The Faith List: 2020 Democratic Presidential Candidates And Their Religion

By Paul Brandeis Raushenbush

The Democratic Primary is crowded with Presidential hopefuls.  Each has a unique religious profile, values and approach to reaching out to voters using religious language.  With the likely Republican nominee being so closely identified with right wing, white Christians, the Democrats see the possibilities of attracting many voters whose faith promotes a more generous, pluralistic, welcoming and equitable America.  Below is a list of the candidates who have made the cut to be on the DNC debate stage along with a brief sampling of their religious identities and thoughts. If you are looking for more information, Religion News writer Jack Jenkins is a good person to follow.

Joe Biden

Former Senator and Vice President Joe Biden has always identified with his Roman Catholic faith. Biden has not been shy talking about how it helped him through difficult periods in his life, as he told NPR’s Terry Gross in 2017.

I find great solace in my faith, I happen to be a Roman Catholic, a practicing Catholic … I found that, for me, the externalities of my faith bring me a sense of peace. … My son died, and he had this set of rosaries on and I’ve been wearing it since and I will wear it till I die. … I’m not saying when I pray the rosary God’s gonna help me — it’s just solace.

In a personal interview with Late Night’s Stephen Colbert, Biden also shared the Kierkegaard quote that his wife placed on the mirror after their son Beau died: “Faith sees best in the dark.” The impact faith has on his political decisions have not always been as apparent, but the 2020 election may be the time when we hear more.  

Cory Booker:

There are few candidates who speak religion more fluently than the Senator from New Jersey.  Booker can slip into preacher cadence with themes that would not see out of place in many progressive churches in America.  He said in a CNN Townhall –

“I believe that the Bible talks about poverty, greeting the stranger, being there for the convicted, far more than it talks about the kind of toxic stuff you hear the president spewing out there.”  

You can watch how he responds to a pastor’s question at that Townhall here and how he responded to Jack Jenkin’s question about his faith in this article: Cory Booker could be a candidate for the ‘religious left’

“I don’t know how many speeches of mine you can listen to and not have me bring up faith. Before you tell me about your religion, first show it to me in how you treat other people.”

Booker also has the distinction, I’m pretty sure, of being the only candidate who has been a guest on OnBeing in a show called Civic Spiritual Evolution.

“That word, “sacred,” to me, is what is needed now, this understanding that these are sacred spaces between us, and they need to be fueled and injected with an unapologetic, courageous, daring love.”

Pete Buttigieg

No candidate in memory has embraced the title of religious progressive like “Mayor Pete” as he catapulted from South Bend obscurity to being a frontrunner in the Democratic field.  Buttigieg is an Episcopalian who represents an unapologetic, open approach to how religion affects his politics, insisting that progressive candidates have a more authentic claim to the religious mantle:

“I think it’s unfortunate [the Democratic Party] has lost touch with a religious tradition that I think can help explain and relate our values. At least in my interpretation, it helps to root a lot of what it is we do believe in, when it comes to protecting the sick and the stranger and the poor, as well as skepticism of the wealthy and the powerful and the established.”

What perhaps makes Buttigieg’s openness about his faith more intriguing is that he is openly gay and has often talked about how going to church and getting married to his now husband in the church was meaningful for him and for his relationship:

“Being married to Chasten makes me a better person. I would even say it moves me closer to God. And so the idea that this of all things is what people are attacking each other over and excluding each other over, when God is love, we are taught. Of all the things to beat people up over on theological grounds, it just seems to me that loving shouldn’t be one of them.”

The fact that he is gay and talking about religion has created considerable backlash from the religious right.  And Franklin Graham just called upon the Mary to repent, to which one Gay Christian told Graham to leave his identity and his faith alone.

Julián Castro

An profile of Castro in the Washington Post began with this great lede:

“As Julián Castro officially launched his candidacy for president over the past few weeks, he invoked a certain female figure so frequently she might as well have been his running mate.”

The female figure was Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Castro relies heavily on her and the religious and cultural reference of the Catholic tradition he grew up a part of.  The former Mayor of San Antonio and Secretary of housing and urban development under Obama, Castro feels a gratitude for the role the Catholic Church has played in his own family and in other immigrant families: “For women and for people of color, those are very difficult times,” he said. “And the Catholic Church provided a sense of place and belonging and also a hope — a faith that things would get better.”

Castro shared with his hometown newspaper about his Catholic bonafides:  

“When I spoke at the DNC a few years ago, I talked about when my brother and I would leave the house to go to school in the morning, my grandmother would say, “Que Dios los bendiga. May God bless you. So the Catholic faith has never been far from my life.”

John Delaney

The former Congressman Delaney thread the needle on religion in a Town Hall with CNN.  

“I also believe strongly in the freedom of religion, and I believe strongly in the separation of church and state. So I don’t believe religious doctrine should inform public policy.”  

Delaney, who is Catholic, acknowledged part of that his impulse towards social justice comes from his faith, but when it comes to the specifics of the hottest button issue, abortion, he was clear about his position:

“I’m pro-choice and I completely support a woman’s decision to make her own reproductive decisions about her own body. I don’t struggle with that as a matter of public policy. I don’t think my church, and my church policies and doctrines, should decide public policy in this country.”

Tulsi Gabbard

Gabbard made headlines in 2012 as the first Hindu ever elected to the U.S. Congress.  She grew up hearing stories of both the New Testament and the Bhagavad Gita saying that she “learned from a young age from these scriptures that real happiness in can only be found when you’re dedicating your life in the service of God and in the service of others.”  Her religious positions weave both conservative and progressive threads including a change of heart on LGBT and abortion rights after serving in the military in the middle east. As she wrote in 2011:

“The contrast between our society and those in the Middle East made me realize that the difference — the reason those societies are so oppressive — is that they are essentially theocracies where the government and government leaders wield the power to both define and then enforce morality. My experiences in the Middle East eventually led me to reevaluate my view regarding government’s role in our personal lives and decisions.”

Kirsten Gillibrand

When Gillibrand announced her candidacy on Martin Luther King, Jr. day, she used some of the most classic Biblical metaphors of the battlefield saying:  

“We put on the full armor of God so that we can stand our ground when we take on the rulers, the authorities, and the powers of this dark world.”   

The Roman Catholic Senator repeated this scripture when she was invited in the the pulpit of an AME church in Brooklyn, NY:

“Put on the full armor of God, so that on the day evil comes, today, you’ll be able to stand your ground’ … That is what we are called to do!” We are the ones that God placed here at a time such as this to fight!”

Gillibrand also attends several of the Bible studies that are part of the weekly routine for Senators saying: “Bible study has really helped me, we visit together at Bible study and we talk about our families and things outside of the Senate.”   

Kamala Harris

Kamala Harris announced her bid for the presidency starting with the words: “With faith in God” and her middle name is Devi, which is the Sanskrit work for Goddess.  Her father was Jamaican and her mother was Indian and Kamala’s political career has represented advances for both the Black and South Asian communities as she is the first South Asian to serve in the Senate and the second African American. She grew up going to both a Baptist Church and a Hindu Temple. She is married to a Jewish man and so Harris represents a collection of traditions, yet appears to claim a Baptist faith at this time. She has not spoken extensively on faith but that may change as the primary heats up.

John Wright Hickenlooper

Former Governor of Colorado and Mayor of Denver, Hickenlooper grew up with a mother who was Quaker and volunteered with the American Friends Service Committee.  It is not clear that he claims any particular religious community at present.

Jay Inslee

Governor Inslee is positioning himself as the Environmental Candidate and emphasizes the science that support the facts of climate change.  He has spoken very little so far about religion.

Amy Klobuchar

In a CNN Town Hall Senator Klobuchar declared herself a Congregationalist and mentioned that her husband is a Catholic.  

“I’m actually really active in the Senate Prayer Breakfast. I chaired the National Prayer Breakfast.  The Senate Prayer breakfast is actually a really important thing and nobody knows what is talked about  – liberals go there I promise – and it is a way for people to tell the stories about their lives and to able to have some common ground without people pointing fingers.  Faith is very important to me, it helped me get through my dad’s addiction. I think everyone should be able to practice whatever religion they want in this country. That’s the United States of America. Or not practice religion.  But for me that’s a very important part of my life.”

Beto O’Rourke

While Beto O’Rourke is listed online as a Roman Catholic it is hard to see where he talks about his faith or how it might influence his politics aside from one remark he made during his unsuccessful race for the Senate when he referenced a march he led to the immigration detention camp in Tornillo:  “For me, that was a religious experience,” he says. “I happen to have been raised Catholic, and what I take away from my religion is you do your best to love everyone, to be good to everyone.”

Bernie Sanders

Both of Senator Bernie Sanders’ parents were Jewish and he was loosely raised in the tradition and did become a Bar Mitzvah. However, he does consider himself particular religious or participate in organized religion.  Sanders appears to be motivated by more universal spiritual principles as He explained on CNN:

“Every great religion in the world, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, others, essentially comes down to Do unto others as you would like them to do unto you. And what I have believed my whole life – I believed it when I was a 22 year old getting arrested in Chicago protesting segregation – that at some level we are all in this together.  When you hurt, I hurt. And when my kids hurt, you hurt. And it is very easy to turn out backs on kids who are hungry and veterans who are sleeping out in the street and we can develop a psychology that says ‘I don’t have to worry about them, all I got to worry about is how I can make another five billion dollars. But I believe that everybody in this room impacts everybody else in all kinds of ways that we can’t even understand, its beyond intellect.  It’s a spiritual, emotional thing. When we do the right thing, when we treat one another with respect and dignity, I think we are more human. That’s my religion, that’s what I believe in.”

Elizabeth Warren

In a surprise to some, Senator Warren has been one of the most vocal about her faith in the Democratic field. One pastor told the Boston Globe: “She’s a praying woman. . . . She believes in prayer.”

Raised Methodist, she also taught Sunday School and quipped, “ All I can say is nobody got hurt.”  She talked about her favorite Bible passage Matthew 25 about when God separates the the sheep and the goats and how she hears it as a rallying call to action:

“That passage is not about you had a good thought and held on to it. You sat back and were just a part of — you know, thought about good things. It does not say, you just didn’t hurt anybody, and that’s good enough. No. It says, you saw something wrong. You saw somebody who was thirsty. You saw somebody who was in prison. You saw their face. You saw somebody who was hungry, and it moved you to act. I believe we are called on to act.”

Marianne Williamson

Many people were introduced to Williamson in the presidential debate, when she addressed her comments to Donald Trump: “Mr. President, if you’re listening, I want you to hear me please,” she said. “You’ve harnessed fear for political purposes and only love can cast that out. So I have a feeling you know what you’re doing. I’m going to harness love for political purposes. I will meet you on that field, and sir, love will win.”

It struck people as funny and odd for a presidential candidate to say, but for better or worse, it had resonances with Hillary Clinton’s failed 2016 campaign.  Williamson has long been in the spiritual scene as friend to Oprah Winfrey and was famously quoted by Nelson Mandela from a passage from A Return to Love:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Andrew Yang

In response to the MAGA hats, Andrew Yang is putting out MATH hats, because, as his website says: “Celebrating numbers and facts an essential part of our campaign.  But his science and tech heavy approach don’t stop him from attending a church with his wife and boys. The main slogan of his campaign is Humanity First, and one of his platforms is Universal Basic Income.  In a recent post on his website he turned to his pastor and asked if it was consistent with Jesus’ teachings:

“Universal Basic Income is a beginning for followers of Christ, and all who believe in putting Humanity First, to begin to love our neighbors as ourselves and begin caring for and helping others the way we have been commanded.”

Yang himself doesn’t seem to feel compelled to use much religious language on the campaign, which may help him among the atheist and secular communities.

Paul Brandeis Raushenbush is Senior Vice President at Auburn and Editor of Voices

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