Is there anything freakier or, frankly, sadder in American politics than the seemingly blind allegiance of so many Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians and conservative Catholics to a man as grotesquely immoral and dishonest as Donald J. Trump?
It takes no Sherlock Holmes to see that Trump’s entire life is a litany of un-Christian, even anti-Christian behavior. It’s a long thread of lies and sins ranging from his three broken vows of marital fidelity, to his multiple assaults on women, to his tidal wave of lies, gross materialism, mocking of the handicapped, caging of helpless children, and cheating (via bankruptcy and fraud) of hundreds of customers, business partners, investors, workmen, and tax officials.
Yet Trump was primarily talking about his religious “base” when he famously claimed he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose a single vote. That arrogant assurance seemed to hold for years. Lately, though, that’s finally changing. Recent polls by the Pew Research Center and the Public Religion Research Institute both show signs of erosion in support for Trump among all religious voters, including his core base of white evangelical Protestants.
That suggests a ripe opportunity for Democrats to draw away as many Christian voters as possible – especially young Christians who are fast shedding their elders’ fears of gays, immigrants and minorities. A drop of just 5 to 10 percentage points among Christian voters would almost surely doom Trump’s already shaky re-election campaign. To achieve that, Democrats need to have the guts, the wit, and at least some biblical savvy to successfully appeal to Christian “values” voters.
Fortunately for Democrats, Joe Biden’s fervent, personal Catholicism provides him with genuine, indispensable credibility in reaching out to conservative Christian voters. On the single most emotional issue—choice and abortion rights—Biden is constrained to firmly defend a woman’s right to choose, even to codify Roe v. Wade as law. But Biden can also say—sincerely—that he is personally opposed to abortion, but unwilling to force his views on people who believe in a woman’s right to choose. That’s a very different, more nuanced message than the one voters heard from Hillary Clinton in 2016.
More fundamentally, as we saw at the Democratic convention, Biden has made morality, decency, honesty and civility the core rationales for his campaign. And while his quasi-religious appeal to restore “the soul of America” may seem hokey to some secular progressives it will likely feel like a healing balm to most Americans, especially after five years of Trump’s frenzied, hate-filled screeds.
Biden is also much tougher to demonize than Clinton. Few voters will ever see him as a potential “oppressor” of their religious freedom. Instead, like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, two masters of deft scriptural citation, Biden is likely to make subtle, emotionally moving appeals to religious voters who will recognize—actually, feel—that Biden’s own faith is real. Some may even ask themselves, is Trump’s? Is the Bible—to Trump—just a photo-op prop?
Democrats certainly should ask those questions—repeatedly. There are plenty of active, articulate Christians who are also ardent Democrats. They can and should speak passionately to the issue of which party’s policies and candidates best reflect true Christian and Biblical values. The good news here for Democrats is that no one who actually reads the gospels could ever confuse Jesus of Nazareth with a supply-side Republican, a hedge-fund GOP donor, or an Ayn Rand libertarian.
To the contrary, the Christ of the New Testament is an angry, radical prophet squarely in the Hebrew tradition. He lashes out repeatedly against greed, selfishness and the abuse of wealth. He is a passionate advocate of the poor, the weak, the imprisoned, the oppressed, the sick, the marginalized (lepers) and even the foreigners (Romans, Samaritans) among the Palestinian Jews he preaches to. Christ condemns avarice far more often than any other sin. And the biblical Jesus doesn’t just ask—he demands—that the wealthy share their riches, redistribute that wealth, you might say, to lift up and to dignify the poor. “It is easier,” he says in Mark 10:25, “for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.” Neither Bernie Sanders nor Liz Warren could be any tougher on the 1 percent.
Some secular Democrats may find biblical allusions and references to scriptural values uncomfortable. But the New Testament offers a rich vein of political and theological argument that religious Democrats should mine. We can and should challenge fellow Christians to justify GOP policies that consistently help the rich grow richer, while cutting economic benefits, health coverage and even food from the working poor. Remember the administration’s cuts to food stamps around Christmas time? Ebenezer Scrooge would recoil in shame. But the truth is that simply detailing Republican social cruelties—in a “just-the-facts ma’am” fashion—would show that party to be stunningly at odds with core Christian teachings.
Of course, we can’t say whether Jesus Christ would have any position on capital gains tax rates, or net neutrality. But we can be damned sure he would never vote to deprive the poor of food or medicine. That’s why it’s gross political malpractice to leave Jesus’ actual message to the tender mercies of cynical Republican spin-doctors and ad men.
In this election, as never before, Democrats need speakers who can link the gospels’ message of compassion to real issues and values. May God forgive us if we don’t.