Why do we shy away from talking about a politician's religion?

US Vice President Joe Biden during a meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington on February 25, 2009.. The mark on Mr Biden's head is from Christian worship services ashes from the first day of Lent. AFP
US Vice President Joe Biden during a meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington on February 25, 2009.. The mark on Mr Biden's head is from Christian worship services ashes from the first day of Lent. AFP

Of the many things we have learnt about Joe Biden over his decades in politics, one of the most important is that the Democratic candidate for US president is serious about his Roman Catholic religion. There was no attempt to deflect from that at last week’s Democratic Party convention.

Speaker after speaker, including the former Republican governor John Kasich and both Michelle and Barack Obama, referred to Mr Biden's faith as the cornerstone of his character. Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi said: “Joe Biden’s faith in God gives him the strength to lead.”

In the view of the US religion writer Jack Jenkins, “the convention itself was unusually spiritual. Speakers, organisers and delegates appealed to a conciliatory, inspirational form of religion with a fervency not seen at any party convention in recent memory – Republican or Democratic.” The online events included a “Believers for Biden” party, an interfaith council and a Muslim delegates’ assembly.

Some overt display of piety is almost compulsory for politicians in the US. But this was different. This was not just ticking the box for public consumption. As Senator Chris Coons put it, “For Joe, faith isn’t a prop or a political tool. Joe knows the power of prayer, and I’ve seen him in moments of joy and triumph, of loss and despair, turn to God for strength.”

The convention, and Mr Biden’s campaign, are putting religion in the public square in an unabashed way that has become rare in many Western countries. This reticence stems from various factors, ranging from a sense that faith is a personal matter best not addressed at length in public, to an overdeveloped notion of separation of church and state that has – in the case of France, for example – led to outright hostility to religion and the state-sponsored persecution of schoolchildren who want to wear headscarves or crucifixes.

The overall attitude was most famously summed up by Alastair Campbell, spin doctor to then UK prime minister Tony Blair, when he told an interviewer, “We don’t do God.” Years later, in 2008, Mr Blair explained his reasoning for not doing so: that others may assume that people of faith are trying to impose their beliefs on others, and that those who talk openly about their religious convictions “may be considered weird”.

Mr Blair was, sad to say, not wrong to warn about that. Over the last 20 years, the small but highly influential band of “New Atheists”, such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens, have openly sneered at the religious. Mr Dawkins, for instance, once tweeted that “30 per cent of Australians say they have no religion. It’s what any intelligent person would say". That was a mild example, but the dismissal of vast swathes of humanity as “unintelligent” is typical of this group.

The reality, unless you believe most people are stupid, is quite different. In the latest survey by the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project, the worldwide percentage who identified as “unaffiliated” with any religion or belief system was a mere 16.4 percent – a proportion that is predicted to go down to just over 13 per cent by 2050. The numbers of Christians and Muslims, meanwhile, are expected to soar, with the two religions coming close to parity in terms of their adherents by mid-century. Mr Dawkins’s characterisation also sits oddly with most of human history, for until the 20th century it was difficult to think of any society in which religion did not enjoy a prominent position.

Sikh devotees offer prayers in front of the Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh holy book) on the occasion of the Guru Nanak Dev's marriage anniversary, at the Gurudwara Sri Dehra Sahib in Batala, some 45 km north-east of Amritsar on August 25, 2020. / AFP / NARINDER NANU
Polling shows that the world is likely to become a more religious place by 2050. AFP

A reticence to allow religion in the public square has led to outright hostility to it in places like France

Those who wish to banish religion to the margins have focused on extremist, and frequently deviant, versions of faiths. They ignore the history of great traditions of tolerance among believers, such as the glorious and intellectually enriching multireligious diversity of the great Islamic empires. They also ignore the modern heroes who continue this struggle, from Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, organiser of the Cordoba Initiative in New York, to the Muslim World League Secretary-General Mohammed bin Abdul Karim Al Issa, who was recently awarded the first-ever Combat Anti-Semitism Award in the US.

In his address at the award ceremony, which was attended by the US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, Dr Al Issa stated the need for “outreach to all of Allah’s children — Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and others. For our battle against intolerance and division is the same".

We need to hear more about this, and about the huge amount of work that religious charities are doing around the world – often in the fields of health care and education – that receives next to no coverage in international media.

When Martin Luther King, Jr and Jesse Jackson are discussed in American discourse, it often seems as though they have been shorn of their priesthoods; they were “just” civil rights leaders. But as Mr Blair said in his 2008 speech, "If you are someone 'of faith', it is the focal point of belief in your life. There is no conceivable way that it wouldn't affect your politics." So their status as ordained ministers was not incidental. They were inspirational leaders because of their belief.

This brings us back to Mr Biden, who without the sustenance offered by his faith may have been incapacitated by grief after the deaths of his first wife and daughter in 1972 and his son Beau in 2015. In his view, it was his trust in God that saved him, and it is through that faith that he has enlarged that capacity for empathy that so many admire in him.

The emphasis on his religion brings no harshness to Mr Biden's campaign, excludes no one and declares no one under any obligation to live according to highly prescriptive or proscriptive rules. Instead, it is inclusive, compassionate, loving and forgiving. Religion can bring a moral centre to a campaign whose candidate promises healing. For that, America, and the rest of the world, should be grateful.

Sholto Byrnes is a commentator and consultant in Kuala Lumpur and a corresponding fellow of the Erasmus Forum

Updated: August 25, 2020 06:09 PM

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