COLUMBIA, S.C.– As the holidays near and the early-state primaries loom, several Democratic candidates are courting religious voters and bringing up their faith more regularly on the campaign trail — especially in the rural and southern political turf that’s critical to the first leg in 2020.
Take South Carolina. The state that holds the “first in the South” primary and has been a virtual polling lock for former Vice President Joe Biden ever since the start of the race has seen other candidates make an open appeal to the faithful in recent weeks.
“I’m not running for pastor,” Sen. Cory Booker told a room of African-American men during his “Man-to-Man Conversation” event in Columbia earlier this month.
The topic came up after an attendee urged him to provide the moral leadership he felt America was missing. Booker has been one of the most vocal when it comes to delivering messages of faith. His campaign speeches often include Bible verses or biblical references. At one event, when a gust of wind blew open the doors of a venue, he exclaimed, “This is the spirit of Elijah coming … We are not alone.”
South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg often mentions his faith during speeches as well. “God has been very, very good to me,” said Buttigieg during an AME Zion Regional Conference worship service in Rock Hill, S.C., in late October.
Later that day, Buttigieg hosted an inter-faith forum just down the road where he elaborated on the influence of faith in his candidacy.
“Faith also inspires hope, and hope is the lifeblood of my campaign,” the Democratic hopeful said as he explained to the crowd that he believed running for office was the ultimate “act of hope.”
Tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang credits his family’s Christian faith to his wife Evelyn, who was raised Christian.
“Our boys are in Sunday school and are being brought up Christian, and I’m thrilled with that … it’s a source of real strength and joy for me,” said Yang. “I would be the first to say that my own journey is still in progress.”
While Buttigieg has ticked up in South Carolina polls in recent weeks, he’s still in single digits along with Booker and Yang. Biden enjoys a commanding lead as he has for months, followed by Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
Whether the appeals to faith will resonate, and change hearts and minds, remains to be seen.
Democratic strategists note members of the party have long tried to pitch to religious voters. Capri Cafaro, who’s also served as a top Democratic Ohio state senator, pointed to the prominent role the evangelical vote played in former Republican President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election.
“I think at that point Democrats were really looking inward to see how they could appropriately engage and include their own faith and faith narrative on the campaign trail and how to best connect with those individuals of faith,” said Cafaro.
An AP poll shows only 37 percent of Democrats feel it’s moderately important for a candidate to have strong religious beliefs compared with roughly two-thirds of Republicans.
But, religion could be more influential in early states like Iowa or South Carolina, where more than 75 percent of people practice some form of Christianity, according to Pew Research.
“Religious values are extremely important to people here in Iowa, especially to the crowd that are one-issue voters,” said Marcus Anderson, a resident of Windsor Heights, Iowa. He added there might be a greater emphasis on religion this election cycle because of President Trump, alleged that the president is an “affront” to “anyone with a moral value or a Christian conscience.”
Trump’s relationship with the evangelical community has been front and center lately after a scathing editorial in Christianity Today called for his removal, one day after the House of Representatives passed two articles of impeachment against him.
That prompted a rebuke from Trump himself, and nearly 200 evangelical leaders later wrote to the Christian magazine’s president condemning the editorial, saying it “offensively questioned the spiritual integrity and Christian witness of tens-of-millions of believers who take seriously their civic and moral obligations.”
Some voters say they focus not so much on a candidate’s religion but on how he or she manifests those religious values in their platforms.
“I’ve often felt a conflict between candidates who profess their religious beliefs. I felt it really important to keep church and state separate. What I’ve come to now is if somebody professes to have a religious belief, then it needs to inform their action and their values,” said Rose Sloven, during a campaign event for Booker in Adel, Iowa.
In fact, an AP poll shows 57 percent of Americans want the influence of religion on government policy to extend beyond traditional culture war issues and into policies addressing poverty.
“Economic justice and health care access and certainly the sort of human rights aspect surrounding the issue of immigration, particularly when it comes to children, these are all issues that I think Democrats of faith consider in the context of a sort of faith-based candidate,” said Cafaro.
Meanwhile, former priest Jonathan Morris believes transparency and sincerity are what truly matters for a religious-minded voter.
“We want a leader who’s going to help us not only in the economy but also to lead us toward something bigger and better,” said Morris, a Fox News contributor. “Not necessarily somebody who shares all of my theological views but somebody who can say we can be better as a nation and let’s pursue God as we pursue also a better common life as citizens of the United States of America.”