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Democratic candidates are making their case to an often-ignored group: The Christian left

Openly-gay Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg criticized President Trump and Vice President Pence at a LGBTQ Victory Fund event on April 7. (Video: Reuters)

Can Democrats win over faithful Christians alienated by President Trump’s treatment of migrants, minorities and the marginalized? It’s the early days, of course, but many of the party’s presidential hopefuls are talking about their Christian faith and how it has shaped their liberalism.

I wrote about how Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) highlighted her Methodist roots and her Sunday school teaching to explain how they shaped her values. She also mentioned that in her favorite Bible passage, the parable of the sheep and goats, Jesus urges his followers to care for the vulnerable, saying, “When you did it to one of the least of these, my brothers, you did it to me.”

Warren said the passage taught her two things:

“The first,” she said, “is there is God. There is value in every single human being.” And the second, Warren said, “is that we are called to action.”

Other candidates have echoed this message.

And at a CNN town hall earlier this week, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D.-N.Y.) said:

“Faith is really important . . . And if you’re coming at it from a Christian perspective, I would say the gospel doesn’t really leave anybody out. Are you feeding the poor? Are you helping the sick? Are you visiting the incarcerated? Do you believe in helping the least among us? Do you believe in ‘the Golden Rule?' Do you treat others the way you want to be treated? I would argue that the Democrats are often better on those issues than Republicans. So there’s no reason you can’t be a person of faith in any political party.”

Cory Booker told The Washington Post’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey: “What people are looking for is not the symbols of faithfulness but the substance of faith and how you live your life and how you dedicate your life.” The Bible, Booker said, speaks to “the urgencies of dealing with poverty, urgencies of welcoming the stranger, the urgencies of compassion toward the imprisoned, the urgencies of love, the most radical durable force ever.”

Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., has spoken frequently about the role his faith has played in developing his progressive politics — and how the policies of President Trump and Vice President Pence appear inconsistent with their Christian faith. About Pence, Buttigieg said Friday to television show host Ellen DeGeneres:

“I’m not critical of his faith. I’m critical of bad policies. I don’t have a problem with religion. I’m religious, too. I have a problem with religion being used as a justification to harm people, especially in the LGBT community.”

That liberal candidates are laying claim to Christianity is not surprising. Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, wrote in the Atlantic that no political tribe can claim ownership over the Christian faith.

“To say that Christianity points you in a progressive direction is in effect to say that Christianity and progressivism are synonymous. They aren’t. Neither are Christianity and conservatism. Christianity stands apart from and in judgment of all political ideologies; it doesn’t lend itself to being put in neat and tidy political categories,” he wrote. “But the temptation, always, is to politicize faith in ways that ultimately are discrediting.”

It’s also, some analysts say, a refreshing pivot from 2016. Though Hillary Clinton, a Methodist, talked about her faith often, she did not reach out to more conservative Christian communities as aggressively as former president Barack Obama did.

That may have been a missed opportunity. Two-thirds of Democratic voters self-identify as Christian, according to a recent Public Religion Research Institute survey, which suggests the intersection of faith and politics will be relevant to multiple voters in 2020.

It is still too early to tell how liberal Christians are responding to this approach — and which particular candidate appeals to them the most. As Michael Wear, faith outreach director for Obama’s 2012 campaign, told me, actions must follow those words — and soon:

“What will be important though, beyond a capacity to respond about faith when asked, is whether these campaigns are willing to invest in hiring staff who can do faith outreach and help the campaign navigate religious issues. These hires should be made by this summer, not after the primary.”

But what 2020 appears to be revealing is that Trump and Pence will not have a monopoly on discussing the value of the Christian faith, particularly when it comes to policymaking and public life.