While on the campaign trail in August, Donald Trump appealed to churchgoers by claiming his rival, President-elect Joe Biden, would be harmful to faith if elected. “No religion, no anything, hurt the Bible, hurt God,” was how Trump described Biden’s plan.
Religious faith is often seen as the preserve of the right in America. As far as voters are concerned, the statistics seem to agree. In 2016, 81% of white evangelical Christians voted for Trump; in 2020, that figure barely fell to 75%.
Among elected representatives, there is a different story. Biden and Kamala Harris have spoken openly about their faiths – as have other prominent Democrats, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Cory Booker. Biden is a Roman Catholic, and Harris is a Baptist of Hindu background. Biden consciously courted the Catholic vote at this election, and to some degree, it worked; 51% of Catholics voted Democrat, which is up from 45% in 2016.
This begs the question: could their election lead to a ‘Religious Left’, similar to the ‘Religious Right’ that has existed for decades?
To answer this, we need to look at the history of the Religious Right and with whom it originated. The Religious Right in its current form dated to the late 1970s, when conservative church leaders such as Jerry Falwell began urging conservative Christians to vote Republican. In terms of policy, it has involved matters such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and the teaching of evolution in schools, as opposed to the left’s focus on social and economic justice.
Rather than taking root in government, the movement began with voices in the religious community, and the same could potentially happen on the left. This year Michael Curry, presiding Bishop of the mostly left-leaning Episcopal Church, encouraged his followers to vote as an act of conscience. At the same time, several prominent Christian voices including Lutheran Nadia Bolz-Weber and evangelical Ronald Sider expressed support for the Biden-Harris campaign, making clear links between Democrat policy and Christian teaching. Of course, four years is a short time in American politics, so it could be a while before enough momentum has been gained, but the foundations have been laid.
There is some historical precedent for faith-driven leftism both in the US and elsewhere. The Social Gospel movement, which took off in New York in the early 20th century, taught that Christ would not return until humanity had constructed a fair society. More recently, an initiative called Labor in the Pulpit started with the aim of rekindling the historic relationship between trade unions and the Church (sister movements called Labor on the Bima and Labor in the Minbar, for Judaism and Islam respectively, have since been launched)
“Assuming leftism to be inherently antagonistic to organized religion does a great disservice to both the history of progressive movements and modern progressivism itself, as collective belief provides both a program and a passion essential to anti-oppression movements,”
wrote Bianca Vivion Brooks in the New York Times last year.
Such a movement would, however, not be without challenges. One of these has to do with the voter demographics of the two parties, particularly the fact that Democrat voters are more split along religious lines than Republican voters. A study of Democrat primary voters in 2016 found that 31% were white Christians, 22% were non-white Christians, and 12% belonged to other religious groups or gave ‘something else’ as their religious affiliation. This stands in sharp contrast with the 84% of Republican primary voters in the same year who identified with faith, of whom 70% were white Christians. As Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux and Laura Bronner point out, this means that when appealing along religious grounds, Democrat candidates have a smaller and more diverse audience to engage with.
Additionally, voters may see their religious beliefs as subordinate to political ones. Patrick Egan, a political scientist at New York University, found in 2018 that among participants in the General Social Survey – conducted every two years with a rotating panel of participants – religious identity was more fluid than political identity. For those who had previously identified as non-religious but later identified as born-again Christians, the overwhelming majority were conservative Republicans; conversely, of those who once identified with faith but later identified as non-religious, most were liberal Democrats.
This, Egan suggested, was part of a broader trend of Americans shifting their identities to line up with their party allegiances. Because of this, politicians may feel in the future that there is less point in appealing to religion if the voters they’re trying to convince aren’t as committed to their spiritual beliefs.
The US political climate at the next election, and the place of religion in it, will surely be quite different from now. This election took place amid a global pandemic, which undoubtedly had a significant influence on how voters voted. It may be that with Biden and Harris’ time occupied by resolving the US-China trade war, trying to foster peace with North Korea and agreeing the best trade deal with a post-Brexit Britain inter alia, their religious faiths will be less highlighted in the press, This could mean fewer voters making connections between their own spiritual and political beliefs.
Nonetheless, faith leaders played a vital role in the democratic (pardon the pun) process this November, and we can expect to see them do so again in elections to come.