The Dems Get Some Religion

So at the conclusion of the Democratic National Convention, we are reminded that Joe Biden will allow “No religion. No anything.” Not only that, but he will “Hurt the Bible. Hurt God. He’s against God.”

Against God—dear me!

Whom he will “hurt.”

Poor God! We had better buck that boy up, send him a condolence or “I’ve been thinking of you” card to restore whatever confidence has been shaken by the Biden campaign’s assault against his very person.

Cheesh, for a “Sleepy Joe” whose doddering, demented, cognitively declining ways have become the butt of Republican Party campaign ads, it’s a rather remarkable feat to be able to “hurt” the omnipotent, omnipresent Creator of the Universe. Were it true, that kind of power would be something of a resume builder.

Maybe he could restore the luster of IBM!

Resurrect the Lehman Brothers!

Exhume the “Excite” search engine!

Get Vladimir Putin to butt out of our November election!

But of course, none of it is true. Because all of it exists only in the scattershot, meandering mind of President Trump, the most profoundly unreligious, ungodly figure ever to haunt the halls of the White House, as he desperately flails to rally his “base” once more by suggesting his opponent is a stand-in for Satan in the eternal, titanic battle between good and evil.

This is what we have come to in politics, 2020.

Donald Trump: ever on the side of the angels.

Joe Biden: devil incarnate.


All this is by way of noting one of the undercurrents that caught my attention through the four-day Democratic virtual gathering: how much overt mention and testimony about religious matters there was. Led by the party’s standard bearer: Joe Biden, lifelong Catholic.

When it comes to discussing the underpinnings from which many religiously inclined Democrats form their strongly held beliefs, it is as if they are walking through a minefield, careful not to hit any trip wires that would taint and brand them as kooks, supernaturalists, flat-earthers, holier-than-thou Bible-thumpers.

Having suffered the deaths of his wife and daughter in an automobile wreck and later his son to cancer, Biden’s trials of faith and his decision to forge ahead with a life committed to public service bathed in empathy were a frequent subject of discussion this past week. Delaware Senator and Biden friend Chris Coons (he occupies Biden’s old Senate seat), previously unknown to me, is a Yale Divinity School graduate who spoke eloquently about Biden’s religiosity in a featured convention speech, noting: “For Joe, faith isn’t a prop or political tool.” (Gee, wonder who and what he could have been referring to…)

Then came a most revealing clip showing Biden on the campaign trail in a February (pre-Covid) town hall in South Carolina.

He was fielding a question about his faith from Reverend Anthony Thompson, whose wife was one of nine African Americans killed in that city by a young white supremacist at a church Bible study in 2015.

Biden spoke movingly about the “hope and purpose” his faith gave him in the wake of his own tragedies, but notably, he prefaced his remarks by taking pains to emphasize not once but twice, “I’m not trying to proselytize, I’m not trying to convince you…to share my religious views,” followed a few seconds later by, “I’m not proselytizing, but I happen to be a practicing Catholic…”

Note the careful aversion to “proselytizing.” It’s what religious liberals often do as a kind of pre-emptive action to ensure the religiously unaffiliated that they are not a certain kind of religious person.

What kind?

You know: That kind.

The kind who jams their faith down your throat, who proclaims and gloats about the good word and their fidelity to it at every turn. Who doesn’t drink or smoke or cuss or have pre-marital sex or do any of the things that many secular people commonly think are strictly avoided by anyone who considers him- or herself “religious.”



This is a kind of cartoon version of religiosity, of course, but one that happens to have remarkable staying power among a broad swath of the electorate. And it’s partly the result of right wing Republican evangelicals coming to dominate the religious marketplace at least since the “Moral Majority” took hold of American religious discourse in the late 1970s, spouting their narrow, rules-based, comfortably suburban and overwhelmingly white religious orientation that became strongly aligned with Republican electoral politics. Religious liberals have been in retreat ever since.

So much so that even in religious testimony by a Democratic presidential candidate in direct response to a question, he is almost self-programmed to begin his statement with a repeated caveat that he is not trying to “proselytize.”

Interesting that one never hears those caveats in relation to any other strongly held beliefs, despite candidates trying their damndest to proselytize about them. (Definition of proselytize: “convert or attempt to convert (someone) from one religion, belief, or opinion to another.”

Black Lives Matter, climate change, death penalty, tax policy, income inequality, homelessness, nuclear proliferation: Proselytize like mad! “Attempt to convert from one belief or opinion to another!”

But when it comes to discussing the underpinnings from which many religiously inclined Democrats form their strongly held beliefs on those issues, it is as if they are walking through a minefield, careful not to hit any trip wires that would taint and brand them as kooks, supernaturalists, flat-earthers, holier-than-thou Bible-thumpers.

That’s a shame, because one can go as far back as one wants—to that friend of whores and sinners, the abject and dispossessed and the lame, Jesus himself, and far more recently, to the likes of MLK and all those good preachers and parishioners, both black and white, who marched with him—for an unabashed religiosity that deeply informed their political views and actions flowing therefrom.

As it happens, I cringed when Julia Louis-Dreyfus came out in front of the camera to moderate the final night of the convention. Cute idea to bring in the star of “The Veep,” but someone around that strategy table should have pounded it in protest of a comic actress presiding amidst the gravitas of Biden’s acceptance speech, the segment with Coons, the courage and élan vital of young Brayden Harrington making his way, one stutter at a time, through a heartfelt tribute to his pal Joe.

A few minutes in, I realized who should have been in Dreyfus’s place: the Reverend William Barber (pictured just above), he of the “Moral Mondays” of steadfast protest, the closest figure we have in carrying on MLK’s tradition of religiously inspired activism. Like King, Barber is a uniquely inspirational figure, an impassioned preacher who knows who he is, what he is striving for, how to push and to wait and to push again.

Ah well—an opportunity lost. But not before Biden had the opportunity to discuss his faith, however qualified. One that is steeped in empathy, and charity, and a listening with his heart.

And in his specific Catholic tradition.

It is true that Democrats are generally a more skeptical bunch in religious matters than are Republicans. The Pew Forum surveys of religion in public life consistently show higher church membership and various other identifiers of religious inclination among Republicans than Democrats. But that is a long way from suggesting that Democrats are the party of atheists and agnostics.

A representative sample metric: “Religion is Very Important in my life”—Republicans 61%, Democrats 47%. This hardly suggests Republicans have a lock on religious values, or that only Republicans vote from religious convictions. It seems Democrats are beginning to realize that, and are no longer inclined to cede the mantle of religiosity to the white evangelical Christianity that comprises such a substantial part of the Republican Party’s base.

There is plentiful room, it turns out, for the religiously inclined under the big tent of diversity the Democrats are constantly proclaiming as a hallmark. That can only be a good thing as voters from a wide range of backgrounds converge on the singular and necessary goal of saving our country from another four years of the unthinkable.


My thanks to reader Jeanette Millard for the recent tip on this duo and this song!


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8 comments to The Dems Get Some Religion

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    As Joe Biden, a devout Catholic, campaigns from now until November 3rd, the chronic American tradition of anti-Catholic bigotry will again mar our national conversation. Trump’s cult-like evangelical sect will reinvigorate our shameful history of religious intolerance, After all, his base considers Catholicism a bridge between purgatory and hell. That cruelty is unforgivable. In the 3rd grade, my wife, who grew up Catholic in Louisiana’s Bible Belt, experienced firsthand the wrath of the Baptists toward her faith. When she transferred from a Catholic school to a public one, her teacher announced, “This new student is Phyllis. She’s a Catholic.” Trump possesses a similar streak of meanness. His hateful rhetoric ignites prejudice, molds division, endorses xenophobia, promotes misogyny and reflects the values of the new Republican party. Ironically, during the 1850s, there arose a similar nativist and anti-Catholic movement, which proudly dubbed itself as the Know-Nothing Party.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      That’s a hella thing to have one’s religion presented front & center in a public school introduction, Robert. Yikes! But none too surprising, especially considering that more than half a century later, there is a still a sizable and loud contingent insisting that the real problem in America is that we took prayer out of the public schools. Chillingly, I don’t think we’re fully rid of that possibility. It may well resurrect if the unthinkable happens and RBG and Breyer don’t make it through a second Trump term.

    • Claire Spencer  says:

      Actually, Bob is mistaken. She didn’t announce it to the class, and I never told anyone, so one has to wonder how all the kids knew. In retrospect, I suspect, instead, that the “grownups” were discussing it around the children. One boy referred to me as a dirty Catholic. I went to school in North Louisiana, which unlike South Louisiana is predominately Protestant, though the ones who seemed to be the cruelest were far and away Baptists. Decades later, when I was a parent, in Texas, my son came home to tell me that a boy said he was not Christian if he was Catholic. I explained to my young son that actually, Catholics were the first Christians and that was why the other churches were called Protestant because they protested the Catholic church many many years before and formed their own churches. My son told his classmate what I said. The next day, the boy returned to school and said to my son, “My mom said your mom is a liar.” To this day, I hear people, educated adults, referring to the various religions as Christian, “Catholic,” Jewish, Muslim, etc. It is a bit disconcerting that these often holier- than-thou-Christians don’t understand the history of their own faith, which I guess explains alot– Falwell family hypocrisies aside.

      • Andrew Hidas  says:

        Oh Lordie, Lordie…I found myself bursting out in laughter with that, “My mom said your mom is a liar.” What is one to do with that? (Beside shake one’s head in dismay…) You probably saw yesterday’s gem about the Trump supporter scheduled to speak at the convention who retweeted an anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic screed in the morning and promptly got herself cancelled from the evening program. (Hey: Cancel Culture at the Repub convention, who knew?)

        All that said, I’m reasonably confident Biden’s Catholicism (as opposed to Trump’s religion of Money and Power) won’t be any big deal 60 years after JFK. (Except maybe in a few pockets of rural Louisiana?) But I could be wrong, given how many old animosities and absurdities have been given such new life in the Trump era.

  • Kirk Otto Thill  says:

    Trust and faith are the safe words to use these days, of which are so lacking in Trump’s follies. I wouldn’t doubt that the “code” words of the Bible are being used for the conspiratorial “truths” of the demons of the deep state. For me, religion raises suspicion. More importantly is how you incorporate faith in your life. Tell me how you feel, don’t tell me how I should feel, whether it is religion, politics, or whatever.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Kirk, your comment revives an old favorite term from my seminary days: the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s “hermeneutics of suspicion.” Ricoeur would no doubt applaud your “suspicion” of religion—if anything raises suspicions, it should be that!

      (As a total aside, here’s an interesting tidbit on Ricoeur that I think you’ll love: he was captured in 1940 when the Germans overran France, got placed in a camp with a bunch of other intellectuals, and they started offering so many classes & seminars & such that the Vichy government wound up granting them accreditation to award degrees. “And then I earned my master’s degree from Stalag 13…”)

      And yes, true religion is in the doing and the being—not the talking and “believing.” Thanks for that, too!

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Religion and politics have a sordid and sorry history no doubt… We’ll know our country has really evolved beyond bashing one another with bibles when the first public atheist is elected president (or even makes a serious run!). Yet looking back to the early days of the republic the role of religion in political life has long been on the front burner. A good example is Jefferson editing his bible (in private of course) to be more in line with his complicated, doubting/deistic views which gave birth to first constitutional amendment, “wall of separation between church and state”. A brilliant addition to be sure that is continually challenged to this day. A bit later those pesky transcendentalists like Emerson were publicly insisting that Jesus was a great man but not divine and God could be found in nature not the bible…
    I can’t end without noting how I loved the phrase “hermeneutics of suspicion “, upon looking up Monsieur Ricoeur had to agree that his notion that interpreters should “approach a text with the expectation that it doesn’t mean what it appears to.” Pretty good idea when dealing with much of modern life such as social media posts, websites, political essays, and most certainly political speeches!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      The interesting thing about Americans’ views on the religion of politicians is how consistently polls indicate we would never elect an avowed atheist. And then we elect Trump, with overwhelming support from the most avowedly, defensively religious faction in all of Christendom: white evangelical Christians. Gives whole new meaning to the term, “Go figure…”

      Makes me very happy that you totally grokked the phrase, “hermeneutics of suspicion.” I can still remember my prof at the Jesuit School of Theology pacing kind of rhythmically with that phrase across the front of the classroom, unpacking it a step at a time, and I was hooked.

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