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Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden and wife Jill at the Democratic National Convention Thursday (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)

Dean's List

Democrats and religion, Trump and QAnon

A political convention and a presidential press briefing leave more questions than answers

Democrats wrapped up their first virtual convention on Thursday night, after four days of mostly remote programming in the COVID-19 era. Republicans will follow a similar pattern next week.

Former Vice President Joe Biden accepted his party’s presidential nomination, promising to “overcome this season of darkness” in the country. Other speakers included Sen. Chris Coons, the Democrat who fills the Senate seat Biden once held in Delaware. Coons spoke of Biden’s faith, saying it “isn’t a prop or a political tool.” He said Biden, a Catholic, is “a man of prayer.”

Democrats addressed religion in their party’s platform as well, with an interesting twist: In the party’s draft platform, the section on civil rights omitted “religion” from the list of categories the party pledged to protect against discrimination. The final version of the platform that Democrats approved this week included the word “religion.” 

The final version also talked about the importance of religious freedom: The document said Democrats will advocate for religious freedom around the world, and “protect the rights of each American for the free exercise of his or her own religion.”

But in the next paragraph, Democrats added: “We will reject the Trump Administration’s use of broad religious exemptions to allow businesses, medical providers, social service agencies, and others to discriminate.”

The document didn’t offer more details, but it does raise the ongoing question of how Democrats would handle religious liberty and conscience protections for some religious Americans.

Trump and Q

On Wednesday, Facebook officials announced they had removed 790 groups connected to QAnon and were restricting thousands more pages related to the outrageous online conspiracy theory popular among some supporters of President Donald Trump. 

On the same day, when reporters asked President Trump his thoughts about QAnon, he said he didn’t know much about the movement, but that he understands “they like me very much, which I appreciate.”  

When a reporter pressed Trump and told him that QAnon followers believe the president is “secretly saving the world from this satanic cult of pedophiles and cannibals,” Trump said he hadn’t heard that, but, “If I can help save the world from problems, I’m willing to do that.” 

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., told The Washington Post: “QAnon is nuts—and real leaders call conspiracy theories conspiracy theories.”

On Friday, when CNN reporter John Brennan pressed Vice President Mike Pence about QAnon, Pence said: “I dismiss conspiracy theories out of hand.” But the vice president also seemed to downplay QAnon, calling it “a shiny object” the media is chasing. 

My colleague, Emily Belz, recently wrote about QAnon, including how some Christians are gravitating to the growing movement, and how churches are unprepared to respond

Donor warning

A recent survey conducted by the Cato Institute and YouGov found a sizable chunk of younger voters think donating to certain political candidates is a fireable offense. Some 44 percent of respondents younger than 30 said business leaders who donate to Trump should be fired. Twenty-seven percent said the same thing about Biden.

Bipartisan glimmer

Lest we think political differences make working together impossible, here’s news from the criminal justice front: A coalition of Christian groups including Prison Fellowship, the AND Campaign, World Relief, and the American Bible Society are partnering on a criminal justice reform push called the Prayer and Action Justice Initiative.

One of the leaders backing the group: Samuel Rodriquez, the head of the National Hispanic Christian leadership conference. Rodriguez led a prayer at Trump’s inauguration ceremony. 

Another backer: Gabriel Salguero, head of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition. Salguero spoke at this week’s Democratic National Convention.

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Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the Democratic Presidential Debate on October 15, 2019. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Dean's List

Undebatable showdown

Canceling presidential debates should be a non-starter, despite growing pressure

During most election years, the month of August brings the unofficial end of summer and the unofficial beginning of American voters paying closer attention to the presidential elections. 

The next two weeks will have two big events: the start of the Democratic National Convention on Aug. 17 and the Republican National Convention on Aug. 24.

But perhaps the biggest event is slated for Sept. 29: the first presidential debate at Case Western University in Cleveland.

In the absence of traditional campaigning during the pandemic, it’s one of the most significant opportunities for voters to hear from both candidates—despite a rippling undercurrent suggesting that Biden should refuse. 

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman urged Biden to refuse to debate unless Trump agrees to release his tax returns and allow a fact-checking team to report any false statements uttered during the debate. 

Former Bill Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart argued Biden should refuse to debate because he says Trump doesn’t follow the rules or tell the truth. A few days later, The New York Times ran another opinion piece: “Let’s Scrap the Presidential Debates.”

Let’s don’t.

Biden says he’s eager to face-off with Trump, and voters ought to hear from both candidates. Some pundits speculate Biden supporters are concerned about how the candidate will perform under pressure, after a long series of gaffes and moments of apparent confusion.

Biden bristled when a reporter asked if he had undergone a cognitive assessment: No, he said: “Why the hell would I take a test?” Biden said he looked forward to Americans assessing him for themselves. (A story in WORLD shows how both candidates face scrutiny over physical and mental fitness, and how it’s a question that likely will follow both men until Election Day.)

Debates have proven important in the past: In 1984, President Ronald Reagan struggled in his first debate against Democrat Walter Mondale. Reagan was 74 at the time, and speculation swirled about whether his age was affecting his mental sharpness. 

Reagan rallied in the second debate, when the moderator finally asked the question: Given his age and the stress of the presidency, did Reagan have any doubts about whether he was still up to the job?

Not at all, Reagan replied. “And I want you to know also that I will not make age an issue in this campaign,” he quipped. “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” 

Even Mondale, then 56, smiled and applauded. On Election Day, Reagan became the second president in history to carry 49 out of 50 states. 

The political dynamics are very different in 2020, and a debate or two probably won’t deliver a landslide victory to either candidate, but the reality remains: Voters want to see and hear from candidates for themselves.

A post-script to the Reagan era offers a reminder that while discussions of mental fitness often involve jokes and levity, it’s actually a serious issue that calls for more sobriety than scorn. 

Reagan completed his second term, and went home to California. Six years later, he wrote a letter informing the American public he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. He was hopeful, and he remained active, but Reagan was saying goodbye.

He thanked Americans for “the great honor of allowing me to serve as your President.” He spoke of dying whenever the Lord called him home: “I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.” 

Reagan lived another decade. 

But even as he began to falter, he still played golf and took walks in the park. The Toledo Blade reported a 1997 encounter with Reagan relayed by Rostik Dennenburg. 

The young man recalled walking in a California park with his grandfather, Yakov Ravin, a Ukrainian immigrant. He said they spotted the former president in the park, and his grandfather stopped to thank him for all he did to help bring freedom to people who lived in the former Soviet Union.  

Reagan’s reply was simple: “Yes, that was my job.”

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Joe Biden and Donald Trump (AP Photo, File)

Dean's List

Biden’s blunder and Trump vs. Twitter

A grab-bag of politics, religion, and other news ahead of the 2020 election

Editor’s Note: This occasional column will publish weekly beginning in September.

1. Biden and black voters

When an African American radio host told Joe Biden he had more questions near the end of a recent interview, the former vice president replied: “Well, I tell you what, if you have a problem figuring out if you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.”

Biden later said he shouldn’t have been cavalier, but the remark played into a talking point of the Trump campaign: Democrats take black voters for granted. 

Only 8 percent of black voters picked Donald Trump in 2016, and Republicans don’t expect to peel off a substantial number this fall. But in a close election, a couple of percentage points could make a difference.

Trump’s campaign has made a pitch to black voters this cycle, but the pandemic could upend the playbook: The coronavirus has hit the African American community particularly hard, and early plans to launch field offices in black neighborhoods won’t look the same as the campaign had hoped. 

For now, the Trump campaign is seizing on the Biden blooper: By the end of last week, the campaign reportedly planned a $1 million advertising blitz to turn the comment into a catchphrase and began selling T-shirts emblazoned with #YouAintBlack.

2. Trump and Twitter

President Trump signed an executive order on Thursday aimed at limiting legal protections for social media companies after Twitter fact-checked one of his tweets about mail-in voting. Trump called the action censorship. 

Meanwhile, a separate battle still simmered: A Florida widower defended the memory of his late wife against a recent Twitter barrage by Trump. Timothy Klausutis wrote a letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, asking him to remove the tweets that stoked conspiracy theories about his wife’s death.

Lori Klausutis worked in the Florida office of Joe Scarborough when Scarborough served as a Republican congressman. The 28-year-old died in July 2001, after apparently collapsing in the office and striking her head. The police ruled out foul play, but conspiracy theories bubbled up suggesting she was murdered.

Nearly 20 years later, Scarborough works as an MSNBC television host—and a frequent Trump critic. The president recently resurrected rumors about Scarborough on Twitter: “Did he get away with murder? Some people think so.” Trump later said he thinks there’s “more to the story” of Klausutis’ sudden death: “An affair?”

An understandably aggrieved Timothy Klausutis told Dorsey that the president “has taken something that doesn’t belong to him—the memory of my dead wife—and perverted it for perceived political gain.” Twitter execs declined to remove the tweets. 

It may be tempting to dismiss the controversy as a sideshow, but in a swirl of conversations about media censorship, it’s important to remember the value of self-censorship: It’s wrong to circulate salacious rumors—and it certainly doesn’t offer steadiness in unsteady times. 

The same applies to Trump’s tweet about potentially sending National Guard troops to quell riots in Minneapolis, after a video showed a white police officer using his leg to pin down a black man by the neck on Monday: George Floyd died in police custody. The National Guard might help with unrest, but this part of Trump’s tweet likely won’t: “... when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

3. Church politics

The president urged American churches to re-open last Sunday and pointed to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for taking precautions. The move evoked alarm from some and praise from others.

Politico reported Trump’s move came in response to recent polls showing the president’s favorability rating slipping among white evangelicals. A poll from P.R.R.I. in late April  reported 66 percent of white evangelical Protestants view the president favorably. That was down from about 77 percent in March. 

It’s worth noting pollsters vary in how they define “evangelical,” and it’s not always clear what it means to voters. In 2016, exit polls from the National Election Pool reported 26 percent of voters self-identified as evangelicals, but only 64 percent of that group reported going to church at least once a week. 

Whatever Trump’s motives, many churches made decisions about re-opening based on local guidelines set by their state governments. And despite the president’s threat to “override” governors who try to block churches from gathering, most of those disputes will be settled in local or state courts.

4. Unsound bites

Some media outlets won’t admit bias, but others are more transparent. Katha Pollitt, a columnist for The Nation, began a recent column: “I would vote for Joe Biden if he boiled babies and ate them.” Pollitt called critics of her remarks “tender souls” who don’t appreciate “dark humor and comic overstatement.” She added: “They must have a hard time in this fallen world.”

Indeed we do.

5. Off-the-trail

Last week, we reported on the approaching launch of the SpaceX capsule. Officials scrubbed the launch earlier this week because of bad weather, but they’ll try again on Saturday at 3:22 p.m., when two astronauts hope to blast off for the International Space Station (ISS). If you’re still sticking to home, this might be the perfect break from politics and other online diversions: See if you can spot the ISS from your own backyard.

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