President Donald Trump’s appeal to religious conservatives is a cornerstone of his political identity. But Joe Biden is a different kind of foe than Trump has faced before: one who makes faith a central part of his persona — often literally wearing it on his sleeve.
In fact, Biden’s practice of carrying a rosary that belonged to his late son Beau caught the attention of one of his Democratic presidential rivals when the two were awaiting a debate last year. Standing backstage next to Biden, Pete Buttigieg asked the lifelong Catholic about the prayer beads and fell into a conversation about loss, family and faith.
Biden “often talks about the comfort and meaning that he’s drawn from faith,” said Buttigieg, Biden’s primary rival-turned-endorser. “That’s something that will resonate with Americans a lot more than usual.”
Democrats are betting on Biden’s evident comfort with faith as a powerful point of contrast with Trump. The faith-focused work underway within Biden’s campaign suggests that, while he may not significantly undercut the president’s popularity among white evangelicals, he could chip away at Trump’s base by appealing to pockets of conservative faithful.
Biden’s identity as “a very devout Catholic and person of deep faith,” deputy political director John McCarthy said, is “baked into the core messaging and core functions of the campaign.”
Biden has framed his presidential bid as a fight for “the soul of the nation,” a subtle invocation of the Catholic beliefs that have guided his life. His campaign has released three digital ads focused on faith, including one crediting his religious practices with instilling a “sense of solace.”
It’s a notable contrast with Hillary Clinton, who lost in 2016 after a campaign that largely sidelined her Methodist faith.
As Trump promises to be evangelicals’ “champion” on policy, Biden is making a less transactional play for religious support, betting that a beliefs-focused brand will be more persuasive than agreement on an agenda.
“For faith and values voters,” McCarthy said, Biden’s spiritual authenticity is “the quality they’re looking for.” They might disagree on a particular issue, he added, but can connect with Biden through a shared worldview.
That often may depend on the issue in question. The presumptive nominee’s shift leftward on federal funding for abortions is a potential liability with evangelicals as well as many Catholics, for example.
But Biden has used moral language and quoted Pope Francis when discussing other issues that many Catholics do support, such as immigration reform, expanding health care access and tackling climate change.
“My faith teaches me that we should be a nation that not only accepts the truth of the climate crisis, but leads the world in addressing it,” Biden wrote in a Religion News Service editorial.
As the coronavirus pandemic and unrest over racial injustice roil Trump’s presidency, Biden's team sees an opening to claim the moral high ground. Joshua DuBois, who led religious outreach for former President Barack Obama, described the political climate as “the perfect storm" for the president.
Biden could make “small but meaningful gains” among white evangelicals, whose support for Trump has fluctuated by as many as 15 points in recent polls, by contrasting himself as “the type of person who’s going to speak to our better angels,” DuBois said.
The campaign has yet to match the denomination-level outreach that Obama’s 2008 team deployed, beyond releasing a specific agenda aimed at fellow Catholics, but insiders say that’s by design. McCarthy said the campaign bakes religious elements into other programs, holding faith-focused calls with LGBTQ, Asian American, African American, Latino, Jewish and Muslim communities, among other constituencies.
As for evangelicals, McCarthy said the campaign is targeting three subgroups that may be more on the fence: Latinos, white suburban women and youth, whom surveys have shown to lean less conservative.
The campaign signaled its seriousness Thursday with the hiring of Josh Dickson to oversee faith engagement. Dickson, a former Republican who declared in 2012 that “I’m a Democrat because of my evangelical faith,” previously worked on religious outreach for the Democratic National Committee and Obama’s 2012 campaign.
"Faith-motivated voters — including those traditionally more moderate and conservative — are especially eager to see a President who both shares and leads with the values important to them,” Dickson said in a statement. “Vice President Biden has stood and fought for these values — loving our neighbor, caring for the poor and vulnerable, fighting against injustice and oppression — his entire career.”
It’s a strategy that aims for marginal gains with evangelicals.
“We are going to go after every vote, but I do not think we will suddenly win the evangelical vote with 80 percent,” McCarthy acknowledged.
Indeed, in a recent survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, 7 in 10 evangelicals approved of Trump's handling of the presidency.
Meanwhile the GOP is stepping up efforts to court evangelicals of color. Thousands of Hispanic faith leaders and congregants have participated in Trump Victory Committee events, with specific programming focused on evangelicals, Republican National Committee spokeswoman Mandi Merritt said.
Tony Perkins, a prominent conservative evangelical Trump backer, said evangelicals backed the GOP overwhelmingly in 2016 not “because they embraced everything about the president (but) because they embraced what he was going to do.”
“Evangelicals are focusing on the policy,” added Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.
Biden’s team has also worked with African American pastors in multiple states, building on a connection that helped vault him to the nomination. It hired a Muslim outreach director in March and a Jewish outreach director this week.
The campaign has already held dozens of faith-focused events — some under the banner of “Believers for Biden” — which have included Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del.
A Yale Divinity School graduate and Biden confidante, Coons described Biden’s ability to connect with those who share his experience of lost family as a “ministry of presence.”
“The guy does pastoral care better than most of my (divinity) school classmates,” he quipped.
Elana Schor reports for The Associated Press and Jack Jenkins reports for Religion News Service.
Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through the Religion News Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for this content.