When Joe Biden spoke before a small fleet of parked cars in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov. 7, it was more than a declaration of victory in the 2020 election. It was a declaration of faith.
The newly minted president-elect only made it about midway through his address before dropping in a Bible reference, reading from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. He then invoked a Christian hymn written by a priest—“On Eagles Wings,” a favorite among Catholics like himself—insisting it speaks to a faith that has sustained both himself and the country at large. “He will raise you up on eagles' wings, bear you on the breath of dawn, and make you to shine like the sun and hold you in the palm of his hand,” Biden said. To drive his point home, he dedicated his final paragraph to a story about when his grandparents used to tell him not just to “keep the faith,” but to “spread the faith.” He concluded: “God love you all. May God bless America and may God protect our troops.”
It’d be easy to dismiss this embrace of the spiritual as a sort of formality, a throwback declamation of traditional God-talk so common in American presidential rhetoric that scholars have their own fancy name for it: “civil religion.” But as Inauguration Day draws ever closer, the soon-to-be second Catholic president is giving the distinct impression that he’s up to more than just metaphysical nostalgia: He’s preaching an unapologetic—and unapologetically liberal—form of public faith rooted in traditions that have thrived throughout American history but have rarely seen their messages proclaimed so fervently from presidential podiums.
In fact, the Biden era is rapidly shaping up to be a political second coming for religious liberals, building on the recent successes of a resurgent Religious Left that spent the last four years passionately challenging Trump and his conservative Christian supporters.
For his part, Biden has crammed more religious rhetoric into his major speeches over the past few weeks than any president-elect (or president) in recent memory, Democrat or Republican. He doubled up on the Bible references during his Thanksgiving address, reading from Psalm 28 and using Jesus Christ’s Golden Rule as a way to coax Americans into staying safe during the holiday, saying, “to love our neighbors as ourselves is a radical act, but it’s what we’re called to do.” He marked the certification of his Electoral College victory with an address that invoked both Matthew 16:18 and the Prayer of St. Francis, declaring, “for where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith, where there is darkness, light.” He even managed to work a Catholic deep-cut into his end-of-year address, quoting German Jesuit Alfred Delp—“Advent is a time for rousing”—while urging Americans to remain hopeful amid despair.
And all the while, Biden has dutifully attended Mass at least once a week within sight of his press pool, who typically record him slipping into church late and leaving early (the Catholic equivalent of “celebrities—they’re just like us!”).
But it’s not just Biden who is leaning into religion these days. Democratic lawmakers from across the liberal spectrum appear to be in the midst of a spiritual revival of sorts: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Catholic, referenced prayer repeatedly this year, especially during impeachment proceedings; Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, another Catholic, explained in January that Jesus’ call to “love thy neighbor” undergirds her support for progressive polices; and Rep. Ilhan Omar has insisted that her Muslim faith drives her belief in religious freedom.
The God factor was even more pronounced during the recent Democratic primary season, when presidential hopefuls seemingly scrambled to see who could be more overtly religious. Sen. Bernie Sanders spoke openly about his connection to the Jewish social justice tradition (while admitting he’s “not actively involved in organized religion”), Sen. Cory Booker basically preached during multiple appearances, and former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg made the intersection of religion and politics one of his core campaign themes.
It’s easy to be cynical about politicians who wear their faith on their sleeve (in Biden’s case, literally), and it’s true that religiously unaffiliated Americans are likely to skew liberal. But most Democrats remain people of faith, and they’re hardly spiritual novices: Biden for instance, has made religion a part of his political persona throughout his career.
And you’d have to work pretty hard to explain away the faith of the latest high-profile Democrat to center religion: U.S. Senate candidate the Rev. Raphael Warnock, a pastor who preaches from the pulpit of Georgia’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, a historic Black congregation once home to Martin Luther King Jr.
Not that Republicans aren’t trying, of course. They’ve spent recent weeks attacking Warnock’s beliefs, such as dismissing the very idea that a “pro-choice pastor”—an identity Warnock claims—can even exist. (It can, and reflects a controversial but fairly common belief.) His opponent has combed through his sermons and cast him as a “radical socialist,” a characterization some have noted sounds eerily similar to critiques lobbed at King and other civil rights leaders in the 1960s. And Doug Collins, a GOP congressman who decried criticisms of Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s faith earlier this year, recently declared Warnock’s beliefs to be a “lie from the bed of Hell” that voters should “send back to Ebenezer Baptist Church.”
The GOP may very well defeat Warnock, likely by relying on a well-organized Religious Right. But they’ll probably have a harder time combating the recent re-emergence of liberal faith in the public sphere, a religious revival years in the making.
It’s a moment whose origins can be traced back at least to Biden’s former boss Barack Obama, whose own religious saliency is often overlooked. Obama, a later-in-life Christian convert who got his start organizing with a congregation-based Chicago group, is arguably responsible for mainstreaming modern Democratic faith engagement: He assembled one of the largest faith outreach teams of any presidential candidate in American history for his 2008 campaign (it worked), wove faith into major speeches (remember “Amazing Grace”?), and wrote two books with religious references right in the titles (The Audacity of Hope is named after a sermon, and this year’s best-selling memoir A Promised Land isn’t exactly subtle.)
But while Obama helped grant progressive forms of faith some political legitimacy, he was directly challenged by others, with several liberal religious activist movements emerging during his tenure. His administration’s mass deportation of immigrants gave rise to the New Sanctuary Movement, with houses of worship inviting undocumented people at risk of deportation to take up residence in their religious spaces in direct defiance of federal authorities. And it was Indigenous rights activists huddled in prayer camps who led the charge in 2015 against the Dakota Access Pipeline, rejecting its construction partly because of their spiritual claim to the land.
It was in this context that Donald Trump emerged, ushering in a wave of intense Christian nationalism—which scholars describe as an identity movement marked by a fusion of Christianity and country—not seen in a generation. Many in the mainstream political press, gobsmacked by a phenomenon they didn’t fully see coming, rightly covered the influence of Trump’s evangelical Christian supporters with tenacity.
It took a while for many to catch wind of the Trump era’s other major religion story: a reawakening of the country’s historic Religious Left, a multi-faith activist coalition of politicized, overlapping religious groups that has existed for centuries but is often unacknowledged.
As I chronicled in my book American Prophets, fledgling religious movements that took their first wobbly steps under Obama broke into a full sprint under Trump, quickly becoming pace-setters for the broader “Resistance” movement. Faith-based activists helped organize flash-protests at airports against the president’s travel ban, staged demonstrations decrying the Trump administration’s treatment of immigrants along the U.S.-Mexico border, and filed lawsuits to protect refugee resettlement programs. Virtually all major liberal gatherings during Trump’s presidency — the Women’s March, the fight against efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and the counter-protesters who stared down white supremacists in Charlottesville—were at least partly organized by progressive people of faith.
Today’s religious liberals eventually developed their own pantheon of heroes such as Sister Simone Campbell, Pope Francis, and the Rev. William Barber, a co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, an activist group focused on eradicating poverty. Barber and others have been unrelenting in their critique of Christian nationalism and religious conservatives who backed Trump, offering to debate them and, in Barber’s case, declaring some to be literal heretics.
This firebrand religious rhetoric is distinct from Obama’s, who often described his faith as deeply felt but intensely intellectual—an approach right at home in many mainline Christian churches, but less so at protests. By contrast, leaders of the new Religious Left usually articulate their faith as a challenge to the status quo, invoking it strongly while rejecting conservative iterations they find to be abhorrent.
It’s a bold form of religious expression for a new context, crafted in part to call out the Religious Right for what activists insist it truly is: a subset, not a standard, of American religion.
Of course, Democrats—like all politicians—can have ulterior motives for making appeals to religion. Biden was the first Democrat to hire a faith outreach director in South Carolina last year, a deft move that paid dividends when Black Protestants helped grant him a resounding victory there and rescued his struggling campaign from oblivion. His more recent appeals to faith may be part of an effort to quell division, or in hopes that religious rhetoric will at least dull the attacks of would-be conservative critics.
Moreover, the activist elements of the Religious Left don’t always agree with each other (Barber even rejects the label), much less politicians. While Biden has spoken at Poor People’s Campaign events and the transition team recently met with Barber’s staff, the pastor has vowed he will be among the first to protest the incoming president should the need arise.
But a new era of liberal religious expression may already be upon us. Attacks on Warnock’s beliefs have been met with sternly worded reproaches from thousands of religious Americans, some of whom have garnered national attention. Similarly, when Biden’s new pick for Health and Human Services Secretary, former California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, was decried as a “gross insult to Catholics” by some conservative activists, the transition team produced a video about his Catholic faith. Meanwhile, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, herself a Baptist, slid in a reference to Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment in a recent speech on climate change.
Biden, who has rarely shied away from faith, may be particularly well-suited for this moment—a time when religious liberals no longer feel the need to only hide, explain, or justify their faith.
Instead, they, like Biden’s grandparents, seem far more interested in something else: spreading it.
Jack Jenkins is a national reporter at Religion News Service and the author of American Prophets: The Religious Roots of Progressive Politics and the Ongoing Fight for the Soul of the Country.