When 10 Democratic presidential candidates were pressed on immigration policy during their recent debate, Pete Buttigieg took his answer in an unexpected direction: He turned the question into a matter of faith.
Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, accused Republicans who claim to support Christian values of hypocrisy for backing policies separating children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border. The GOP, he declared, “has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.”
It was a striking moment that highlighted an evolution in the way Democrats are talking about faith in the 2020 campaign. While Republicans have been more inclined to weave faith into their rhetoric, particularly since the rise of the evangelical right in the 1980s, several current Democratic White House hopefuls are explicitly linking their views on policy to religious values. The shift signals a belief that their party’s eventual nominee has a chance to win over some religious voters who may be turned off by President Donald Trump’s abrasive rhetoric and questions about his character.
“The bar for Democrats on reaching broad swaths of the American faith community is lower than ever because of Donald Trump,” said Michael Wear, who led White House faith outreach during President Barack Obama’s first term and re-election. Wear said Democrats have an opportunity to show faith voters they don’t just “have a seat at the table, the values table is our table.”
Buttigieg, an Episcopalian who married his husband in his home church, often invokes his faith on the campaign trail and has tangled over values with Vice President Mike Pence, an evangelical Christian. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a practicing Methodist and former Sunday school teacher, recently declared that all of her expansive policy proposals “start with a premise that is about faith” as she cited a favorite biblical verse about Jesus urging care for “the least of these.” New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker has called Jesus “the center of my life” and excoriates Trump for what he calls “moral vandalism.”
John Carr, founder of Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, urged Democrats to focus more on their personal faith and avoid wielding religion as a political weapon.
“When you use faith as a way to go after your adversaries, it sounds more like a tactic and less an expression of who you are,” said Carr, who spent more than two decades as an adviser to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Regardless of Democrats’ changing tactics, Trump and Republicans are all but certain to maintain their grip on one of the most influential religious voting blocs, white evangelicals; 8 in 10 who self-identified with that group voted Republican in the 2018 midterm elections, according to AP’s VoteCast survey. Though Trump rarely discusses his own religious identity and isn’t seen as particularly devout, he’s won the loyalty of many evangelicals through his administration’s successful push for conservative judicial nominees and focus on anti-abortion policies.
Democrats have more appeal, and opportunity, with other religious voters. VoteCast showed Democrats captured half of self-described Catholics and 42% of Protestants in last year’s midterms.
Democrats have long had to walk a tightrope with religious voters, given that their support for abortion and LGBTQ rights is at odds with leaders of several prominent denominations.
The 2020 candidates aren’t shying away from those differences. Warren, for example, opposes the United Methodist Church’s prohibition on same-sex marriages and LGBTQ pastors, which has prompted more progressive congregations to weigh a split .
“Elizabeth believes equal means equal, and that’s true in marriage, in the workplace, and in every place,” spokeswoman Saloni Sharma said.
Instead, they see an opening to talk about religion as a driver of their basic values, not a litmus test. Immigration offers one such opportunity, given that Trump’s detention policies have drawn criticism from leaders of multiple faiths, including some evangelicals.
Jim Wallis, founder of the Christian social justice group Sojourners, described the drowning of a father and his toddler daughter who attempted to cross the border as a test of faith for policymakers. Many devout Latino voters who are being courted to vote Republican next year “believe that’s a religious question,” Wallis said.
The Democratic candidates come from a variety of religious backgrounds and differ in how they speak about faith on the campaign trail.
New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand identifies as Catholic but regularly attends evangelical services as well as Mass, her campaign said. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke said in a statement to The Associated Press that he was raised attending Catholic Mass, but, “As an adult, I have found a stronger connection with God outside of the church.”
California Sen. Kamala Harris and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders speak about their faith less frequently than some of the others. But Sanders — who would be the first Jewish president — recently joined liberal Jewish activists for a picture that identified them as Jews against Israel’s policies toward Palestinians.
Former Vice President Joe Biden has openly struggled to reconcile his Catholic faith with his party’s more liberal position on abortion. In the 1970s, he said the Supreme Court went “too far” in legalizing abortion nationwide and later said abortion should be legal but not government-funded. He reversed that position only last month under intense pressure from his Democratic opponents, drawing a public reprimand from the archbishop of Philadelphia.
But Biden flouts his church’s hard-line positions against homosexuality and same-sex marriage. “We are all God’s children,” he explained last month at a Human Rights Campaign gala in Ohio.
Booker speaks often about his faith as he campaigns. His home church is Metropolitan Baptist in Newark, New Jersey, and his campaign said he attends services whenever he isn’t traveling to early voting states.
The New Jersey senator generally avoids direct use of religion to criticize the GOP, but he told a South Carolina pastor during a CNN town hall in March that “the Bible talks more about poverty, about greeting the stranger, about being there for the convicted ... than it talks about the kind of toxic stuff you often hear the president spewing.”