It’s well established from data, most importantly exit polling, that white evangelical Christians are the core of President Trump’s base. However, pollsters determine this trait by asking voters to self-select, usually presenting an option of “evangelical and/or born again.” Most polls don’t probe beyond that; they don’t ask a religious identity question or even test for regular church attendance. Many Americans who are religious don’t care for the “born-again” or “evangelical” terms. The result? Polls often underreport the spirituality of the U.S. electorate.
The Pew Research Center reported last fall that 20 percent of Americans say religion is the most meaningful part of their lives. This fifth of the nation is not all aging, white Trump voters. It includes Catholics, evangelicals of color, members of the historically black Protestant tradition and others. Some of these categories overlap. But here’s the opportunity in our fractured country: People of faith want to connect with other people of faith. Biden can make that connection. He may already be doing that.
In presidential politics, as a rule, faith benefits candidates when they can talk about it in a personal way, usually in terms of their spiritual journey. George W. Bush was able to explain how Jesus Christ changed his life. He stopped drinking, became a better husband and generally got his life together. That story resonated with voters of faith because it was similar to their own experience or that of someone they knew. It was Carter who premiered this move, telling voters in the North Carolina Democratic primary in 1976 that he had been born again after a period of repeated setbacks. It was a way of saying to strangers, “I’m a lot like you.”
Biden, a Roman Catholic, speaks genuinely about how his faith has been a sustaining aspect of his life through family tragedies, including the loss of his son, Beau, to brain cancer. He wears Beau’s rosary around his wrist, describing it as the connection he keeps daily with his late son. He quotes Soren Kierkegaard — “Faith sees best in the dark ” — to explain how he and his wife’s shared belief in God connects him with tens of millions of Americans who rely on a sustaining faith amid myriad challenges.
Most of the recent analysis of Biden’s early advantage with African American voters attributes his support to high name identification and his role as President Barack Obama’s vice president. There is uncertainty about whether this support is durable. But faith could be Biden’s enduring connection to those voters. His personal loss and his faithful witness to it might be cynically dismissed by secular voters as a stunt; these things are not dismissed by people of faith. He has been to black churches all over the country, and if he is able to replicate, as he told Matt Malone in a 2015 interview that “Jesus Christ is the example of what we are supposed to do,” he will hear a chorus of “Amens!” in response. For other contenders, it might come off as a box to check. For Biden, it comes from the heart.
Which brings us to Trump. The fact that the president is sustained by a devout base of conservative Christians is an irony that would have tested Shakespeare. Although preachers such as Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr. claim that Trump is a Christian, he exhibits little of the humility and wonder that often mark being “born again.” Trump’s connection to evangelicals is purely a transactional one; instead of taking the time to mix with his base, he appeals to it by warning evangelicals, as he did before the midterms, that “ you’re one election away from losing everything you’ve got.” As if Christ would depart their souls if the Democrats won.
What happens to Christian voters when they see a Democratic candidate living an authentic faith juxtaposed with a Republican president just renting some religion? My guess is that many will think twice. Some may stick with their candidate. But some may decide that their relationship with Trump is a worldly transaction that strains any New Testament passage. It’s a challenge that I’d assert reaches beyond the altar of polling data for an answer.