The faith leaders who will help Biden to ‘lighten the darkness’

Image credit: Gage Skidmore CCLicense

By Rosie Dawson

Sociolologist Ryan Burge has some advice for Democrats and Republicans. Burge, a political science professor at Eastern Illinois University, suggests that both can forget about the white evangelical vote. The Republicans can take it for granted and the Democrats can give up on trying to gain it. About 80 per cent of white evangelicals will always vote Republican.

Of course in a close election the smallest shift can be important. “Even tiny decreases can make a huge difference in key battleground states,” Tom Gjelten, religion and belief correspondent for National Public Radio news, told a post-election briefing for the Religion Media Centre.

“But I think that Catholics tend to be much more of a swing voter group. Joe Biden is himself a Catholic and comes from that part of the country where Catholic votes are very important. Catholics outnumber evangelicals in the three big states that constituted the ‘blue wave’ — Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — so I think it made a great deal of sense for the Biden campaign to really target Catholics in those areas.”

The key difference in the way that faith groups voted boils down, as it always does, to race. “It’s white Christians, especially white evangelicals, on one side, and everyone else on the other side, said Bob Smietana from the Religion News Service. “One group we often forget about is black Protestants who really showed up in this election. They are the most religious people in America and they are also the most one-sided, completely devoted to the Democratic Party.”

But if there is one headline about religious voting patterns from last week’s election it is actually about those who are not affiliated to any religion. The share of the vote among so-called Nones jumped six or seven points from 2016. They now make up about a quarter of the population.

“Atheists and agnostics are the corollary of white evangelicals,” Gjelten says. “They vote in very large numbers for Democrats. And this god gap [between Republicans and Democrats] is wide. The percentage of the US population that does not identify with any religious denomination is growing and their turnout is growing as well. So that’s a concern for Republicans.”

Non-religious people and those concerned to maintain the separation of church and state will be closely watching which faith leaders have access to the White House in the new administration. Faith leaders have had unprecedented access to the White House during Donald Trump’s presidency but they have almost all been of a Christian evangelical persuasion. Trump has been pictured in the Oval Office being prayed over by “my evangelicals”.

So who might expect to be among President-elect Biden’s faith advisers?

Gjelten says: “I think that it’s a little bit risky for Catholic clerics to become too deeply involved in politics because the official position of the Catholic church is not to endorse candidates or become too involved politically, but there would certainly be some strong lay Catholic leaders who could be play influential roles.”

He expects there to be a number of prominent black Protestants on the body, including the Rev Raphael Warnock, the presiding preacher at Martin Luther King’s church in Atlanta, who is running for Senate. Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris personifies the growing multifaith character of American, having a Hindu mother and Baptist father.

Trump was explicit in asking white evangelical leaders to get their congregations to vote for him. In return he delivered conservative judges to the Supreme Court and executive orders on religious liberty. Smietana says Biden’s religious supporters, such as the Protestant pastor William Barber from North Carolina, will also make demands on him.

“Barber will probably be one of his advisers. His line is, ‘You’ve been chosen to do all these things and you got to fight to the lighten up darkness and for justice.’ So I think it’s going to be a lot of pressure for him to deliver the kind of things that his faith coalition wants is on issues of poverty, race and social justice.”

Robert Jones, founder and chief executive of the Public Religion Research Institute, says one of the key shifts in the religious landscape since the last Democrat administration has been on attitudes towards LGBTQ rights. “It’s worth remembering that Barack Obama himself did not support same-sex marriage when he was first running for office, and there was not a majority support for same-sex marriage among the American public.

It’s during his tenure as president that the country moves into majority support that he moves. Our most recent survey had no less than 70 per cent of Americans today supporting same-sex marriage including every religious group in the country with the lone exception of white Evangelical Protestants. Even so, Mr Jones suggests that court cases on religious liberty issues around LGBTQ rights could pose challenges to a Democrat administration.

“But the things that have to be front and centre on Biden’s plate are the racial divides in the country. We’re at a moment of real reckoning on this. I think that’s where he’s really got his work cut out for him.”