Religion, Spirituality, and the 2020 Election
By Wade Lee Hudson
Several Democratic candidates and some pundits have injected promising spiritual commentary into the 2020 presidential primary campaign. Some have even gone beyond discussion of public policy to address how ordinary Americans conduct their daily lives. Trump’s example has certainly opened the door for this conversation. However, to the best of my knowledge, none of those candidates and pundits have thus far affirmed the need for an explicit, intentional commitment to mutual support for self-improvement.
The most popular Google search term during the second round of debates was “Marianne Williamson.” This surge of interest in the New Age author was prompted by her statement:
This is part of the dark underbelly of American society: the racism, the bigotry and the entire conversation that we’re having here tonight. If you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country, then I’m afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days.
We’ve never dealt with a figure like this in American history before. This man, our president, is not just a politician; he’s a phenomenon. And an insider political game will not be able to defeat it.… The only thing that will defeat him is if we have a phenomenon of equal force, and that phenomenon is a moral uprising of the American people.
This statement inspired New York Times columnist David Brooks to post an op-ed titled “Marianne Williamson Knows How to Beat Trump.” Prior to quoting Williamson’s statement, he wrote, “It is no accident that the Democratic candidate with the best grasp of this election is the one running a spiritual crusade, not an economic redistribution effort. Many of her ideas are wackadoodle, but Marianne Williamson is right about this.” He also addressed personal, social, and cultural issues:
None of us want congenital liars in our homes or our workplaces…. Human difference makes life richer and more interesting. We treasure members of all races and faiths for what they bring to the mosaic…. We want to be around people with good hearts, who feel for those who are suffering, who are faithful friends, whose daily lives are marked by kindness.
And referring to Trump’s mean-spirited values, he concluded, “You can’t beat a values revolution with a policy proposal.” Rather, he echoed Williamson’s call how a “moral uprising” with his call for “an uprising of decency.”
On the Aug 2 Newshour, Brooks pursued the same argument:
And so they need to talk about values, and they need to tie it to policies, but say, I’m for kindness, I’m for diversity, I’m for honesty. And the only person who seems to get that is Marianne Williamson, and because she’s not just trying to run a purely economic campaign. She at least gets it…. I think what she says about that and what she says in the debates was exactly right.
On the program, Mark Shields replied:
I do differ from David. I think there is a strong spiritual, almost religious chord to the Democratic story. I mean, there is no abolitionist movement in this country without religion. There is no anti-war movement without religion in its ranks. There is no civil rights movement…. Listen to Elizabeth Warren’s speech at the PUSH conference. It was highly religious. It was on Matthew 23, and it was quite spiritual.
However, Warren’s appeal to religion is rooted in the Social Gospel, which has been a Protestant movement that applied Christian ethics to social problems, especially economic injustice. This heavy focus on economics reinforces the materialism that Brooks criticizes. In fact, as summarized in Vox.com’s piece, “Is it me or is Marianne Williamson making a lot of sense?” Williamson’s focus is also political and economic, not personal and cultural issues that deal with daily life. It seems Brooks is trying to co-opt Williamson into his advocacy for a cultural revolution (which stops short of calling for deep personal transformation).
Pete Buttegieg’s religion also is rooted in the materialistic Social Gospel. None of the 27 issues discussed on his website address personal or spiritual change. In town halls and interviews, he does discuss his spirituality. He told Father Edward Beck that he believes “Scripture is about protecting the stranger, and the prisoner, and the poor person, and that idea of welcome. That’s what I get in the Gospel when I’m in church.” Concerning his own spiritual development, he talked about “finding the humility to realize that there were forms of truth that I was not going to be accessing through reason [which] kind of prompted me to look for more..” And he appreciates how “ritual organized prayer makes sense because it is a way to tune my own heart to what is right.” However, he also does not discuss the need for self-improvement.
The exception to this pattern is Cory Booker. In “Can I Get a Hug?” Jonathan Van Meter quotes Booker as saying “I think we’re becoming a society where people, especially men, can’t be vulnerable. I don’t hide my emotions. I just don’t,” and reports:
He talks about love and kindness and compassion and empathy all the time. He calls America “a physical manifestation of a larger conspiracy of love.” …In a potentially vast field of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, [he] stands out for having said: “I love you, Donald Trump,” because, well, that’s what Jesus would do…. My faith tradition is love your enemies. It’s not complicated for me, if I aspire to be who I say I am. I am a Christian American. Literally written in the ideals of my faith is to love those who hate you.” … He noted he had just come from a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting where he had lifted a line from his stump speech: “Before you tell me about your religion, first show it to me in how you treat other people.”
Booker’s fluency with faith isn’t restricted to Christianity. His Facebook feed includes mentions of the Buddha, he referenced the Hindu god Shiva in a recent interview, and at Oxford in the 1990s he chaired the L’Chaim Society…. An image of Mahatma Gandhi [is[ one of the few adornments on his office walls. “I’ve studied Torah for years. Hinduism I’ve studied a lot. Islam, I’ve studied some, and I’ve been enriched by my study. But, for me, the values of my life are guided by my belief in the Bible and in Jesus.”
In “Cory Booker could be a candidate for the ‘religious left,” the Religion News Service reported that Booker says that every morning he prays on his knees and then meditates. Republican Sen. John Thune is reportedly a member of his Bible study (along with New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand). And in ‘I’m calling for a revival of grace in this country’ the same news service quotes Booker:
Faith without works is dead…. I imagine God has a place in heaven for…people that don’t believe in God but live every day in accordance to the precepts that I try to live up to…. I’m calling for a revival of grace in this country. I speak very passionately for the need to love each other. I used this line in a hearing just now: “Patriotism is love of country, and you can’t love your country unless you love your fellow countrymen and women.”
In his closing speech at the second debate, Booker said:
We know who Donald Trump is, but in this election, the question is who are we as a people? We have serious problems in America. We have deep wounds and seriously deeply rooted challenges. We desperately need to heal as a nation and move forward. Because we know in this country that our fates are united, that we have a common destiny. The call of this election is the call to unite in common cause and common purpose.
The Booker campaign website reports that while in college he worked as a peer crisis counselor and after graduating from law school he moved into a low-income neighborhood, where he still lives, and “teamed up with the other tenants to take on a slumlord accused of intentional neglect of the property and won.” The site declares:
- The lines that divide us are nowhere near as strong as the ties that bind us.
- Our movement [aims] to unite people and build a more fair and just country.
- Bringing people together to do things that others thought were impossible.
- He believes that when we join together and work together, we will rise together.
- The answer to our common pain is to reignite our sense of common purpose to build a more fair and just nation for everyone.
Those statements at the debate and on the website do not explicitly affirm his spiritual convictions, but they do imply them. Together with his affirmations on the campaign trail, they make him an authentic voice for personal and spiritual growth that involves honest self-examination and a commitment to self-improvement. He’s not perfect and no savior, but a promising development nevertheless.