Democrats officially kicked off the 2020 campaign season, with debates held on two nights this week featuring a total of 20 candidates. How or if individual candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for president plan to engage people of faith remains an open question. During the debates, there was not much overt outreach to people of faith, with one exception. Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., who has not shied away from discussing faith on the campaign trail, challenged the Republican monopoly on faith based discourse during a discussion about immigration.
Responding to a question about the Trump administration’s family separation policy, Mr. Buttigieg pivoted to faith, taking direct aim at President Trump’s embrace of, and by, white Evangelical Christians, and to a lesser extent, white Catholics.
“We've got to talk about one other thing, because the Republican Party likes to cloak itself in the language of religion,” said Mr. Buttigieg, an Episcopalian. The candidate, who is gay, has attacked Vice President Pence’s claim that L.G.B.T. rights are antithetical to Christianity and he has previously credited his faith with helping him to accept his sexuality. Last night, Mr. Buttigieg admitted that Democrats often refrain from talking about faith, especially when compared to Republicans, but he suggested this was intentional.
“Now, our party doesn’t talk about that as much, largely for a very good reason, which was, we are committed to the separation of church and state and we stand for people of any religion and people of no religion,” he said.
But Mr. Buttigieg also said Democrats “should call out hypocrisy when we see it” and suggested that the G.O.P. has lost the right to claim that God supports its policies.
“[F]or a party that associates itself with Christianity, to say that it is okay to suggest that God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents, that God would condone putting children in cages has lost all claim to ever use religious language again,” Mr. Buttigieg said.
While most candidates were mum about faith, during the first debate Wednesday night, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey invoked his during an exchange about the feasibility of a proposed gun buyback program. “In my faith, people say faith without works is dead,” Mr. Booker said. “So we will find a way.”
The debates focused heavily on the economy, immigration and climate change, issues that Catholic leaders have highlighted frequently in recent years. U.S. bishops have called for political leaders in both parties to adopt more humane immigration policies and Pope Francis has emerged as a global champion for environmental protection. Democratic candidates may be able to reach a subset of Catholic voters on those issues. But the candidates seem to have abandoned centrist positions on abortion, a polarizing issue among U.S. Catholics, such as support for a once-popular ban on using federal funds to pay for abortions, known as the Hyde Amendment, in favor of policies that contain few, if any, restrictions.
Faith outreach is not confined to what was said at the debates. Other candidates, including Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, have also discussed their own views on faith. But the candidate most closely associated with religion in this cycle appears to be Mr. Buttigieg.
Some pundits praised Mr. Buttigieg for bringing up faith while others questioned what message he sought to convey.
“Buttigieg's religious rhetoric is so inconsistent,” Michael Wear, who worked on faith outreach for former President Barack Obama, posted on Twitter. “Unable to decide if he believes Democrats have a seat at the table on faith or, as Republicans argued for decades, the other side is so awful and heretical that his views/party have the monopoly on faith.”
But Mr. Wear wrote in another tweet the fact that Mr. Buttigieg’s social media team posted video of the candidate’s discussion of faith showed the campaign takes it seriously.
“Have to say, it's significant that Buttigieg's team is completely bought in here, and when Buttigieg talks faith it goes on their social media,” Mr. Wear wrote. “Not uncommon for staff to bury/ignore their own candidate's religious rhetoric because they don’t get it or it makes them uncomfortable.”
Writing at The Atlantic, Emma Green speculated that Mr. Buttigieg’s rhetoric could appeal to older Democratic voters, who tend to be more religious than the largely secular block of younger voters.
“Buttigieg’s knack for speaking in the language of God makes him exceptional within his generation, but it may also be a strength in reaching the swing voters and voters of color whom Democrats so badly need,” she wrote.
While Democrats as a whole, especially younger members of the party, are less religious than Republicans, faith is still important to many voters.
According to Tufts University political scientist Brian Schaffner, a sizable chunk of Democrats consider religion “very important.” In a tweet posted on June 27, Mr. Schaffner asked, “Will Mayor Pete's appeals to religious Democrats gain any traction? About one-third of all Democrats say that religion is very important to them.” His chart used data from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study.
Mr. Buttigieg’s and Mr. Booker’s campaigns are in the process of hiring staff to work on courting people of faith.
Amy Sullivan, a journalist who co-hosts the “Impolite Company” podcast, wrote on Twitter that the decision of Mr. Buttigieg and Mr. Booker to hire staff for faith outreach so early in the nominating process is remarkable.
“It's notable that Buttigieg & Booker are hiring faith outreach staff at all, much less while they're running in the primaries, because with the exception of Clinton 2008, that portfolio has always been an afterthought or an accident for Democrats,” Ms. Sullivan tweeted.
For its part, the Democratic National Committee just announced that it would also add staff committed to reaching people of faith, something it did not do in the 2016 election.
“We take seriously the relationships that we have with faith communities around this country,” said the Rev. Derrick Harkins, a senior vice president at Union Seminary in New York, who will oversee faith outreach for the party. Formerly a pastor in Washington, D.C., he held a similar position with the party in 2012.
Faith, Mr. Harkins said, “will be a priority going into 2020, but even more importantly, beyond 2020.”
Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary, said recently on Fox News, “Within the Democratic Party there is a huge spectrum of deeply faithful people.” She added that “for too long,” discussion of religion and politics has been “associated with the Republican Party and conservative politics.”
Material from the Religion News Service was used in this report.