The most recent Democratic debate lasted three hours and, according to one transcript I checked, exceeded 30,000 words.
Almost none of them were about religion.
God came up only in throwaway phrases. “God bless Kamala,” said Cory Booker, praising Kamala Harris for discussing reproductive rights. Joe Biden scattered “for God’s sake” and “God forbid” like croutons on his word salads. Tulsi Gabbard, explaining the meaning of “aloha,” noted that “we’re all God’s children.”
When Booker fleetingly mentioned his participation in a bipartisan Bible study group, I snapped to attention. That was the closest the debate came to acknowledging the importance of faith in many people’s lives.
While the percentage of Americans who don’t identify with any religion has grown significantly over the past decade — to 26% from 17%, according to a sweeping survey by the Pew Research Center — it’s still the case that more than half of Americans say that they pray daily and 45% attend religious services at least once a month.
But you wouldn’t know it to tune into the Democratic primary.
If many Republican candidates travel far out of their way, toward the bogs of histrionics and hypocrisy, to recruit the Almighty into electoral service, many Democrats steer clear of religion. That’s partly understandable, even admirable: In light of the rightful separation of church and state, they don’t want to be seen as spotlighting or peddling any one creed.
But it’s not necessary, and it’s not smart.
President Donald Trump and his Republican allies are poised to paint Democrats as unhinged lefties not only in terms of health care and taxes but also in terms of cultural issues, including abortion and LGBTQ rights.
And some Democratic presidential candidates are already playing into their hands. Beto O’Rourke, for example, recently seemed to call for religious groups that don’t support marriage equality to lose their tax-exempt status, an outlier position that the president immediately seized on and railed against. (O’Rourke’s aides later insisted that he was misunderstood.)
Democrats would make it harder for Trump to vilify them as enemies of so-called traditional values if they talked a bit more about spirituality and religion — including, if applicable, their own.
That might not matter in the bluest parts of the bluest states, said Mike McCurry, a Democratic consultant who served as the White House press secretary under President Bill Clinton and now teaches at the Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington. But, he added, “I sure as hell believe that it would work in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, and that’s what it’s all going to come down to.”
The church-state divide shouldn’t dissuade the candidates, McCurry told me. “That’s such a misreading of what the political DNA of America is,” he said. “We have had religion woven into our political structures and our political debate from the very beginning.”
Besides, he added, a Democrat who speaks persuasively about religion has a potentially huge tactical advantage: “Think ahead to the general election. If you’re talking about faith in an authentic, genuine way, imagine the contrast if you’re running against Donald Trump, who has absolutely none of that vocabulary.” While the president may have the farthest reaches of the religious right locked down, many Americans of faith are appalled by him.
And he’s vulnerable not just because of his personal history and public demeanor, which amount to a raging bonfire of the pieties. He also has governed in ways that contradict the principles of charity and mercy that are central to many religions.
Pete Buttigieg took gorgeously effective note of this in the Democrats’ first debate, in June, referring to the Trump administration’s treatment of migrants at the border.
“The Republican Party likes to cloak itself in the language of religion,” he observed. “But we should call out hypocrisy when we see it.” And any political party that suggests that “God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents — that God would condone putting children in cages — has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.”
Buttigieg, a churchgoing Episcopalian, refuses to cede religion to Republicans or let them use it as some crude moral cudgel. He weaves it into discussions of his marriage to another man. “Nothing has made me feel more connected, more able to be true, however imperfectly, to my faith than the experience of putting myself second,” he said at a CNN town hall this month. “That came with committing my life to my husband, Chasten.”
He’s not the only Democratic presidential candidate with religion in his history and on his mind. He’s just unusual in his readiness to mention it.
In the Democratic debates, Elizabeth Warren, a Methodist, has repeatedly reflected on her past as a teacher. But she has never taken the few extra syllables to note that she taught Sunday school.
In terms of connecting with as much of the electorate as possible, that’s a mistake. And in terms of the president’s moral fluency, it’s a blown opportunity.
Frank Bruni is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.