Joe Biden’s tough road ahead on religious freedom

Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden listens as clergy members and community activists speak during a visit to Bethel AME Church in Wilmington, Del., on Monday, June 1, 2020. | Andrew Harnik, Associated Press

Joe Biden’s supporters believe he’ll protect people of faith. Why do many conservative voters disagree?

SALT LAKE CITY — Rob Taber believes Joe Biden will protect religious freedom. But Taber recognizes that he defines that phrase differently than some people of faith.

To Taber, who serves as national co-chairman of Latter-day Saint Democrats of America, religious freedom refers to Americans’ ability to safely and freely live out their beliefs. He points to Biden’s plan to safeguard houses of worship and protect members of minority faiths as proof that the former vice president takes the issue seriously.

“He believes in a broad definition of religious freedom,” he said. “He thinks the best way to protect faith groups is to allow all of them to thrive.”

Taber’s — and, by extension, Biden’s — ideas about religious freedom aren’t controversial. Nearly all people of faith agree that the right, which is guaranteed by the First Amendment, is aimed at making peaceful coexistence possible.

But many worshippers also believe religious freedom guarantees faith-based exemptions to nondiscrimination policies and other laws, a viewpoint which Biden doesn’t completely embrace. His plans related to LGBTQ rights and other culture war issues generally recommend narrow religious accommodations, rather than broad exemptions.

“Religious freedom is a fundamental American value. But states have inappropriately used broad exemptions to allow businesses, medical providers, social service agencies, state and local government officials and others to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people,” he says in his plan to advance LGBTQ equality.

Statements like these help explain why few conservative voters see him as a champion of religious freedom, said Ronald Sider, the president emeritus of Evangelicals for Social Action and editor of the book, “The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump.” They may acknowledge and applaud his deep personal faith, but they doubt he’ll do enough to protect religion’s role in the public square.

Unless Biden can craft a more compelling message about why other rights should sometimes outweigh religious freedom protections, he will struggle to connect with many, more conservative religious voters, Sider and other faith leaders said.

“I know that he is reaching out to evangelicals in a variety of ways, and I’m sure that he’s doing the same with Catholics and others,” Sider said. “But it would be another important step for him to talk explicitly about their religious freedom concerns.”

Biden and religion

As it stands, Biden’s faith-related messaging mostly focuses on his individual religious commitments and his respect for other people of faith. He talks often about his interest in healing the soul of America and how his Catholicism inspires that pursuit.

“His story is so imbued with his religious faith. This is a man that carries a rosary with him. This is someone that goes to Mass regularly,” said John K. White, a politics professor at the Catholic University of America.

Biden’s campaign website includes unique pitches for Catholics, Muslims and Jews. He promises to celebrate pluralism and not play favorites in his dealings with people of faith.

“As president, Biden will lead by example: with tolerance and understanding from the highest levels of our government. He will also restore a national culture of inclusiveness that encourages individuals of all faiths to celebrate their beliefs openly and without fear of harm or reprisal,” the campaign’s statement on safeguarding faith communities explains.

Biden’s approach serves him well with religious Democrats like Taber. They are thrilled to support a candidate who doesn’t shy away from faith talk and who cares about crafting moral policies.

“He values our values,” Taber said.

However, other voters want more than a candidate who is friendly to faith, Sider said. Conservative evangelicals, for example, generally want someone who has their back in today’s culture wars.

“I hope that Biden recognizes that there are significant numbers of Christians who like him for a whole number of reasons but really are concerned about these issues,” he said.

Vulnerable to attacks

Biden’s current messaging on religious freedom leaves him vulnerable to attacks from President Donald Trump and his supporters, Sider noted. At recent campaign events, the president has promoted the idea that people of faith would suffer under a Biden administration.

“Essentially, they’re against God if you look at what they’re doing with religion,” Trump said during a recent tele-rally with supporters in Pennsylvania, according to Newsweek.

Many pro-Trump ads make similar claims, Taber said, arguing that Republicans are overlooking Biden’s strong religious freedom record.

“You’d think Biden was out there with a sledgehammer personally knocking down churches,” he said.

There’s likely no way for the Biden campaign to completely silence these attacks, Taber said. Biden respects religious freedom, but he’s been willing to push back against those who believe it trumps other human rights.

In the context of LGBTQ rights, that means Biden is more interested in finding opportunities for compromise than in carving out broad religious exemptions to nondiscrimination laws.

 Andrew Harnik, Associated Press
Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks to members of the clergy and community leaders at Bethel AME Church in Wilmington, Del., on Monday, June 1, 2020.

“Biden will reverse Trump’s policies misusing ... broad (religious) exemptions and fight so that no one is turned away from a business or refused service by a government official just because of who they are or who they love,” the campaign’s LGBTQ policy page explains.

Promises like these likely hurt Biden’s chances among religious voters, since many faith leaders have come out in support of the Trump Administration’s efforts to protect faith-based adoption agencies, people of faith who own businesses and other religious organizations.

“There’s a sense that Trump is the defender of the church and religious liberty,” said John Gehring, the Catholic program director for Faith in Public Life, to the Deseret News earlier this month.

Biden also recently criticized the Supreme Court’s ruling granting Catholic nuns and other religious objectors to birth control an exemption to the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate. It would have been better to accommodate these religious employers rather than totally exempt them, he said in a statement.

“If I am elected, I will restore the Obama-Biden policy that ... (provided) an exemption for houses of worship and an accommodation for nonprofit organizations with religious missions,” Biden said.

Sider is not calling on the former vice president to abandon these beliefs. But he does believe Biden should address them more openly in order to assure conservative religious voters that, at the very least, he understands why they disagree.

“The truth is I have not heard in any detail what he is saying on” religious freedom, Sider said. “I would hope that he would say some more.”

Potential impact

White is more skeptical than Sider of the value in Biden changing his approach. While he knows that many of his fellow Catholics track religion-related policies closely, he doubts that deeper engagement with religious freedom will do much to earn Biden more votes.

“I think (the issue of religious freedom) does drive certain elites, but I don’t think it drives the mass public. I don’t think most voters are hanging on the edge of their seat waiting for the Biden campaign to address it,” he said.

Similarly, Taber questioned whether it would be wise for the campaign to get into the weeds on culture war issues. He and other religious Democrats already believe that Biden will listen to and work to address their concerns.

“I’m very impressed with all the outreach Biden has been doing,” Taber said.

Sider acknowledged that more talk about religious freedom won’t guarantee Biden wins the White House. However, it can increase his chances of getting through to the conservative religious voters he’s targeted with recent outreach efforts, he said.

“I can’t see how it would hurt him” among his current supporters, Sider said. Instead, “it could help him win votes from the other side.”

 Butch Dill, Associated Press
Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden walks to the podium to speak at Brown Chapel AME Church on Sunday, March 1, 2020, in Selma, Ala.