The Biden-Harris campaign, with a focus on interfaith outreach and a multitude of endorsements from the faith community, flipped the modern narrative of the Democratic Party as “secular” or “anti-religion.”
In his Saturday evening acceptance speech woven with personal and universal references to faith, the president-elect outlined his policy priorities and promised to unite the country.
“The Bible tells us that to everything there is a season – a time to build, a time to reap, a time to sow. And a time to heal. This is the time to heal in America,” Biden said. The man set to become the second Catholic U.S. president closed his speech with a popular hymn, based on Psalm 91 and other scripture, beloved by his late son, Beau. “And now, together – on eagle’s wings – we embark on the work that God and history have called upon us to do.”
Before winning the election, Biden touted endorsements from more than 1,600 faith leaders, the largest number for a Democratic candidate in modern history. The noteable outreach could be attributed partially to President Donald Trump’s relationship with religious conservatives. The increasing visibility of religious leaders in progressive politics also provided an opportunity. However, when looking for a catalyst to the campaign’s faith outreach, experts in faith and politics point to Joe Biden himself.
“Traditionally Democrats have taken the separation of church and state to an extreme,” Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) told Sojourners. “When you have a candidate who doesn't mind expressing his faith and demonstrating it, you get a much better connection with the faith community, and Joe is that kind of a candidate.”
Clyburn endorsed Joe Biden over a number of primary candidates in February, and in his subsequent campaigning – including more than 20 faith events – passionately made the case for Biden as a man of faith and integrity. He said that the campaign's faith outreach was an attempt to emphasize that Biden was a faith-driven candidate.
“We just made an attempt to … let them know that this campaign was all about what James wrote in his epistle that ‘faith without works is dead,’ and that we had to get involved,” Clyburn said, quoting James 4:26.
The Biden effort to win over people of faith was led by a millennial: national faith engagement director Josh Dickson. Dickson prioritized having representatives from “scores of different subgroups,” according to author and Freedom Road President Lisa Sharon Harper.
“The main thing that they did is they were inclusive. They reached out to everyone. They made a marked effort to be very targeted. They didn’t just have one faith coalition, they had many,” Harper said.
Biden and his team’s outreach was intentionally multifaith. Biden and Harris wished Hindus a happy Navratri . Biden participated in a virtual summit with Emgage Action, a Muslim PAC, and an event with Jewish Democrats. The campaign launched Sikh Americans for Biden under the South Asians for Biden group. LGBTQ+ Believers for Biden and AAPI Christians for Biden also organized for the former vice president.
Many of those groups coalesced around Biden’s candidacy, despite their disagreements on various policy issues. For example, Pro-Life Evangelicals for Biden included the support of Richard Mouw, president emeritus of Fuller Seminary and John Huffman, board chair emeritus of Christianity Today.
“[W]e believe that on balance, Joe Biden’s policies are more consistent with the biblically shaped ethic of life than those of Donald Trump,” the group’s statement read. “Therefore, even as we continue to urge different policies on abortion, we urge evangelicals to elect Joe Biden as president."
Some faith leaders endorsed a presidential candidate for the first time. Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, Christian ethicist David Gushee, and Imam Talib Shareef were among those spurred into first-time endorsements. For Harper, her endorsement was a chance to provide clarity to those who followed her work.
“This president actually trafficks in confusion and uses confusion as a weapon,” Harper said. “I believed, and I think that others believed along with me, that this was a moment where clarity was necessary because the lack of it is weaponized.”
An authentic faith
Biden and Harris’ team, however, made efforts to emphasize that their ticket was not just the anti-Trump choice for people of faith. Derrick Harkins, national director for interfaith outreach with the Democratic National Committee, said they wanted to emphasize the ways Biden’s life was personally impacted by faith.
“It’s important to be able to say that someone is grounded in their own sense of spiritual authenticity and that certainly represents a foundation for them in their actions and decisions,” Harkins said. “Not that they’re governing by a set of religious constructs, but simply because they’ve got an abiding faith that gives them a measure of strength.”
That spiritual authenticity, real or perceived, was echoed by religious experts. John K. White, a political professor at Catholic University of America, said Biden – unlike 2004 Democratic candidate John Kerry and President John F. Kennedy – didn’t downplay his faith. Amy Sullivan, a religion and politics writer, said that Biden’s team worked hard to ensure that difference in perception.
“I think they were looking at what happened in 2004 with John Kerry and how hard it was to communicate the authenticity of his faith to a lot of voters,” Sullivan said. “Kerry is famously the Boston Brahmin – who attends Mass weekly – but he doesn’t come off as the Scranton-born Catholic like Joe Biden who is apt to cross himself in the middle of a speech while he’s making some self-deprecating comment.”
The campaign also made clear connections between faith and policy, from fighting climate change and systemic racism, to increasing social safety nets and the numbers of admitted refugees. Biden promised to increase the numbers of admitted refugees by raising the refugee cap to 125,000 refugees annually. He also pledged to work with Congress to set the new minimum of admitted refugees to 95,000. The Trump administration, in contrast, set the cap at 15,000 for this year.
“I know his campaign made an effort to get in touch with Southern, evangelical women who are concerned about refugee issues. That’s a pretty specific, niche area,” Sullivan said. “The idea that Biden would set a floor far above the cap is just a huge relief to people who work in refugee issues, and a lot of those people are connected with faith-based organizations.”
Fixing the metanarrative
Those faith-based pitches were able to capitalize on a growing movement to recognize what is sometimes called the United States’ “Religious Left.” While serious differences exist between the Religious Right and its perceived progressive counterpart, the base of both groups are powered by people of faith who believe their religious beliefs should motivate political action.
Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, a progressive author and activist who personally endorsed Biden, said Biden’s team was able to capitalize on “fertile ground.”
“The campaign understood that ‘faith-voters’ means most Americans,” Graves-Fitzsimmons said. “One of the ways [the campaign] understood the religious diversity of the United States is understanding progressive people of faith exist. In the past I think some people who were working in Democratic faith outreach work saw religious outreach as a euphemism for moderate and socially conservative outreach.”
There is broad agreement that Biden’s administration is likely to partner with a diverse group of faith leaders in ways that President Donald Trump did not. Harkins said Biden was likely to revive something like the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, which dissolved under Trump. Graves-Fitzsimmons said that defeating Donald Trump was just a piece of continuing work to overturn national perception of faith-based politics.
“We have to fix this fundamental imbalance in our national consciousness that conservative politics is driven by religious conviction and progressive politics is driven by secular or non-religious motivations exclusively,” Graves-Fitzsimmons said. “It’s going to take generations to fix that high-level metanarrative about politics and religion, so this is an opportunity to do a lot of good work.”
The leadership of Biden’s campaign set a tone that the DNC is unlikely to unravel. Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a Yale Divinity School graduate, spoke at length on faith during the Democratic National Convention. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) regularly speaks about her Catholic faith. Clyburn said that Joe Biden and progressives of faith now have an opportunity to truly counter white evangelical influence in politics.
“White evangelicals were just making a mockery out of religion itself, out of the political process,” Clyburn told Sojourners. “It will be important for faith leaders to look at Biden’s platform and look at the agenda as it unfolds and really begin to discuss this stuff in a religious way. Why do we allow white evangelicals to oppose food stamps and get away with it?”