The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Joe Biden can’t ‘hurt God.’ He can end the catch-22 around religion.

President Trump on Aug. 6 delivered a campaign attack against former vice president Joe Biden while visiting Cleveland. (Video: The Washington Post)
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Never has a politician accorded his opponent so much power. Last week, President Trump said that if former vice president Joe Biden won the White House, he would “hurt God.”

Wow! What supernatural chops! Trump did not specify how exactly a mere mortal could “hurt” the Almighty, but he warns Biden would create a world of “no religion, no anything.”

“He’s against God. He’s against guns. He’s against energy, our kind of energy,” said Trump. Yes, energy sources are now polarized between red and blue, and the Supreme Being is part of it.

Trump, of course, has little understanding of religion, or much of a connection with faith. He saw no problem with holding a Bible aloft as a political weapon without referencing anything that it teaches us. (By the way, he said Biden would “hurt the Bible,” too.)

With no offense intended to elementary school students, Trump has a crude, fifth-grade understanding of the words and phrases that spur White, socially conservative voters to turn out for him, own the liberals and push back against the dreaded secularists and atheists.

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The dispiriting part is that this paint-by-the-numbers approach has worked for Trump. He continues to fare better among White evangelicals than in any other definable group in the electorate, even if his numbers have slipped a bit during the pandemic.

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His strength with those who are White, devout and conservative endures despite the witness against him of many deeply committed Christians who recognize “The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump,” the apt title of a prophetic collection of essays edited by evangelical activist Ronald J. Sider.

Here’s the good news: Trump’s truly idiotic language and Biden’s own faith open new opportunities to push back against forms of religious warfare that have done grave damage both to religion and to our politics. Trump’s theology-free theology and his reduction of God to a political consultant’s role offer Biden, and progressives more generally, a large opening for reconciliation. Think of it as a Providential moment.

Biden’s initial response to Trump’s bizarre salvo was promising. He issued a statement declaring that faith is the “bedrock foundation of my life,” and declared that Trump’s “decision today to profane God and to smear my faith in a political attack is a stark reminder of what the stakes of this fight truly are.” Trump’s comments also had a whiplash effect, spurring new journalistic explorations of how Catholicism has shaped Biden’s worldview.

You might think Biden’s response was a no-brainer, but Democrats have been increasingly reluctant to talk about faith because religion presents the party with an enormous coalition management problem. It’s a problem Republicans don’t confront because their party is far more homogeneous by both race and religion.

Fully 65 percent of Republicans are White Christians (49 percent Protestant and 16 percent Catholic), according to surveys by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), but White Christians account for only 38 percent of Democrats. And fully 25 percent of Democrats are religiously unaffiliated. The movement away from religion is especially pronounced among younger Americans — an important source of Democratic votes — with 40 percent or more declaring themselves unaffiliated.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s campaign was divided over how she should approach religion. Some strategists feared that if she spoke too much about her Methodist faith (by all accounts, it is both real and deep), she might turn off the younger and intensely secular voters she needed to get to the polls.

The tragedy is that Clinton, a candidate whose “authenticity” was always being questioned, was at her authentic best when she was talking about how faith influenced her life and moved her toward more progressive political views, particularly on civil rights. The one time she truly let loose her inner preacher was during the South Carolina primary, when she was inspired by her many visits to Black churches

Her experience speaks to a vicious cycle: The more religion is associated with right-wing politics, the more alienated from religion progressives become, and the more inclined they are to dismiss religious people altogether. But the more progressives do this, the easier they make it for right-wing politicians to cast liberals as hostile to faith — and, reductio ad absurdum, as eager to “hurt God.”

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The price for religion is just as high. Those who insist that faith requires supporting Trump and opposing LGBTQ rights (which younger Americans overwhelmingly support regardless of party) are closing off large categories of their fellow citizens to the possibility of dialogue and, yes, conversion.

By devoting effort to ending the Catch-22 around religion, Biden would do more than prove he has no interest in hurting God. He could also help create a politics more worthy of a faith that sees the ability to love each other as central to salvation.

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