Why Religious Joe Biden Won’t Win the Religious Vote

Okay, so VP Biden is religious. Really religious. However, unlike what GOP consultant Rob Stutzman opined recently in the Washington Post, no matter how sincere Democrats are with their Christianity, it just doesn’t matter. Our culture-war history helps explain why.

biden religious

…I’m serious, you guys…

I’m not doubting any of Mr. Stutzman’s evidence for Biden’s profound dedication to his Catholic faith. As Stutzman writes,

Biden, a Roman Catholic, speaks genuinely about how his faith has been a sustaining aspect of his life through family tragedies, including the loss of his son, Beau, to brain cancer. He wears Beau’s rosary around his wrist, describing it as the connection he keeps daily with his late son. He quotes Soren Kierkegaard — “Faith sees best in the dark ” — to explain how he and his wife’s shared belief in God connects him with tens of millions of Americans who rely on a sustaining faith amid myriad challenges.

But Stutzman makes a Jimmy-Carter-sized mistake when he suggests that religious voters might be attracted more to the very religious Biden than to the clown-car Trump. Stutzman is off base, in other words, when he concludes,

What happens to Christian voters when they see a Democratic candidate living an authentic faith juxtaposed with a Republican president just renting some religion? My guess is that many will think twice.

They won’t. And before any of my progressive friends get high and mighty about the hypocrisy involved among conservative Christians, consider the fact that we do it too. As any historian of American conservatism will tell you, for the past fifty years many conservatives—especially the intellectual sorts—have taken pains to refute the charges that the GOP is the party of white racism. None of us “think twice” about believing them.

As I conducted the research for my book about educational conservatism, I was struck time and time again by the insistence of conservative thinkers and activists that they really weren’t racist. It didn’t matter. The charges of racism stuck, for good reason.

Why? As I found in my study of the explosive school controversy in Kanawha County, West Virginia, in the mid-1970s, many white conservatives considered themselves truly anti-racist, for purely conservative reasons.

Conservative protest leader Reverend Avis Hill, for example, liked to tell reporters that his conservative congregation was evenly mixed between whites and blacks. Conservative teacher and activist Karl Priest told me that he intentionally coached an interracial basketball league, devoting untold hours of his free time to fight the scourge of racism.

Local African-American leaders even voiced their agreement with the conservative protesters. Local NAACP leader Ronald English, for example, told one school-board meeting that most African Americans in Kanawha County were “very conservative,” and they agreed with white conservatives that public schools should not include “anti-Christian . . . unpatriotic” material.

Nevertheless, just as Joe Biden won’t make any headway with conservative Christian voters, white conservatives in Kanawha County never managed to convince African Americans to join their protest. And white conservatives in general have never been able to convince anyone but themselves of the sincerity of their anti-racism. The political logic is too obvious to need spelling out, but I’ll do it anyway.

avis hill kanawha protest

Avis Hill: I’m no racist, but…

In Kanawha County in the 1970s, conservative African Americans didn’t buy the anti-racism claims of white conservative protesters. Their reason was clear. In addition to the anti-racist claims of some white conservatives, everyone also heard other white conservatives denouncing the new controversial textbooks as “those n***er books.” And among the conservatives who flocked to Charleston to take the side of the white conservatives, Ed Miller, leader of the West Virginia Ku Klux Klan, promised to bring in thousands of robed and hooded klansmen to join in.

In short, no matter how sincere the anti-racist beliefs of many GOP-voting conservatives–and I believe that many of them are truly sincere about it–American conservatism as a whole has never been able to shake its well-earned image as the party of white racism. As a result, the GOP—for the past fifty years the party of conservatism—has never had much appeal to non-whites.

Similarly, no matter how devout and sincere is the religiosity of Joe Biden, or Pete Buttigieg, Kirsten Gillibrand, or Barack Obama, the Democratic party is the party of secularism. Even if conservative religious voters believe in the sincerity of individual Democrats, they will still shy away from the Democratic Party as the party of secularism.

I’d like to share Stutzman’s optimism, but no matter how devout they are, no Democrat is going to attract the support of conservative religious voters.

Leave a comment


  1. Agellius

     /  June 2, 2019

    A devout Catholic who favors abortion and gay marriage? Talk about renting religion.

  2. Patrick Halbrook

     /  June 4, 2019

    Another lesson from history is that when one group actually does change, its rivals can 1) be slow to notice it, or 2) simply refuse to admit it. A lot of my fellow Protestants think the Roman Catholic Church is no different than it was when Luther protested it, and they criticize it according to this assumption. (Agellius, I’m guessing you’ve encountered this.) And yet, a lot has changed over the past 500 years…

    Republicans have a vested interest in maintaining the reputation for being the only party that is faithful to Christianity, and it’s to the advantage of Democrats that the public continue to see Republicans as racists. In both cases, if and when a real change actually occurs, it seems to me unlikely that the other side will have much interest in acknowledging it.

    • Agellius

       /  June 4, 2019


      Yes, I have encountered that. Just the other day a relative said she might go to Mass except all you hear are fire-and-brimstone sermons. My response was, “Tell me what parish you hear fire-and-brimstone sermons at so I can go there!” She’s evidently thinking of something she saw in a movie or something, because in the modern Catholic Church “hell” is practically a dirty word.

      I gladly admit that a lot of Democrats are devoutly religious. I have known plenty. But politically liberal Christians have a definite tendency to treat religious dogma as something changeable with the times rather than fixed, and religion itself as a thing you expect to “get something out of” rather than submit yourself to. You won’t see a liberal Catholic suffering martyrdom rather than compromise the Church’s teachings on sexual morality. It’s in this sense that I say Democrats are not friendly to Christianity. They’re friendly only insofar as it can be conformed to their liberalism.

      Of course there are exceptions, just as there are a few non-racist Republicans. ; )

      It’s just as bad to subordinate religion to conservatism. But I think fewer conservatives do so since they have less reason to, being as how religion is one of the things they want to preserve intact rather than conform to modern sensibilities.

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