Biden needs to bring religious Americans into the Democratic fold

Biden needs to bring religious Americans into the Democratic fold
© Greg Nash

Past performance may not guarantee future results on Wall Street, but in politics it more frequently does. As in prior elections, a majority of voters in the upcoming presidential election whose politics are informed by their faith are likely to cast their ballots for a candidate whose personal behavior does not reflect those values.

According to a Pew poll released in March, Republicans and Democrats — by a 2 to 1 margin — feel that it is more important for a president to “stand up for people with their religious beliefs” than it is for him to “have strong religious beliefs” of his own.

Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden leads Trump by 36 points nationally among Latinos: poll GOP set to release controversial Biden report Can Donald Trump maintain new momentum until this November? MORE is a practicing Catholic and a good man. Yet those traits alone will not be enough to lure religious voters back to the Democratic party. What will, however, is a message that broadcasts respect for their beliefs and way of life. 

ADVERTISEMENT

In recent years, the Democratic party has shunned religion from their politics, and some on the far-left wing of the party have even equated religious values with bigotry and religious practice with discrimination. Earlier this year, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOcasio-Cortez to voters: Tell McConnell 'he is playing with fire' with Ginsburg's seat Lawmakers fear voter backlash over failure to reach COVID-19 relief deal Why Democrats must confront extreme left wing incitement to violence MORE (D-N.Y.) said this during a Congressional hearing, “The only time religious freedom is invoked is in the name of bigotry and discrimination.”  

Or consider “Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Nondiscrimination Principles with Civil Liberties,” a 2016 report issued by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, a bipartisan, independent delegation within the government. The chairman’s introduction maintained that “[t]he phrases ‘religious liberty’ and ‘religious freedom’ will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy or any form of intolerance.”  

To bring religious Americans back into the Democratic fold, Biden should push back against the notion, as pervasive as it is pernicious, that someone who pledges fealty to God is a bigot. It can be his “Sister Souljah moment.” 

Recent contretemps about state imposed limitations on attendance at houses of worship during COVID-19 provides a perfect opportunity for Biden. In late July, in a 5 to 4 majority, the Supreme Court declined to enjoin Nevada’s rule limiting church attendance to 50 people.  

The Calvary Chapel filed a suit because Nevada permitted casinos, bowling alleys and bars to operate at 50 percent capacity, but limited houses of worship to 50 people. As Justice Neil GorsuchNeil GorsuchNames to watch as Trump picks Ginsburg replacement on Supreme Court READ: Supreme Court justices mourn death of Ginsburg, 'an American hero' NYT editorial board remembers Ginsburg: She 'will forever have two legacies' MORE wrote in his dissent, "The world we inhabit today, with a pandemic upon us, poses unusual challenges. But there is no world in which the Constitution permits Nevada to favor Caesars Palace over Calvary Chapel." 

ADVERTISEMENT

Imagine if Biden were to publicly express agreement with that sentiment, even if, ultimately, he also urged courts to defer to governors dealing with the pandemic. Who will criticize him for questioning why bars, bowling alleys and casinos are allowed to operate at a higher capacity than churches? While religiously agnostic voters might question such a move by Biden — not to mention siding with a Trump-appointed conservative justice — would they really vote instead to reelect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden leads Trump by 36 points nationally among Latinos: poll Trump dismisses climate change role in fires, says Newsom needs to manage forest better Jimmy Kimmel hits Trump for rallies while hosting Emmy Awards MORE

Biden should also begin a long overdue public conversation about the conundrum whenever the government seeks to balance religious versus other fundamental rights, or the risk of religious activity against the rewards of that conduct. If the government ascribes no value to religious practice, it will inevitably conclude that the risk outweighs the reward and that religious rights must yield whenever they come into conflict with other rights.   

The result is a society in which a casino can operate at half capacity because the government sees value in the economic activity it generates, while a church must accommodate far fewer of its parishioners because the government believes its spiritual services contribute far less to society. 

This duality was on display as politicians grappled with the mass protests that resulted from the tragic murder of George Floyd, which occurred as the COVID-19 pandemic continued sweeping the country. Democratic governors and mayors who were comfortable lecturing priests and parishioners about the need to cancel their religious services to avoid the spread of the virus, not only encouraged the protests, they often participated in them. This is not a criticism of the protests or of elected officials who felt compelled to express their solidarity and support for them. It is a plea for senior Democrats to acknowledge the deeply held convictions of religious Americans and to protect their constitutional right to the free exercise of religion.

Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBattle lines drawn on precedent in Supreme Court fight Sunday shows - Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death dominates Bill Clinton on GOP push to fill Ginsburg vacancy: Trump, McConnell 'first value is power' MORE brilliantly expanded the Democratic tent on abortion with his formulation that it ought to be “safe, legal and rare.” In that short phrase he captured the idea that a tension may exist between the legal and moral dimensions of an issue and that there may be space between what we permit and what we aspire to.  

Democrats should bring that same sensibility to discussions of religion. These days, it often appears as if it is religious practice itself that Democrats hope becomes safe, legal and rare.

Democratic leaders should refuse to join their left wing in the culture war seeking to push religious practice and belief out of the mainstream. This would send a powerful message to the 79 percent of Republicans and 60 percent of Democrats who believe it is important to have a president who will “stand up for people with their religious beliefs.”  

The Biden campaign promises to protect America’s faith-based communities from terrorism and hate crimes so that “individuals of all faiths can celebrate their beliefs openly and without fear of harm or reprisal.”  

That will not be enough for the many Americans whose faith is not confined to Saturday and Sunday worship but rather informs every aspect of their lives. Many of these voters see the government as the greater threat to their religious liberty.   

Avi Schick is a partner at Troutman Pepper, and previously served as deputy attorney general in New York. The views expressed here are his own.