Christians and the Conventions
The Digital DNC
Last week, the Democrats hosted the first digital convention in American history. Driven by concerns over the coronavirus, the convention featured pre-recorded videos, digital delegations, a few smaller in-person meetings, and a synchronous Zoom national anthem.
Religion and patriotism took central roles during the prime time portions of this year’s DNC. It was just 8 years ago that the Democrats made a point to remove every mention of God from their official platform. At the time, the press secretary for the convention, Melanie Roussell, called the issue a faux-controversy and cited the numerous mentions of “faith,” “religion,” and “church” in the platform. These assurances did little to persuade conservative and religious voters that the Dems were interested in any recognizable form of Christianity.
After Donald Trump won evangelical voters by historic margins in 2016, the Democrats have decided to make a more overt appeal to religious voters in 2020. To that point, the Dems have changed their nomenclature but they haven’t changed their theology. In her column in The Atlantic this week, Emma Green chronicles the battle over the Bible Belt leading up to November. Between the protests over the death of George Floyd and calls for racial reconciliation, immigration reform, and an unrelenting focus on justice and inequality, the Dems are making a moral argument for the presidency, and many Christians are finding it both refreshing and appealing. But will it be enough to win their votes?
From a policy perspective, this seems like a longshot. The Dems did little to quell any of the political fears evangelicals may have about the way they will actually govern. The party remains committed to late-term abortion, the LGBTQ agenda, activist judges, and crackdowns on religious liberty. Cities run by Democrats are the ones that bear the scars of rioting and vandalism. Democratic leaders have yet to denounce Antifa or the demands of racial justice groups calling for defunding the police, creating discriminatory policies, paying reparations, and suspending the rule of law. At the convention, these topics left a lot to be desired for evangelicals who supported Trump in 2016.
The difference between the town halls and party meetings during the day and the patriotic messages of hope at night will be hard to reconcile for the two months between now and November. The Democratic Party has lurched to the left, as Bernie Sanders made clear in his speech A decade ago he was off the radar on the far left and now he’s in the mainstream. John Kasich’s assurance that Biden won’t turn left would be easier to believe if Biden hadn’t already given prominent leadership roles to Sanders and AOC.
The Biden Coalition
The Democrats are making a very different appeal to Christians. They are not going to accommodate Christians politically, they want to accommodate them personally. If you listen to Joe Biden and his coalition, this election isn’t about policy, it’s about one man’s character versus another’s. This cross-sectional approach pits Joe Biden’s soft and inclusive demeanor against Trump’s calloused lizard-brained approach. Michael Gerson called it the “romance of decency.” There’s no use denying it’s a strong selling point for Biden.
This is one of the reasons the pandemic is such a significant talking point. So far, Biden has given no indication that he would have handled the virus any better than Trump. In fact, after constantly blaming Trump for wrecking the economy, he said this weekend he would shut the country down again to follow the science. Biden’s supporters have criticized Trump for driving the economy into the ground as they propose $10 trillion in spending including a $2 trillion climate plan, $4 trillion in higher taxes, and over $2 trillion on additional healthcare spending. In the narrative, the economics are second to empathy. Ezra Klein argued this week that Biden “likes you” and Trump does not. Democratic strategists are beginning to understand that resentment was the most important factor in the 2016 election. Voters felt like Trump, not Clinton, would fight for their best interest. In 2020, they plan to flip the narrative.
Joe Biden wants to be seen as a coalition-builder. In the Wall Street Journal, Joseph Sternberg argued that Biden was approaching this election more like a hopeful Prime Minister than as a President. This metaphor captures what Biden sees as his appeal: he can build the coalition that will bring Democrats back into the White House and propel them into the future. He’s already announced that he’s a transition candidate running for one term. He’s picked a VP from the progressive left and also made every attempt to rekindle the nostalgia of the Obama years. It’s likely his cabinet and senior positions will be a mix of these two groups and the promise that Biden can hold things together.
The inescapable reality lurking behind the well-laid plans of the Biden campaign is that Trump is still the star of the show. The election will be a referendum on Trump, not Biden, and not his coalition for the future. In fact, if the Democratic primaries yield any lesson, it’s that voters aren’t thrilled with the “future” of the party. Sanders and Biden, both over 75, controlled the race, followed by Elizabeth Warren, 71, and Pete Buttigieg, who campaigned as the moderate in the group.
Insofar as voters are convinced that this is a referendum on the personalities of the candidates, Biden has a sizable advantage over Trump. Brayden Harrington’s story about Biden taking time to talk to him about overcoming his stuttering is powerful and memorable. Every person in America should want dozens of stories like that being told about our leaders. How can you not love that story?
The media has presented Biden as the honest, compassionate, empathetic father figure that America needs right now, but their strongest and most consistent argument doesn’t have anything to do with Joe Biden. The selling point is that he isn’t Donald Trump. This is their appeal to every voter, including evangelicals.
You couldn’t conceive of a more opposite political strategy than the one the GOP will employ against Biden and the Democrats in this week’s Republican National Convention. Whereas the Dems showed off their broad coalition, brought in outsiders, and limited Biden’s time in the spotlight, the Republicans are placing all their eggs in one basket. But the name on that basket, emblazoned in gold-gilded lettering, is Trump.
The President will speak every night of the convention. The goal is to reignite the rally momentum that won Trump the presidency in 2016, even without the gargantuan crowds. The spectacle plays to Trump’s strengths. He’s a media superstar, for better or worse, and he thrives as a television personality. In theory, this convention should highlight Trump’s appeal and showcase a fundamentally different vision of America and plan for the future.
Behind the power of personality, though, the Trump campaign will have to come to grips with why the President is losing if they want to move the needle. COVID is the top issue in the election, and while nothing is predictable in politics, it’s likely to be the defining issue all the way through to November. Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru have made the case that COVID highlights all of the president’s flaws and none of his strengths. If the polls are any indication, the American people agree.
Peggy Noonan leveled a strong critique against the approach at the DNC, “Missing was any hint of priorities or plans, of the meaning of the party or its intentions. They made the case against Donald Trump, and a case for Joe Biden as an essentially decent person. But they didn’t say what they’ll do. And this year that is key.” Criticizing the country without presenting any plan to fix it may play to Trump’s advantage. On this point, Biden faces an impossible bind. He needs to continue to campaign on possibility and that means putting forward as few policy proposals as possible. Add to that the fact that the policy proposals he has released are coming from the far left and that spells opportunity for Trump’s record and his vision for the future.
Biden is not as unpopular as Clinton, and if Trump wants to win again, he needs to get back to the basics, double down on his record, and remember the reasons he won in 2016. Rebuilding the economy is a great place to start. Trump needs to remind the American people of the way things were in January and assure them he can do it again. It wouldn’t hurt to enlist others to make these points for him. The President touts his success among minority communities; let’s hear them talk about the Trump economy. Trump promised he would “drain the swamp” and push back against the left. Trump’s approval was at an all-time high between the impeachment and the virus, the Left wing of the Democratic party is more radical now than it was in 2016, and the Durham investigation may yield results before the election.
Rep. Tim Scott will take the stage tonight and talk about the opportunity of the next four years under Donald Trump. He’ll paint a picture of America that looks similar to January of 2020, where unemployment for African Americans was at an all-time low and the markets were at an all-time high. Tom Cotton, Mike Pompeo, and Nikki Haley are all expected to double down on Trump’s China policy. The President will re-emphasize his accomplishments in office: standing up to China, renegotiating trade deals, killing Soleimani, bringing troops home, and resetting the Middle East, bringing jobs back to America, shoring up our southern border, rooting out the corruption in the administrative state, cutting regulations, and building an economy friendly to American workers.
Lowry and Ponnuru bring the talking points back to the core issue, the presidency is about personality as well as policy: “But a president is more than a collection of policy positions. The office has had, since the beginning, quasi-monarchical trappings, and the president is the American head of state. How the holder of the office conducts himself matters.” If Trump wins in November it will be two parts policy and three parts personality. He’s right about media bias, but he’s got a lot of work to do in the next 71 days.
The Bigger Picture
What does all of this mean? From a historical and sociological standpoint, Niall Ferguson has been making an interesting argument that historically speaking, populism is followed by progressivism. This certainly seems right in the U.S. today. The globalization of the Bush and Obama years combined with the financial crisis of 2008 sparked a backlash that gave rise to Trump, Trump’s populist uprising pushed the progressives even further left, the energy is running out of Trump’s core appeal and the progressives are poised to step in and enact the most radical agenda in American history. Younger voters seem to be driving this shift.
Christians bring other concerns to this election. Conversations about character and policy, abortion and oppression, tradeoffs, and the lesser of two evils will continue through November and onto the next election. I’ve covered those topics (religious conservatism, voting, pro-life implications, racial justice, and church resistance) in the past and will continue as we get closer to the election. But in the wake of the parties presenting their candidates and platforms, there are more fundamental questions we need to be asking. What have Christians done in the last four years for the cause of Christ? How are we loving our neighbors no matter who’s in the White House? How will we continue to do what’s right no matter what the government does?
These are not sleight of hand questions. Our commitments and our identities run deeper than politics. We fundamentally believe that the eternal mission church will be more successful than the agenda of any government. We believe that we have been told what justice is and how to pursue it. What goals do we have that will never be mentioned in a party platform and what are we doing to pursue them? It’s time to start thinking of Christian political engagement as perpendicular to American political parties. We cannot walk in perfect parallel with either party, however much we may agree with particular platforms.
In fact, it’s this distance from the political situation that gives us our greatest opportunity to influence the world for good. When we have our own agenda, we become a force for change rather than a force to co-opt. Whether it’s abortion, religious liberty, the LGBTQ agenda, racial reconciliation, economics, or anything else, our independence is stronger than our coalescence. Our votes and our advocacy should be to lend support to the issues and initiatives that fall under our agenda as Christians first and members of political parties second. We are dual citizens and while both are important, one citizenship is far more important than the other. In the midst of the conventions, it’s important to remember that highest loyalty is to the kingdom of God, to our Savior, and to his plan for the world.
Cole Feix is the founder and president of So We Speak. Follow him on Twitter, @cfeix7.