DES MOINES, Iowa — One of the biggest applause lines of Pete Buttigieg’s latest trip to Iowa came when he said: “Faith isn’t the property of one political party.”
After years of playing down or even ceding the message of faith and values to Republicans, Democratic presidential candidates are trying to reclaim it in the 2020 election, sharing their own personal faith stories and reaching out to a slice of religious voters who they believe have been motivated and alienated by President Donald Trump, who has bragged about sexual assault and paid hush money to an adult film actress. While past Democrats have shared their faith on the trail, party strategists and observers say it is playing a more central role in the 2020 campaign than they’ve seen in a long time.
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But the Democratic focus on religion comes with a new twist: While some previous Democratic candidates have used their faith to connect with conservative or traditionalist voters, 2020 hopefuls like Pete Buttigieg, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker and others are using their religion to justify liberal positions on same-sex marriage, abortion and other policy areas that have traditionally animated the conservative religious right in the other direction.
Buttigieg, the openly gay mayor of South Bend, Ind., went viral in April saying that Vice President Mike Pence’s “quarrel, sir, is with my Creator” if he had a problem with Buttigieg’s sexuality. Gillibrand has championed abortion rights by squaring her support through her belief in “free will, a core tenet of Christianity.” Booker has summoned the concept of “civic grace” when he talks about reforming the criminal justice system.
“At a moment when we see families being ripped apart at the border, when we see people’s health care put at risk, when we see policies designed to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted, it calls into question how anybody on board with the current mess in Washington can claim to be doing so in accordance with their faith,” Buttigieg said in an interview. “It’s the right moment, I think, for Democrats to challenge that idea.”
The rhetoric marks a sharp break from the traditional religious politics of recent decades, said Al Sharpton, the reverend and civil rights activist who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004.
“For the last several cycles, people tried to act like, as a candidate, to talk about faith is to make you less progressive,” Sharpton said. “In the late ’70s and ’80s, we let the right wing hijack the Bible and the flag, and Democratic candidates, to reclaim that, [are saying] that we have progressive ideas and we also have a firm belief in faith.”
No Republican has offered a greater contrast on religion and morality than Trump, Democratic strategists and candidates believe, though the president won strong support from religious voters in 2016. That opening is driving a “sea change” in the way candidates are addressing religion on the trail, said Guy Cecil, chairman of Priorities USA, the Democrats’ flagship presidential super PAC.
“Part of it has grown out of the despondency after the 2016 election, when Christians who don’t normally get political decided they needed to be more open about it their faith in the context of politics,” Cecil said. “And it also grew out from Trump, who is entirely paradoxical to Christianity, and that opens up some voters to new candidates.”
What Gillibrand calls the “misuse by the Republican right of faith-driven people” started well before Trump, she said in an interview with POLITICO before a Sunday church service in Iowa. “I think there’s [now] a reclamation to say, well, if you really are driven by the Gospel, you should feed the poor, you should help the weak, you should help the vulnerable.”
Religious campaigning isn’t a requirement for most Democratic voters, according to a recent POLITICO/Morning Consult poll. But one-third of those surveyed said that it was important to find a candidate of faith in the 2020 campaign. It’s a coalition that a candidate might build out from, though Democrats “who appeal to voters’ religious bona fides will not necessarily benefit from a polling uptick,” said Tyler Sinclair, Morning Consult’s vice president.
Most presidential campaigns have not yet hired a faith outreach director to organize the hunt for those voters below the candidate level, though there are staffers charged with communicating with religious groups, several campaigns said.
“I’m not saying it’s more important than a data operation or a communications shop, [but] if we get into the summer and the major campaigns haven’t brought faith outreach on, then I’d be very concerned,” said Michael Wear, who led President Barack Obama’s faith outreach during his 2012 campaign, noting that Obama already hired a staffer for this position by this time in 2007. “Otherwise, we’ll be leaving voters on the table.”
Candidates’ faiths are usually a part of their larger personal stories — Hillary Clinton’s Methodist roots and Obama’s Chicago faith community both played roles in their presidential runs. The same is the case in 2020, but at a higher volume, due to both the size of the field and to the heightened interest in tackling the topic.
Joe Biden and Julian Castro both discuss their Catholicism often. Amy Klobuchar highlighted her father, a recovering alcoholic who was “pursued by grace,” in her policy rollout on drug addiction and mental health. Kamala Harris often recalls stories about singing in the church choir with her sister, while Elizabeth Warren, a former Sunday school teacher, introduced her followers to her childhood church in a video released Easter Sunday.
There’s even an actual spiritual guru in the primary: Marianne Williamson, an author who frequently appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show and boasts a 2.7 million-strong Twitter following, will be on the debate stage in June.
Gillibrand and Booker are struggling to break out of the crowded pack of Democratic candidates. But a Gillibrand aide said after her forceful faith-based defense of abortion rights in May, triggered by a wave of state-based anti-abortion laws, Gillibrand’s campaign received three times more donations than it had gotten in the first four months of her presidential run combined.
Gillibrand impressed Rev. Frantz Whitfield at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church on a recent Sunday in Waterloo, Iowa, when she delivered an 8-minute sermon that married her left-leaning politics to her faith. It is “fundamental to who I am,” she told about 50 congregants, who nodded and clapped along with her.
After Gillibrand’s closing refrain, with rousing calls to “put on the armor of God,” Whitfield retook the microphone and said, “I don’t need to preach today.” Wilma Jackson, the church’s choir director, said she’s “very interested now” in supporting the senator because Gillibrand “brought it straight from the Bible.”
Gillibrand attended Catholic schools and became a practicing Christian in her twenties, after a college friend introduced her to Redeemer Church in New York City. She was “single” and “lonely” at the time, so her faith community became “grounding aspect of who I am,” she said.
Whitfield, along with other Democratic strategists, said that authentic connection is particularly required with African-American voters, a critical Democratic voting bloc. Booker said in an interview with POLITICO that even as the Democratic Party may not have been as forward about its faith with wider audiences, the “the black Christian tradition” has “never, ever yielded from talking about God and religion.”
“We’ve never ceded that ground,” he said.
Booker has rooted much of his presidential messaging around “radical love” and a “revival of civic grace,” concepts traced in the Gospel. On the campaign trial, Booker invokes the tempo of a preacher and weaves Gospel verses into his stump speeches. He even spent the final hours before his presidential campaign launch in February at a prayer service in Newark, N.J., where he was anointed with oil by his pastor.
The New Jersey senator said he sometimes gets frustrated that “talking openly about your faith is something you see something far more in the Republican Party, and it’s often done in ways that I think are not humble [and] are more judgmental.”
“I think value-based conversations are where we should often start because I think Americans — those who are religious and those who are not — share a common moral framework,” Booker said.