Faith, In All Forms, a Regular Topic for 2020 Democratic Candidates

Oct 7, 2019

Mayor Pete Buttigieg inside of Exeter Town Hall.
Credit NHPR

The Democrats hoping to win their party’s nomination for president represent the most diverse field in history. Along with age, race, and sexual orientation, the candidates also come with a broad range of religious and spiritual beliefs. As they make their way across New Hampshire, some candidates are talking about those beliefs in ways Democrats usually don’t.

For the past 50 or so years in America, openly blending faith and politics has largely been the domain of the religious right. But some Democrats this cycle, including South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, are making faith a central theme in their pitch to voters. 

“I’m pretty sure God doesn’t belong to a political party,” said Buttigieg during a rally in Exeter earlier this year. “And if he did, I can’t imagine it would be the one in charge of the White House today.”

Another candidate, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, seamlessly quotes Bible verses, and talks about faith as a driving force in his life.

“So I’m one of these people that says before you tell me about your religion, you should show it to me in how you treat other people,” said Booker to a crowd in Concord. “And there is a very big value in my faith, Matthew 25, about ‘I was in prison and you visited me.”’ 

Credit Sara Plourde / NHPR

This expression of religious faith isn’t just from Christian candidates. The 2020 field includes less represented religions in America, including candidates that in decades past may have downplayed their religion, such as Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard.

“I took my oath of office on the Bhagavad Gita, when I was first sworn in Congress in 2012. I am a practicing Hindu, and my spiritual practice, my relationship with God, is something that is near and dear to my heart,” said Gabbard during stop at the Rockingham County Democrats headquarters. 

So what’s changed? Why are some Democrats working hard to highlight their religious values? Dartmouth religion professor Randall Balmer says it’s in part a reaction to what progressives see as the moral failings of President Trump.

Sen. Cory Booker speaking during the state Democratic party's convention in September.
Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

“I think Americans in 2020, just as they did in 1976, and again in 2000, are looking for what I call a ‘redeemer president.’ That is, we are looking for a candidate for president who has a moral compass,” says Balmer.

In 1976, the sour aftertaste of Watergate helped push a religious Democrat, Jimmy Carter, to the White House. In 2000, with the scandals of the Clinton Administration still fresh, George W. Bush, a born-again Christian, spoke frequently about his religious convictions. 

Balmer says Democrats are appalled by the Trump Administration’s policies, and candidates would be smart to position themselves as ethical antidotes.

“Frankly, I’ve been astonished that more of the Democratic candidates for the nomination have not been speaking this language of faith and morality in talking about their politics,” says Balmer.

That strategy could be a risk in New Hampshire, though, a state that routinely ranks last in religious participation, which includes metrics about how often people go to church, or pray. 

“You can be whatever you want to be, just don’t force it down my throat,” said Susan Hocking of Walpole outside of a recent rally for Elizabeth Warren in Keene. Hocking was wearing a t-shirt with an image from the Handmaid's Tale, a book about a dystopian theocracy.  

But other Democrats at the Warren event say they are okay with more open displays of faith from their candidates, as long as it is backed up by action. 

“I’d like to see spirituality talked about on more than a book-level, more than a big guy in the sky-level. I would like to see people talk about spirituality in a way to connect to other human beings on this Earth,” said Allison Blouin of Keene.

"You can be whatever you want to be, just don't force it down my throat." — Susan Hocking

Some candidates this cycle are talking about their own forms of spirituality, while skewing away from traditional religious descriptions.

For example, Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan is quick to bring up his meditation practice on the campaign trail. During an event in Concord, Ryan told the crowd about mentioning to his staff that he was interested in writing a book. 

“And they are like, fantastic idea. What are you going to write about? I said, mindfulness meditation. And they said, are you friggin’ crazy?” 

Tulsi Gabbard during an event in Exeter.
Credit Todd Bookman/NHPR

And then there is Marianne Williamson, an author whose works are often found in the spiritual section of bookstores. Her stump speech is sprinkled with language about consciousness and unseen forces.  

“It’s traumatizing: the chaos in his mind is traumatizing,” she told students on the campus of New England College in Henniker. “And the peace in the next president will be very healing.”

Spiritual healing isn’t a typical Democratic talking point, but the 2020 candidates may be wise to offer voters someone they can believe in.