Faith and politics: Your guide to the Democratic presidential debates

Illustration by Peter Freeby.

Illustration by Peter Freeby.

The Democratic Party is not usually known for its alliances with faith communities, but only 20 percent of this year’s candidates running for president do not claim a religious affiliation.

Seven are Catholics, and nine are Protestant Christians, ranging from Baptist to United Church of Christ to Episcopalian and more. A few standouts are Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), a Vaishnava Hindu, and Marianne Williamson, a Jewish New Age guru who lectures and writes about her spirituality.

In the 2018 midterms, 79 percent of Jewish voters, 50 percent of Catholic voters, 42 percent of Protestant voters and 73 percent of voters with other faiths (Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and more) supported Democrats, according to Pew research. The largest shift from the 2014 midterms was with Catholic voters, with 10 percent more voting Democrat in 2018.

After criticism that Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016 didn’t do enough to reach faith groups, and talk of a rising “religious left” through leaders like Pete Buttigieg, the Democratic Party hired Rev. Derrick Harkins, a senior vice president at Union Seminary in New York, to lead their outreach to faith communities.

We rounded up profiles of each 2020 candidate to show their faith backgrounds and present practices, and how their faith sees their chosen policy issues. For example, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (D-VT) socialist ideas could be informed by the Jewish socialist thought that emerged post-WWII, as rabbinic scholar Yehiel Poupko wrote for Christianity Today.

John Hickenlooper, former governor of Colorado and a Quaker, is campaigning for bipartisan approaches to gun control. That’s in line with the Quaker tradition of non-violence and advocating for safer gun regulation. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) agenda to lower student loan debt is echoed by her Methodist denomination, which disperses millions of dollars in student loans and scholarships to Methodist college students. And Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur who wants to implement a universal basic income, has said UBI draws from religious traditions like the gospels. His Reformed Church in America encourages its members to speak out in political discussions about income inequality.

The first Democratic presidential primary debate takes place in Miami at 9 p.m. EST on June 26. You can watch it on NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo.

The following research was compiled by Princess Jones, Meagan Clark and Micah Danney.

Michael Bennet

Not affiliated

  • Age: 54

  • State: Colorado

  • Raised by Jewish mother and Christian father. Grandparents were Jewish and imprisoned in a Warsaw ghetto. Married by an Episcopal priest but not part of a congregation.

  •  “I was raised with two different heritages, one was Jewish, and one was Christian,” Bennet told the Rocky Mountain News. “I am proud that both heritages are part of me, and I believe in God.”

  • Main policy issues: modernizing the economy to fit technological innovation, increasing infrastructure spending 

  • Religion’s stance: n/a

Joe Biden

Catholic

  • Age: 76

  • State: Delaware

  • Raised Catholic and practicing. 

  • said that Pope Francis is “the embodiment of the Catholic social doctrine that I was raised with, the idea that everyone is entitled to dignity, that the poor should be given special preference, that you have an obligation to reach out and be inclusive.” 

  • Main policy issues: protecting jobs for working class people 

  • Religion’s stance: No clear stance, but Catholicism has a long tradition of special concern for the poor, ensuring just wages for work, and the perils of unemployment on human dignity.


         

Cory Booker 

Baptist

  • Age: 50 

  • State: New Jersey

  • Raised in African Methodist Episcopal Church, but now he is a member of a National Baptist (a denomination) church in Newark. 

  • “The life of Jesus is very impactful to me and very important to me,” Booked told RNS. “He lived a life committed to dealing with issues of the poor and the sick. The folks that other folks disregard, disrespect or often oppress. He lived this life of radical love that is a standard that I fail to reach every single day, but that really motivates me in what I do.”

  • Main policy issues: criminal justice reform, uniting the country

  • Religion’s stance: National Baptist has expressed appreciation for former Pres. Obama’s advocacy for justice for people of all races and “improving America’s image in the global community”, though they do not support same-sex marriage.

Steve Bullock 

Not affiliated

  • Age: 53 

  • State: Montana

  • Bullock doesn’t talk about his faith and it’s not clear if he’s a practicing Catholic, though some polls categorize him as Catholic.

  • Main issues: campaign finance reform, early childhood education as a way of reducing income inequality

  • Religion’s stance: n/a

Pete Buttigieg 

Episcopalian

  • Age: 37 

  • State: Indiana

  • Raised in church with a very religious mother.

  • Buttigieg has said on CNN that his feeling "is that 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."

  • Main issues: curbing climate change, expanding economic opportunity

  • Religion’s stance: The Episcopal Church values caring for the environment, helping those most impacted by climate change, and living simply to reduce carbon footprints. They welcome same-sex marriages like Buttigieg’s, and their anti-poverty efforts are often aimed at racial reconcilation. 

Julian Castro 

Catholic

  • Age: 44 

  • State: Texas

  • Announced his campaign across from Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in San Antonio, where he was baptized and attended with his family, in the city’s Mexican-American neighborhood.

  • He told RNS: “I think there is a tendency to associate faith with only the right, with only conservatives... and there are many progressives who are also people of faith that I wish that more attention were spent on, on how they see the world as well.”

  • Main issues: universal kindergarten, medicare for all, immigration reform

  • Religion’s stance: Providing healthcare and free childcare as a way to help low-income parents work fits into Catholicism’s tradition of special care for the poor and economic justice, though the Catholic Church doesn’t take a stance on specific political issues like healthcare reform. The Catholic Church teaches that nations should welcome foreigners while protecting their borders, and that economically stronger nations have more of a duty to allow migrants in need of work into their countries.

Bill de Blasio 

Not affiliated

  • Age: 58 

  • Raised Catholic and not practicing, but he often adopts religious language like “amen” and describes himself as spiritual but not religious.

  • “Although my mother was raised a Catholic, she did not bring me up in the Church,” he said on Reddit. “I considered myself a spiritual person but unaffiliated, and I was definitely very influenced by the liberation theology movement in Latin America. And BOY am I a fan of Pope Francis!”

  • Main issues: universal kindergarten, lowering crime

  • Religion’s stance: De Blasio is influenced by Catholic liberation theology, which teaches acting against poverty and greed, part of unjust societies. His universal pre-kindergarten program in New York was aimed at helping low-income communities.  

John Delaney 

Catholic

  • Age: 56 

  • State: Maryland

  • "A lot of us get our values from our faith," Delaney told the Hill, adding that his “social justice orientation” comes from his Catholic faith “to some extent.” “But I don't think my church, and my church policies and doctrines, should decide public policy in this country."

  • Main issues: unity, aims to be bipartisan and universal healthcare

  • Religion’s stance: Though there’s no official Catholic teaching on specific policies like universal healthcare, the church teaches special concern for the poor and that every person has the right to access adequate healthcare based on their dignity as a creation of God. 

 

Tulsi Gabbard

Hindu (Vaishnava)

  • Age: 38 

  • State: Hawaii

  • Gabbard told the New Yorker that she grew up learning Vaishnava Hinduism, a main denomination of Hinduism and one that considers the preserver god Vishnu (also his reincarnation Krishna) as the Supreme God. 

  • “After my 2012 election, I made a personal decision to take my congressional oath of office on the supreme yoga/Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, where Krishna’s teachings have provided wisdom and spiritual solace to me throughout my life, including when I was serving our country in the Middle East during the Iraq war,” Gabbard wrote for RNS.

  • Main issues: as a veteran herself, opposition to American military inventions overseas like in Syria

  • Religion’s stance: Vaishnava is often known for the Bhakti movement, an 8th-17th century social reform movement known for emphasizing individual paths to spirituality and attempting to break caste distinctions. 

 

Kirsten Gillibrand

Catholic

  • Age: 52 

  • Raised Catholic and identifies as Catholic but now attends different non-Catholic Christian churches 

  • State: New York

  • "I have very strong faith that guides me. But I think the Catholic Church can be wrong on many things. And I don't agree with their views on reproductive rights. I think they're wrong on those three issues [all-male priesthood, LGBTQ equality, and reproductive rights]. And I don't think they're supported by the Gospel or the Bible in any way. I just — I don't see it, and I go to two Bible studies a week. I take my faith really seriously." she told NPR

  • Main issues: women’s equality

  • Religion’s stance: The Catholic Church teaches against using contraception, abortion, same-sex sexual relationships and doesn’t allow female priests.

 

Kamala Harris 

Baptist

  • Age: 54 

  • State: California

  • Born to a Jamaican-American dad and Indian-American mom, Harris told the Los Angeles Times she grew up attending a black Baptist church and visiting a Hindu temple.

  • Harris also wrote in her memoir about attending a Church of God church in Oakland: “My earliest memories of the teachings of the Bible were of a loving God, a God who asked us to ‘speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves’ and to ‘defend the rights of the poor and the needy.’ This is where I learned that ‘faith’ is a verb; I believe we must live our faith in action.”

  • Main issues: tax cuts for the middle class, strengthening civil rights

  • Religion’s stance: Historically, both Church of God and African-American Baptist churches have emphasized racial and economic equality. 

 

John HickenLooper 

Quaker

  • Age: 67 

  • State: Colorado

  • Hickenlooper grew up with a mother who was Quaker and volunteered with the American Friends Service Committee. 

  • “My great-grandparents were Quakers. And I tried to take that ethic into business. Quaker honesty, Quaker mindfulness, that effort to build community across differences. ... I get that from my Philly background,” he told the Inquirer.

  • Main issues: bipartisan approaches to gun control, medicaid and gay rights

  • Religion’s stance: There is no central authority to speak for the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), but many of their communities are open to LGBTQ couples. As pacifists, Quakers have historically advocated for banning gun ownership outright or tighter gun control. They have no particular beliefs about healthcare.

  

Jay Inslee 

Not Affiliated

  • Age: 68 

  • State: Washington

  • Main issues: curbing climate change

  • Religion’s stance: n/a 

 

Amy Klobuchar

United Church of Christ

  • Age: 59 

  • State: Minnesota

  • Klobuchar is married to a Catholic and a member of the United Church of Christ, a Protestant denomination that teaches individuals (called congregationalists) have full authority to interpret the Bible for themselves. Former Pres. Obama belonged to the same denomination.

  • “The Senate prayer breakfast is a really important thing. It happens once a week, no one ever knows what people talk about. It is a mix. … Liberals go there — I promise — conservatives go there,” Klobuchar said on CNN.

  • She has also talked about her dad recovered from alcoholism by coming to faith and gaining a community of supporters.

  • Main issues: combatting drug addiction and the opioid crisis

  • Religion’s stance: Most Christian denominations teach that no one is beyond redemption, and Jesus gives grace to everyone, including drug addicts, to come to God and change. 

Wayne Messam

Non-denominational Christian

  • Age: 44 

  • State: Florida

  • Messam attends church at The Fountain of New Life in Miami Gardens. The church encourages attendees to wear whatever clothes they’re most comfortable in, and services feature a “biblically-centered message that's always honest and challenging, empowering you to apply Jesus' words to your daily life.”

  • Main issues: gun control, living wage and relieving student loan debt

  • Religion’s stance: Messam’s congregation does not take a public stance on these issues.


Seth Moulton 

United Church of Christ

  • Age: 40 

  • Emphasizes his four tours in Iraq as a Marine

  • Moulton was raised by a Catholic father and Protestant mother

  • While he attends a church affiliated with the historically liberal United Church of Christ, Moulton says he’s not “super-religious,” according to Politico. UCC is a Protestant denomination that teaches individuals (called congregationalists) have full authority to interpret the Bible for themselves. Former Pres. Obama belonged to the same denomination.

  • Moulton has also been influenced by Harvard’s Reverend Peter Gomes, a black and gay Republican who participated in Reagan and Bush inaugurations, and he used to attend the Methodist church in Texas that George W. Bush attended.

  • Main issues: wants new approach to foreign policy, national security and defense

  • Religion’s stance: The UCC preaches a strong responsibility to share the world’s resources equally and has opposed some free trade agreements out of concern for workers’ rights. They oppose the U.S. military using armed drones and want to end Israeli occupation of territories claimed by Palestine, but are not outspoken about many aspects of national security.

 

Beto O’Rourke

Catholic

  • Age: 46 

  • State: Texas

  • "For me, that was a religious experience," he told the Houston Chronicle. "I happen to have been raised Catholic, and what I take away from my religion is you do your best to love everyone, to be good to everyone."

  • Main issues: immigration reform, legalizing marijuana, and access to hospitals in rural areas

  • Religion’s stance: The Catholic Church teaches that nations should welcome foreigners while protecting their borders, and that economically stronger nations have more of a duty to allow migrants in need of work into their countries. The Church also has a long tradition of bringing healthcare to remote places but is opposed to legalizing recreational drugs like marijiuana.

 

Tim Ryan 

Catholic

  • Age: 45

  • Attended Catholic school and grew up in a Catholic home

  • Has shifted his stance from pro-life to pro-abortion, and from stronger gun rights to tighter gun control 

  • “My faith is important to me, and like many Catholics I strive to adhere to its principles, especially one of the essential and highest teachings of ‘judge not, lest ye be judged,’” Ryan wrote in an op-ed about changing his stance on abortion.

  • Main issues: renegotiating trade deals, strengthening unions and worker protections

  • Religion’s stance: The Catholic Church is officially and unconditionally pro-life, and with a high view of the worker and dignity of labor, has a history of supporting workers’ rights and training workers to organize.

 

Bernie Sanders

Jewish (secular)

  • Age:  77

  • State: Vermont

  • “I am very proud to be Jewish, and being Jewish is so much of what I am. Look, my father’s family was wiped out by Hitler in the Holocaust. I know about what crazy and radical and extremist politics mean. I learned that lesson as a tiny, tiny child when my mother would take me shopping and we would see people working in stores who had numbers on their arms because they were in Hitler’s concentration camps. I am very proud of being Jewish, and that is an essential part of who I am as a human being.

  • Main issues: medicare for all, free college and high taxes for the wealthy 

  • Religion’s stance: Sanders’ Jewish identity is less religious and more historical, but nonetheless he’s influenced by religious ideas. Jewish socialist thought emerged post-WWII, informed by the Jewish mitzvot or duty to relieve human suffering and the belief that socialism would help Jews assimilate into a Christian Europe and America. 

 

Joe Sestak

Catholic

  • Age: 67

  • State: Pennsylvania

  • He’s spoken against Catholic dogma on LGBT issues and abortion, causing a Catholic school to rescind an invitation for Sestak to speak there.

  • He doesn’t talk about his faith much in public.

  • Main issues: combating climate change

  • Religion’s stance: In 2015, Pope Francis said climate change science is clear and said the Church has a moral duty to combat it to protect the Earth and everyone on it.

     

Eric Swalwell 

Not affiliated

  • Age: 38 

  • State: California

  • Swalwell hasn’t said much about his faith publicly. He once referenced a popular Hasidic song while speaking to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein during a hearing on the Mueller investigation. Swalwell called the investigation a “very narrow bridge,” and encouraged Rosenstein to stay the course.

  • “It’s a quote from Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. Occasionally, it comes to mind.”

  • Main issues: gun control, Medicare for all, expanded access to education 

  • Religion’s stance: n/a

 

Elizebeth Warren

Methodist

  • Age: 69 

  • State: Massachusetts

  • Warren was raised Methodist and has said she taught fifth-grade Sunday school. She emphasizes biblical teachings about caring for others.

  • “My favorite Bible verse includes two lessons that guide me every day: There is value in every single human being, and every one of us is called to action,” Warren told CNN.

  • Main issues: student-debt relief, higher-education reform, universal child care

  • Religion’s stance: The Methodist church has been outspoken about the toll of heavy student loan debt and has its own student loan program for Methodist college students that loans about $2 million a year and provides $3 million in scholarships. Like other churches, many Methodist churches run child care programs open to the public at reduced costs.

 

Marianne Williamson

Jewish (New Age)

  • Age: 66 

  • State: California

  • Williamson is a prominent speaker and author on spirituality, with a regular guest spot on the Oprah Winfrey OWN Network’s “SuperSoulSunday.” She identifies as Jewish and attends synagogue for Jewish High Holidays, and also calls herself a convert to the thinking and belief system of Jesus. She insists, however, that she has never considered converting to Christianity. She is often described as a New Age guru and influenced by teaching called A Course in Miracles.

  • “My religion is Judaism, my spirituality is universal.”

  • Main issues: income inequality, Medicare for all, slavery reparations

  • Religion’s stance: A key tenet of Williamson’s spirituality is that all people are equal and extensions of God. 

 

Andrew Yang

Christian, Reformed Church in America

  • Age: 44 

  • State: New York

  • Yang attends the Reformed Church of New Paltz. He wrote on his campaign website that he sought biblical insights about universal basic income from his pastor, Mark Mast. Yang cites Mast’s written response, in which Mast links the policy with Jesus’ command to love thy neighbor.

  • “The support for Universal Basic Income spans centuries, political parties, religious traditions — from Stephen Hawking to Milton Friedman to Martin Luther King Jr., all the way back to the gospels. ... Let’s bring abundance to our fellow countrymen and women and remind them that a more just world is possible.”

  • Main issues: universal basic income, Medicare for all, human-centered capitalism

  • Religion’s stance: The RCA is concerned with income inequality and encourages its members to take this concern into political discussions.