The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cory Booker says he grounds his policies in a ‘moral center’ — including his new reparations bill

Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) , a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, campaigns at an Amherst house party in Amherst, N.H., on April 6. (Mary Schwalm/Reuters)

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) introduced a Senate proposal this week to establish a commission to study reparations, the idea that descendants of slaves should receive some form of payment, calling it “a nationwide effort for truth and reconciliation” in an interview Tuesday.

Several other candidates for the Democratic ticket have supported the general idea of reparations, but Booker appears prepared to lead the issue legislatively. “You have to have healing” when a harm is done, Booker said.

“We in our nation often even speak of our history in a way that tries to whitewash or cover over harms that ultimately are still festering now because they haven’t been addressed,” Booker said.

Reparations have emerged as a national issue in recent months. In Booker’s New Jersey backyard, black students at Princeton Theological Seminary recently asked their school for reparations. Right before he introduced his legislative proposal, Booker said in an interview with The Washington Post that he grounds his policies in “a moral center.”

“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,” he said, citing the biblical passage that “faith without works is dead.”

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.”

“Love is not just a weak, saccharine word … but the substance of love is justice for all that is made real,” he said. “If you look for [Christ] you might find him with sinners, you might find him with the folks who are looked down on in society, who are condemned in society.”

Booker pointed to President Trump as a counterexample.

“I do not believe this president’s policies reflect the aspirations for a more beloved community … the way he demeans and degrades people who are the stranger, demeans and degrades people who are different, demeans and degrades people who are vulnerable,” he said.

Unlike most Democratic candidates, Booker sees religion as a conversation starter, said Lerone A. Martin, a professor of religion and politics at Washington University in St. Louis.

“Many Democratic nominees and candidates have eloquently spoken of their faith when promoted or asked, but almost as an addendum, not necessarily as the basis of their politics,” he said. “Booker is attempting to change that.”

Booker and Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., have been the most vocal about their faith on the campaign trail, said Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University who wrote a book on Booker.

“It counters the stereotype that the Democratic Party is secular and doesn’t care about or are outright hostile to people of faith,” she said. “They’re connecting with voters who do have a faith and want to live out their values.”

Evangelicals helped get Trump into the White House. Pete Buttigieg believes the religious left will get him out.

Booker, who told Religion News Service he regularly meditates and prays on his knees, was raised in an African Methodist Episcopal Church and is now a member of a National Baptist church in Newark.

“I am here because of the black church,” he said.

The black church was not just a place where values and morals were instilled in his parents and grandparents, he said.

“It was a place of safety and security, a protective force shielding children who were dealing with the daily assaults on their dignity, on their pride,” he said. “And it was also a force for social justice.”

“So much of the civil rights movement’s force and strength came from church basements,” he added.

When he was mayor of Newark, he said, he saw how black churches and black mosques have helped future generations build successful lives. His father’s black church in North Carolina and his grandmother’s black church in Iowa took up collections for the two of them to go to college.

The discrimination that black Americans have long faced has influenced how Booker approaches his role as a senator. In nomination proceedings during the Trump administration, he has asked nominees like Secretary of State Michael Pompeo about their views on homosexuality, which some conservatives criticized as a “litmus test.”

“That questioning to me is an act of loyalty to history and our ability to overcome bigotry and oppression,” Booker said. “People use religion to justify their discrimination.”

Booker said his questioning of nominees matters because it pertains to equal rights.

“I believe in religious freedom, but I do not believe that someone should have a right to discriminate against people and to use the powers of the law to deny people equal opportunity and equality under the law,” Booker said. “I think that is absolutely germane to the line of questioning: Will you treat people equally no matter what your beliefs about their human dignity is?”

On the campaign trail, Booker has used religious language liberally, but it might not help him rise out of the pack to be a serious contender, said Anthea Butler, a professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Polls by Quinnipiac University and Fox News in March found Booker receiving between 2 and 4 percent support among Democratic voters.

“Cory Booker is King light. Lots of talk about love, but no hard-punching statements about what he wants to do,” Butler said, referring to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

In recent months, Democratic leaders have been discussing anti-Semitism and asking questions about what constitutes fair criticism of Israel. Booker said he cannot speak for other Democrats, but he sees nothing wrong in pointing out injustice.

“We see in Israel a nation that is constantly under assault from terrorism and the media and is in a precarious position when it comes to its security and the freedom to exist,” he said.

Calling for a two-state solution, he pointed to Palestinian people in the West Bank who are being denied clean water and health care.

Joshua DuBois, who led faith outreach for President Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008, said he helped convene a coalition of ministers to meet with Booker about changing prison policy a year ago.

“He was adept at talking about prison reform and seeing people as a force for good in the world, that people of faith can reclaim their voice in the public square,” DuBois said.

DuBois, who has yet to join the campaign of any specific candidate, said the key to successful faith outreach is that it is an authentic part of the candidate’s story.

“It doesn’t have to be exploitative, it’s not about taking over pulpits, it’s about rooting the campaign’s story in the language of values,” he said.

Scott Clement contributed to this report.

This year and next, The Post plans to interview 2020 presidential candidates about their views on faith.