The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Kamala Harris exacerbates Biden’s existing problem with religious voters. He must work to reassure them.

Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Joe Biden in Wilmington, Del., on Wednesday.
Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Joe Biden in Wilmington, Del., on Wednesday. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

So far, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) has shown how an obvious choice can also be an inspired one. She seems acceptable to all the appeasable factions of the Democratic Party. Her candidacy is a milestone of inclusion in a nation keenly conscious of past exclusion. She has obviously energized Joe Biden, a candidate who is known to suffer from bouts of political anemia. And Harris’s initial speech as a vice-presidential candidate was both a humanizing introduction to her story and a deft demolition of the Trump record.

By any reasonable standard, Harris had an excellent launch. And President Trump helped assure it, with a series of comments and tweets that were alternately sexist (repeatedly accusing Harris of being “nasty”) and racist (alleging that a Biden administration will “destroy” suburbia with an invasion of “low income housing”).

Consider this: Trump’s immediate reaction to the success of a woman of color was to warn White voters that people of color might move in next door to them. All elected Republicans who regard this as an effective political strategy have officially lost whatever marbles they retained.

The reaction to Harris’s selection by Republican staffers in the U.S. Senate is instructive. Though not viewed as a legislative or ideological leader (unlike, say, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren), Harris was described to me as “disciplined,” “steady” and “tough.” She “knows her stuff.” She possesses “poise” and “energy.” She will prove a “formidable debater.”

But no one I talked with described Harris as a moderate. “She came to the Senate as a California liberal,” I was told. And she “helps to define the left edge of her party.”

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Whether Biden understands it — and whether he cares — the selection of Harris contributes to a Catholic problem that already existed because of Biden’s pro-choice views and his newly discovered support for federal funding of abortions. And this, by extension, is also an evangelical problem.

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In 2018, as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Harris strongly suggested that being a member of the Knights of Columbus — a nearly 2 million-member Catholic social and charitable organization — was disqualifying for the federal bench. She posed a series of inappropriate questions to federal district court nominee Brian Buescher, who had joined the Knights at the age of 18: “Were you aware that the Knights of Columbus opposed a woman’s right to choose when you joined the organization? . . . Were you aware that the Knights of Columbus opposed marriage equality when you joined the organization? . . . Have you ever, in any way, assisted with or contributed to advocacy against women’s reproductive rights?”

Harris was effectively treating membership in a distinctly Catholic organization as if it were allegiance to a hate group. The full Senate eventually repudiated Harris’s attempt to apply a religious test for office.

Harris has co-written legislation called the Do No Harm Act, which would weaken the reasonable protections of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — protections requiring any government restriction of religious expression to demonstrate a compelling interest and employ the least restrictive means. Changing this standard would make it harder for many institutions to maintain their religious identity.

And during her own campaign for president, Harris proposed that states with a record of challenging Roe v. Wade be subject to a heightened level of scrutiny by the Justice Department. This would effectively place state-level pro-life legislation in the same category as violations of the Civil Rights Act.

None of this will seem particularly extreme to the rising generation of Democratic leaders. Herein lies the problem. Such social views are perceived as extreme in much of the country. And for conservatives who want to support an alternative to Trump, it isn’t just a perception problem.

What needs to be done? If Biden’s goal is victory in November, probably nothing. It should be enough to call attention to Trump’s vicious bigotry and manifold failures. But if the goal is (as Harris has said) a “mandate,” then some outreach to and reassurance of religious people is in order. It would be relatively easy to say that — in an era of pandemic death, economic collapse and global humiliation — weakening protections for religious expression and blocking state pro-life legislation will not be high on Biden’s agenda.

There will be, however, periodic, unavoidable issues related to religious liberty. And it is not too much to ask for Biden to provide assurance that he respects the rights of religious institutions and individuals, even when he strongly disagrees with them on divisive matters. This is what pluralism at its best is about. At least some Americans are hoping for the kind of Biden landslide that buries polarization — not merely a victory for the opposite ideological pole.

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Read more:

Read a letter in response to this piece: Not all ‘religious voters’ are conservative Christians

Michael Gerson: Anti-Catholic bigotry is alive in the U.S. Senate

David Byler: Harris is a small-c conservative, party-friendly pick — which makes her just right for Biden

Donna F. Edwards: I thought that the woman Biden picked didn’t matter — until it did

Jennifer Rubin: Phony? Radical? Republicans have no idea how they want to attack Kamala Harris.

Henry Olsen: Republicans thinking of making Harris the focal point of the campaign should think again