DEMOCRATIC CANDIDATES might avoid that wide-open lane in the primary race, but some are veering onto another part of the track: They’re talking about religion.
In some cases, it hasn’t been a major push: Kamala Harris has talked about attending both a Hindu temple and a Baptist church when she was growing up. (Her husband is Jewish.)
Bernie Sanders has long said he’s not actively religious, but he has referenced his Jewish background and the need to fight white nationalism.
Biden has discussed his Catholicism and says it helped him through his son’s death. Julián Castro has also talked about his Catholic background. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., says Christian faith helped her deal with her father’s addiction. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, was the first Hindu ever elected to Congress in 2012.
Others speak about religion more often on the campaign trail: When addressing church crowds, Elizabeth Warren talks about her background in the United Methodist Church, and she’s invoked Matthew 25 when talking about policies to help the poor.
Cory Booker’s campaign has hired a South Carolina pastor to reach out to churches in the early primary state, and he delivered an August address at Mother Emanuel AME—the Charleston church that endured a mass shooting and nine deaths at the hand of white supremacist Dylann Roof.
Booker seems at ease talking to church audiences, but he has also sometimes used Scripture for unsettling ends. Last summer he decried Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, warning how the justice would rule on “a woman’s right to control her own body.”
The senator invoked Psalm 23 to condemn approving a presumably pro-life and conservative appointment to the high court: “We are walking through the valley of the shadow of death.”
New Age guru Marianne Williamson has cast the election in spiritual terms, speaking less about specific policy plans and more about how the “wonkiness” of other candidates won’t deal with “the dark psychic force” she says Trump has brought to the country. Williamson says “only love can cast that out.”
Some have laughed off Williamson’s unusual candidacy, but Google searches about the candidate soared during the debate. Even if Williamson (who has been polling at less than 1 percent) doesn’t make it much farther in the race, she’s likely piqued the interest of plenty of Americans concerned about a divisive and ugly moment in American politics.
Meanwhile, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg was the first candidate to hire a faith outreach director for his campaign. Some pundits were surprised when Buttigieg’s campaign announced it had hired a Unitarian Universalist for the job: Shawna Foster said her job would be to reach out to all faith groups.
Buttigieg has spoken openly about his same-sex marriage and his membership in an Episcopal church. He rejects historic, Biblical teaching about homosexuality, and he’s attacked Vice President Mike Pence for his traditional views on sexuality.
“That’s the thing I wish the Mike Pences of the world would understand,” Buttigieg told a group at an LGBTQ Victory Fund event. “That if you got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me—your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.”
Buttigieg’s quarrel goes beyond theological debates to how religious Americans should be able to practice their theological convictions in public spaces. Indeed, all the major Democratic candidates have endorsed the Equality Act, a measure that has passed the House but likely won’t gain traction in the Senate—unless the Senate unexpectedly flips to Democratic control next year.
The bill would essentially prohibit any form of perceived LGBTQ discrimination in public spaces and doesn’t include any religious exceptions. Religious freedom advocates say such a measure could threaten Christian colleges, adoption agencies, and perhaps other religious institutions seeking to operate according to Biblical convictions.
Michael Wear, an evangelical and the faith outreach director for President Barack Obama’s campaign in 2012, says the Equality Act and the issues surrounding it raise major questions the Democratic candidates must face: “What is their vision for how religious groups hold onto historical traditional sexual ethic? What is their vision for how they fit into society?”
Broadly speaking, Wear says the Equality Act “suggests that LGBT rights should win out every time ... and that’s just not a responsible approach.”
FOR NOW, political analyst Henry Olsen emphasizes that, despite months of activity, the real action in the primary race is only beginning.
The candidates will spend months parsing through dozens of issues that haven’t gained as much attention yet, and potentially clashing with the president they hope to get a chance to run against next year.
Olsen says the poll positions of candidates could shift in lots of unexpected ways as more voters begin to pay attention and the race moves beyond the “spring training phase,” when only the most devoted fans follow the teams closely. Now it’s time to start watching the regular season, but “there’s just a lot of time to come,” he says. “Loads of time.”