantee that Democratic candidates fare well in 2020 or future elections. But it will help them connect with the people they want to serve, Carr said.

“If we’re looking for a way to build up the common good and to make political life work better, convictions about human life and dignity, civility and honesty are assets, not problems,” he said.