Are Democrats religious? How the public views the candidates’ faith lives

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden meets with attendees during a campaign event, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden meets with attendees during a campaign event, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Americans tend to view the Democratic candidates for president as a particularly secular group, even though three of the top contenders speak regularly about their own faith. And white Catholics and Hispanic Catholics differ somewhat on how religious they believe Democratic candidates are, according to a new report released Feb. 27 by the Pew Research Center. The findings come despite occasional talk of religion from the candidates on the campaign trail, most recently this week in South Carolina, where two of the top contenders cited Scripture.

According to the report, 60 percent of U.S. adults viewed Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont as “not too” or “not at all religious.” Mr. Sanders, who would be the first Jewish president in U.S. history, has said he does not participate in “organized religion” but that he has been formed by Judaism.

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Still, he speaks about moral themes, and he, perhaps more than any other candidate, has cited Pope Francis on social media. He even took a break from his 2016 campaign to visit the Vatican for a conference about the economy. In this new survey, about one-third of Americans said they view Mr. Sanders as “very” (4 percent) or “somewhat” (30 percent) religious.

The only Democratic candidate whom a majority of poll respondents viewed as very or somewhat religious is former Vice President Joe Biden, who appeared at public events on Ash Wednesday with ashes on his forehead. Mr. Biden has spoken frequently about his own Catholic faith, but 39 percent of Americans still described him as “not too” (28 percent) or “not at all” (11 percent) religious. Mr. Biden would be the nation’s second Catholic president.

Earlier this week, Mr. Biden spoke about the role his faith played in helping him overcome the deaths of his first wife and daughter in 1972 and then the death of his son in 2015. In South Carolina, Mr. Biden was asked by the Rev. Anthony Thompson, whose wife was killed in an attack by a white supremacist at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, how his faith helped him overcome tragedy.

“I’m not trying to proselytize, I’m not trying to convince you to share my religious views,” Mr. Biden said, addressing the audience during a CNN Town Hall. “But for me [faith is] important because it gives me some reason to have hope and purpose.” He also praised the family members of those killed in the church shooting for practicing the “ultimate act of Christian charity” in forgiving the shooter.

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Pete Buttigieg talks about his faith on the campaign trail perhaps more than any other Democratic candidate, but the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., was viewed as very or somewhat religious by the fewest number of respondents to the poll. Just 32 percent said they see Mr. Buttigieg, who was born Catholic but who is now an Episcopalian, as religious, compared with 25 percent of Americans who viewed him as “not too” religious and 13 percent who said he is “not at all religious.” But 30 percent of Americans said they had “never heard of” Mr. Buttigieg or had no answer.

The report did not ask how Mr. Buttigieg’s sexual orientation (he is gay) played into how Americans perceive his religiosity. But Mr. Trump has taken aim at Mr. Buttigieg’s faith, saying last month, “all of a sudden he’s become extremely religious, this happened about two weeks ago.” Though the president is embraced by large numbers of white evangelicals, Mr. Trump’s own faith has been difficult to pin down, as he does not frequently attend religious services, nor does he speak openly about his religious beliefs.

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Rounding out the poll, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts was viewed as very or somewhat religious by 36 percent of poll respondents. Though she has spoken about her days as a religious education teacher and tweeted as recently as this week about how the Gospel of Matthew shapes her worldview, Ms. Warren, a Methodist, was described by about half of Americans as not too or not at all religious.

Ms. Warren said earlier this week that a Baptist minister from Boston, the Rev. Miniard Culpepper, prays over her before each debate, according to Religion News Service.

Both Ms. Warren and Mr. Buttigieg invoked Scripture during the Democratic debate in Charleston on Feb. 25. Responding to a question about what animates their views, Mr. Buttigieg cited the Golden Rule and a passage from the Gospel of Matthew, saying, “If you would be a leader, you must first be a servant.”

Ms. Warren also cited Matthew, as she has before, saying her life is driven by a selection of Matthew 25, which she quoted as, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” Her campaign tweeted that statement as well.

The only Democratic candidate whom a majority of poll respondents viewed as very or somewhat religious is former Vice President Joe Biden, who appeared at public events on Ash Wednesday with ashes on his forehead.

The survey, conducted Feb. 4-15, did not ask about former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg or Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.

White Catholics, who tend to vote for Republican presidential candidates at higher rates than Hispanic Catholics, viewed the Democrats running for the nomination as less religious than Hispanic Catholics, who perceived them as more religious.

While a majority of white Catholics and Hispanic Catholics viewed Mr. Biden as very or somewhat religious, 37 percent of white Catholics said he is “not too” or “not at all” religious, compared with 27 percent of Hispanic Catholics.

The difference was even greater when it came to the three non-Catholic Democrats cited in the poll. Sixty-three percent of white Catholics described Mr. Sanders as not religious, compared with 48 percent of Hispanic Catholics; 54 percent of white Catholics said Ms. Warren is not religious, compared with 36 percent of Hispanic Catholics; and 43 percent of white Catholics said Mr. Buttigieg is not religious, compared with 26 percent of Hispanic Catholics, though 47 percent of Hispanic Catholics said they had not heard of or had no answer about Mr. Buttigieg.

Mr. Biden, once the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, struggled in contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. He has said that those states lack large numbers of African-American voters, and he is pinning his hopes on a strong showing in South Carolina this weekend. The Pew report found that 72 percent of black Protestants described Mr. Biden as very or somewhat religious, as did majorities for Ms. Warren (53 percent) and Mr. Sanders (61 percent). But when it came to Mr. Buttigieg, who has struggled to attract support from African-American voters, just 39 percent described him as religious. One in three black Protestants said they never heard of or had no answer about Mr. Buttigieg.

According to the report, the share of Democrats who identify as Christian has fallen sharply in recent years. In 2019, 55 percent of Democrats said they were Christian, down from 72 percent in 2009. Meanwhile, the number of Democrats who said they were unaffiliated with organized religion grew from 20 percent to 34 percent.

Republicans were more likely than Democrats to view the Democratic candidates as not religious, with 58 percent describing Mr. Biden that way, 64 percent Ms. Warren, 74 percent Mr. Sanders and 47 percent Mr. Buttigieg.

Following South Carolina’s primary on Saturday, where recent polls show Mr. Biden still atop the field, 14 states will hold contests on Super Tuesday, March 3.

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