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Inside the Democratic and Republican parties’ very different appeals to people of faith

The parties adopted different approaches to faith-related messaging at their conventions this month.

President Donald Trump speaks from the South Lawn of the White House on the fourth day of the Republican National Convention, Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020, in Washington.
Evan Vucci, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — The Democratic and Republican national conventions each featured prayers, pastors and multiple speakers saying “God Bless America.”

But, in terms of religion-related messaging, the similarities ended there.

The Democrats focused on Joe Biden’s personal faith and guiding values, arguing that, when it comes to moral leadership, President Donald Trump has fallen short. They promised to craft fairer policies without spelling out specific plans for religious freedom law.

“More than anything, Joe is a man of faith and conscience. He’ll be a president for Americans of all faiths, as well as people of conscience who practice no particular faith,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Delaware, on the final night of the Democratic National Convention.

The Republicans, on the other hand, spoke more often and more directly about religious conflict and what faith communities could lose if Trump leaves office next year. Rather than play up the president’s religious commitments, speakers repeatedly referenced religion’s role in America’s founding and attacked the Biden campaign’s faith-related claims.

“The Biden-Harris vision for America leaves no room for people of faith,” argued Cissie Graham Lynch, granddaughter of famed evangelist Billy Graham, during her Tuesday evening remarks.

Both parties were courting religious voters, who represent around two-thirds of those who are registered to vote, but they seemed to have very different listeners in mind.

The Democratic convention appealed to worshippers fed up with injustice and corruption, while Republicans spoke to those who worry their way of life is under threat.

Surveys on the COVID-19 pandemic, preferred presidential traits and the top concerns of religious voters show that each party’s approach to faith probably resonated with voters already leaning their way. However, neither the Democrats nor the Republicans addressed issues with their religious outreach strategies that people of faith have previously raised.

Candidates’ faith

Although both Biden and Trump identify as religious, surveys show that many Americans are skeptical of their claims.

Just 35% of U.S. adults see the president as “very” or “somewhat” religious, according to a February report from Pew Research Center. Around half of Americans (55%) said the same about Biden at the time.

Based on convention programming, it seems like the Democratic Party is more concerned than Trump about this data. Democratic speakers repeatedly emphasized Biden’s lifelong commitment to Catholicism during the party’s virtual gathering last week.

“I know Joe. He is a profoundly decent man guided by faith,” said former first lady Michelle Obama during her Aug. 17 remarks.

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden watch fireworks during the fourth day of the Democratic National Convention, Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020, at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Del.
Andrew Harnik, Associated Press

Similarly, Coons argued that religious values play a role in every decision Biden makes.

“His faith is strong and it’s personal and private. For Joe, faith isn’t a prop or a political tool,” he said.

Democrats who were listening likely accepted these comments without question, but others took to social media to attack Biden’s faith. For example, Bishop Rick Stika, who leads the Catholic Diocese of Knoxville, Tennessee, tweeted that the former vice president can’t be a good Catholic since he’s voted in the past in support of abortion rights.

Perhaps because they anticipated similar critiques of the president’s past behavior, Republican leaders spent almost no time during their convention addressing Trump’s personal faith. Instead, speakers highlighted his deep respect for religious communities and desire to hear and address their concerns.

“To all houses of worship and all people of faith stripped of our religious freedom and religious liberties, my father will fight for you,” said Trump’s son, Eric, on Tuesday.

This messaging choice makes sense in light of the fact that Republicans are more likely than Democrats to prefer leaders who defend their religious interests.

Nearly 8 in 10 Republicans (79%) say it’s “very” or “somewhat” important to them to have a president who stands up for their beliefs, compared to 60% of Democrats and 69% of Americans overall, according to Pew.

Different policies in the spotlight

This data may also help explain why speakers at the Republican National Convention warned about the threats that Democrats could pose to people of faith. They said Biden, like other liberal leaders, would prioritize other policy goals over protecting religious freedom, and leave faith communities to fend for themselves.

A Democratic administration would “force the choice between being obedient to God or to Caesar because the radical left’s god is government power,” Lynch said.

She and others cited safety rules tied to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis to back up their claims, arguing that Democratic lawmakers have cruelly kept worshippers from gathering in person while allowing protests to go on as planned.

“They close our churches but keep liquor stores and abortion clinics open,” said Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, on Tuesday night.

Evangelical leader Franklin Graham tapes his prayer for the fourth day of the Republican National Convention from the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington, Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020.
Susan Walsh, Associated Press

In addition to asserting that Democrats disrespect religious freedom, Republican speakers insisted that faith communities have never had a defender as dedicated as Trump. They emphasized his efforts to protect faith-based foster care agencies and other religious organizations, as well as his work on behalf of persecuted faith groups overseas.

“We the people elected Donald Trump and then people of faith suddenly had a fierce advocate in the White House,” Lynch said.

Democrats, on the hand, said little about contemporary religious freedom battles, including sanctuary closures caused by the coronavirus pandemic. They chose to focus on policy issues that are less obviously religious, but are still closely tracked by people of faith.

For example, Coons described the party’s commitment to slowing climate change, updating immigration policy and addressing racism in its many forms. Biden is willing and able to work with religious communities to build a better world, he said.

“We need a president who brings people of all faiths together to tackle our challenges,” Coons said.

Similarly, former president Barack Obama said the best leaders work alongside the people they serve, rather than simply promising to check items off voters’ wish lists.

“Democracy was never meant to be transactional,” he said.

Several speakers at the Democratic convention described the 2020 election as a “battle for the soul of the nation” and Biden said he would live out the biblical call to care for communities who are too often forgotten or left behind.

He will “restore America’s moral authority,” said former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell on Aug. 18.

In this image from video, Sister Simone Campbell gives the opening prayer during the fourth night of the Democratic National Convention on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020.
Democratic National Convention via Associated Press

Solidifying the base

Democratic speakers’ remarks complemented the Biden campaign’s broader religious outreach strategy, but they likely won’t convince religious Republicans to vote for Democrats this year.

To accomplish this goal, Biden will need to say more about his plans to incorporate religious freedom protections into his policies on issues like LGBTQ rights, said Ronald Sider, the president emeritus of Evangelicals for Social Action, to the Deseret News earlier this month.

“I know that he is reaching out to evangelicals in a variety of ways, and I’m sure that he’s doing the same with Catholics and others,” he said. “But it would be another important step for him to talk explicitly about their religious freedom concerns.”

The conservative religious voters who helped elect Trump in 2016 may respect Biden’s religious commitments, but few believe he’d do as much for them as the current administration, Sider and others have said.

“There’s a sense (among Catholics) that Trump is the defender of the church and religious liberty,” said John Gehring, the Catholic program director for Faith in Public Life, to the Deseret News last month.

Republicans worked to reinforce that reputation at their convention this week by highlighting Trump’s continuing support for faith-based organizations.

However, many religious voters remain concerned that the president has inconsistently applied religious freedom rights.

“They should be ending attacks on or discrimination against Muslim Americans and other religious minorities,” in addition to protecting Christians, said Rob Taber, who serves as national co-chairman of Latter-day Saint Democrats of America, to the Deseret News earlier this month.

Another potential issue for the Republican Party is that research has shown that few people of faith are as concerned about coronavirus-related restrictions as convention speakers seemed to think they are.

Nearly 8 in 10 U.S. adults (79%), including 74% of Christians, believe houses of worship should be required to follow the same social distancing rules as other organizations and businesses in their area, according to a July survey from Pew Research Center.

These comments and data show that both parties may need to adjust their appeals to religious voters in the final two months before Nov. 3’s election.

As it stands, Republican and Democratic messaging on religion seems to connect with people who already share their worldview.