The presidential nominating conventions playing out these past two weeks across the nation’s television and computer screens have been about more than a fight for power. They have also served as the latest staging of the American battle for God — in which the Bible has become a political football, in which the unborn, the religious school child and the immigrant have all become symbols of a deeply divided nation, of two raging Americas.
Republicans have established themselves as the party of God over the past several decades, but Democrats are not yielding the field in 2020. It’s a shift for them. Consider the Democratic campaign slogan: “A battle for the soul of the nation,” an explicitly spiritual counter to “Make America great again.”
In both party’s conventions over the last weeks, largely held virtually — images of waving flags, Roman columns, and grand eagles have fused with those of nuns, rabbis and cardinals offering their blessings. As Americans reel from a pandemic that has taken 180,000 lives, religion was front and center. But the strategies were different. Republicans emphasized that their entire apparatus — government, party, citizens — was on the side of religious freedom, while Democrats focused on the faith of their nominee and leader, Joe Biden.
The GOP has, for decades, positioned itself as the defender of the religious American in a culture war against liberalism, whose alleged end goal is the destruction of America’s Christian heritage. The depiction of religious Americans being persecuted by the left creates a certain victimhood narrative, casting the church-goer as the oppressed, who then requires protection that President Trump, who calls himself the “law and order” president, can provide.
“The Biden-Harris vision for America leaves no room for people of faith,” said Cissie Graham Lynch, grand-daughter of renowned evangelical pastor Billy Graham, in opening the RNC on Tuesday evening.“They will force the choice between being obedient to God or to Caesar.”
Yet this year, the Democratic National Convention leaned in heavily to religious rhetoric, and to Biden’s Catholic faith, in an attempt to attract undecided voters.
“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, in his remarks. “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.”
The DNC speakers made sure to mention Biden’s religious convictions — focusing on his personal beliefs. Biden was a “man of faith” (according to former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican); “a profoundly decent man, guided by faith” (according to Michelle Obama); a man whose “faith is in the providence of God” (according to his wife, Jill Biden); “someone whose faith has endured the hardest loss there is,” (according to former President Barack Obama).
“Just 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,” Julia Louis-Dreyfus says, taking a jab at President Trump. https://t.co/FO3KD1jIse— ABC News Politics (@ABCPolitics) August 21, 2020
Vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris — who identifies as a Baptist — said that she is committed to “the Word that teaches me to walk by faith, and not by sight.”
The Biden campaign is trying to appeal to the evangelicals who are uncomfortable with Trump’s aggressive style, said Sarah Posner, author of “Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump.”
These moderates, she said, “do not want to see Christianity used for Christian nationalist ends, but rather as a way of talking about their views on issues like the environment, poverty or racism,” she said in an interview. Posner noted that this is a small slice of evangelical voters — but even a small group can tip the scales. “Evidently they’re thinking about the fairly significant white evangelical population that is in swing states,” she said. “Even if they peel away a tiny percentage of them, it could make a difference electorally.”
Of course, there have always been religious Democratic politicians, but rarely did they make it a theme in their conventions. “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,” Marie Griffith, director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis, told Religion News.
In 2016, the Democrats’ decision to downplay religious outreach turned out to be a bad decision. “Clinton’s energy when it came to religious outreach shrank over the years,” said evangelical pastor Joel Hunter of Orlando, Fla., who formerly led a megachurch and served as an advisor to Obama. “She did not give much attention to people who were concerned because of their faith.”
Despite Trump’s photo-op with the Bible in his hand during protests against the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, polls show that three out of four voters don’t believe he is a man of faith. His strategists have compensated for this by deploying surrogates, like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who addressed the convention from Jerusalem in a violation of norms and possibly law.
Yet even as they focus on faith, the Trump campaign’s religious references at the RNC have been rarely about religious values or Scriptures — and largely hover around promises of protecting “religious freedom,” and the unborn. It’s as if they’re saying: While our candidate is no paragon of piety — he is a defender of those who are.
Among evangelicals, Hunter said that he sees some groups — those that skew younger and more educated — who are “very open to switching votes, if they believe that there is genuine respect and a welcome participation in the next administration.” Hunter believes that the Biden campaign’s religious outreach thus far makes sense. “There are so many of us who want to hear messages of unity and healing,” he told the Forward. “Just the tone in itself is a welcome tone to most religions.”
Trump will be speaking tonight at the culminating event of the Republican National Convention. Thus far, the projections are that he’ll be focusing on “skewering” Biden and leaving faith to others.
“No one has attempted to explain how Donald Trump’s faith shapes his policies or behavior, because it would be a nonsensical exercise,” said Robby P. Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute, author of ‘White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity’. “So instead of religion getting used in ways of talking about its content, it gets used in more symbolic ways - that are largely devoid of content.”
The Party of God: Republican or Democrat?
Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt is the Life/Features editor at the Forward. She was previously a New York-based reporter for Haaretz. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Salon, and Tablet, among others. Avital teaches journalism at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, and does pastoral work alongside her husband Rabbi Benjamin Goldschmidt in New York City.