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Where faith divides: How do voters define justice in 2020?

For too many, faith serves as an invitation to close hearts and minds rather than reach out to the unfamiliar

Attendees pray at an Evangelicals for Trump rally in Miami on Jan. 3. White evangelical support for the president is expected to remain high because of his pro-life policies, but that depends on your definition of pro-life, Curtis writes.
Attendees pray at an Evangelicals for Trump rally in Miami on Jan. 3. White evangelical support for the president is expected to remain high because of his pro-life policies, but that depends on your definition of pro-life, Curtis writes. (Scott McIntyre/The Washington Post via Getty Images file photo)

In a recent phone conversation — a catch-up during COVID isolation — a longtime friend talked of a memory that seemed especially relevant these days. A fellow cradle Catholic, whom I met at a Catholic university, she recalled how startled she was on entering my childhood parish for my decades-ago wedding and finding herself surrounded by statues of the saints and Christ on the cross, familiar to her but so very different. The faces and hands and pierced feet were painted black, so unlike anything she had experienced growing up.

It stopped her, until she realized how appropriate the scene was. Of course, these representations would be reimagined in the image of those who gathered and worshipped in this particular holy place, located in the heart of West Baltimore.

It opened her eyes and, at that moment, expanded her worldview. The incident was one among many that inched our friendship toward a richer, more fulfilling space, where we could see the world and its gifts, as well as its inequities, through one another’s eyes.

I thought of that friendship, its fissures illuminated and bonds strengthened in a church pew, in the context of a 2020 election that reveals a faith divide as deep as ever in America, as stark as black and white, but with many shades of gray.

Where faith diverges

For too many who would identify as persons of faith, the words of the holy books — with encouragement from leaders who profess to have all the answers — serve as invitations to close hearts and minds rather than reach out to the unfamiliar.

Eliminating diversity programs that teach a complete and complex American history to add more all-American voices — as the Trump administration insists on doing — is akin to covering your eyes and ears to eliminate inconvenient reality while your house crumbles around you. That vision of America, moving forward without hearing voices from communities of color, without looking back to examine the origins of their discontent, leaves no room for the kind of evolving relationship that I share with my friend.

But for some, standing in a hardened hands-over-ears truth is easier than starting conversations with those whose belief systems and lived experiences offer a different, often challenging, point of view. It means ignoring those marching in the streets outside the doors of churches, synagogues and mosques, crying out for justice.

And that’s the pity.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously chided his fellow Christian pastors, as well as many of their congregants, for being more devoted to order than to justice. His words could be spoken today, when a narrow definition of faith and values allows many to support a president who is making demonization of “the other” — the stranger, the poor and the immigrant — a campaign cornerstone.

We hear much about President Donald Trump’s strong support among the majority of white evangelicals, not as much about the Black pastors and preachers and their allies of every race, whose views of the creator’s plan raise up a commitment to racial and economic justice.

This election cycle, I expect the president’s numbers among white evangelicals to stay high, driven by the administration’s pro-life policies and championing of what it calls “religious freedom” issues, which often translate into hostility toward the inclusion of LGBTQ Americans and their right to serve in the military or get equal access to health treatments.

Define pro-life more inclusively, as many other Christians, particularly those of color, do, and you add to the mix leaders who hold both major political parties to account when it comes to serving Americans who are poor or in need, about whom much is written in Scripture.

‘Change the narrative’

As a continuation of its “National Call for Moral Revival,” the Poor People’s Campaign plans a “Moral Monday on Voter Power” on Sept. 14, an online training on voter protection and participation. A report released by the campaign found that just a small increase in the number of poor and low-income voters could change the political landscape. Campaign co-chair Rev. William J. Barber II has expressed frustration that the issues that affect low-income and poor Americans are often bypassed in campaign rhetoric and are not seen as moral imperatives, even as more families slip into economic uncertainty. The campaign is working to “change the narrative,” Barber told me this week, centering on “how you treat the poor and the immigrant and the worker and the children who are alive, and women at the margins.” Both presidential candidates have been invited to share their agenda at the Monday event. Joe Biden is scheduled to speak for 10 minutes; Trump, Barber said, has not responded.

Biden has said that the lessons of his own faith motivate him, and he would be the second Catholic president, if elected. But though the Catholic vote is not a monolith, it, too, follows familiar patterns, with voters choosing according to party loyalty, and generally divided by race. In 2016, white Catholics leaned Republican and Catholics of color favored Democrats.

John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president, famously said in a 1960 speech to fearful Protestant ministers: “I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.”

In 2020, at the Republican National Convention, former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz praised Trump, and called Biden “Catholic in name only” for his support of the Democratic Party’s pro-choice platform, questioning the nominee’s faith and his heart in a way I was taught never to do.

At the Democratic convention, Sister Simone Campbell, the executive director of NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice and leader of “Nuns on the Bus,” delivered a prayer. On a recent call for “Catholics for Biden,” she said, “Single issue has never been our faith,” and as an example pointed to the “equally sacred priorities” list from Pope Francis, which proposes that “faith does not fit into political parties neatly.” In June, the pope said: “We cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life.”

In a statement announcing an open letter from national Catholic social justice leaders, scholars and several retired officials from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, released on Wednesday by Faith in Public Life Action, Campbell said: “I vote to protect people in poverty, the elderly and migrants. I vote to reject racism in all of its forms. Donald Trump acts far outside these norms.”

Well, he is the president who defends white vigilantes attacking protesters, as long as they support him, and calls anti-racist training “anti-American propaganda.”

So how does one “keep the faith”?

This week, the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States released “Contemplation and Political Action,” not a voting guide, but rather a spiritual document, it said. “Sometimes in discernment, you try on the position that is opposite to your own,” explained one of its authors in America magazine. “You listen to the other side, not just with your pad and pencil, ready to refute it, but to ask yourself why someone might hold this position.” Sounds just like a lesson from the Jesuits who taught me and my friend well.

But in a polarized country, that may be too much to ask, even for true believers.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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