Jana Riess: Biden campaign targets Latter-day Saints, evangelicals

(Carolyn Kaster | AP file photo) Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a community event at Grace Lutheran Church in Kenosha Wis., Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020.

In 2016, 81% of white evangelical Protestants famously voted for Donald Trump, while only 16% supported Hillary Clinton. Mormons, another religious group that has voted heavily Republican in the past, were less enthusiastic but still voted for the controversial GOP candidate, with exit polls showing that 61% favored Trump.

Given those majority figures, it may be surprising that Joe Biden’s presidential campaign is reaching out to both groups in advance of the Nov. 3 presidential election.

“We’re not leaving any votes on the table,” said Josh Dickson, the campaign’s national faith engagement director. “We’re not leaving any outreach behind.”

Dickson said the campaign starts from the general belief that voters of faith are looking for candidates “who align with common good values, like loving our neighbors as ourselves, and working to ensure that everyone has a chance to reach their God-given potential.” Many Americans who have voted Republican in the past have been alarmed by ways the Trump administration has “acted in ways that are so antithetical” to those shared values, whether by mishandling the nation’s pandemic response or denying asylum to refugees.

[Latter-day Saint politicos recently appeared on The Salt Lake Tribune’s “Mormon Land” podcast to make their pitches for Joe Biden and Donald Trump.]

These voters' disappointment with the current administration is an opportunity for the Biden campaign — an opening that Dickson and others are working to expand. On the ground, what that looks like is specific outreach events, primarily online, to religious voters in key battleground states.

For members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that means giving support to the “Latter-day Saints for Biden-Harris” organization, and also targeting voters in key states that have significant clusters of Latter-day Saints — Arizona, Nevada, North Carolina and Florida.

For evangelicals, Dickson said the campaign plans specific outreach to voters in Florida, North Carolina, Arizona and Michigan, as well as Latino faith outreach to Catholics and evangelicals in various states, “with a prime focus on Florida.”

An August Fox News survey found that 29% of white evangelicals disapproved of the way Trump was doing his job. Although 70% said they still approved of the president, that’s an erosion of his earlier 80-plus% approval among those voters, and may represent an opening for Democrats.

Dickson himself used to be a conservative Republican. “I come from a family that has a long history in the evangelical church,” he said. His father, grandparents and great-grandparents all went to Moody Bible Institute. Dickson grew up attending church twice on Sunday and again on Wednesday, and a conservative political orientation was part of that mix. He identified as a Republican until he graduated from college, when he became a teacher at a low-income urban school in Chicago.

That experience opened his eyes. “Just going through life with my students for two years and seeing the challenges they faced, and how the deck was so stacked against them because of where they were born, pushed me to think about what that meant for me as a Christian,” he said, “and to interrogate my faith and my choices around my career path.”

He realized what a privilege it had been for him to go to college and get an education — a privilege that was out of reach for many of his students not because they lacked the ability, but because they were trapped in a world with little opportunity.

“That went against everything I believed as a Christian, in imago dei: that everyone should have the chance to fulfill their God-given potential.” That experience led him to question which side of the political aisle was doing more for people like his students, and he became a Democrat. He attended the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and, in 2011, helped the Young Democrats organize their first-ever Faith and Values program.

Dickson doesn’t think his story is that unusual, and that in fact there are many religious Americans who are looking for a candidate who is “more concerned with what we can do to serve the community, rather than what people can do for me.” As part of his work to reach those voters, he and others have organized an interfaith “Believers for Biden” Zoom devotional every Tuesday evening, where voters of faith gather for a brief spiritual check-in, with prayer and a short message from a faith leader. “It’s an opportunity for us to step away from the busy-ness of our lives,” Dickson said, “and make sure we can stay centered in the values that make us who we are.”

They’ll be meeting every Tuesday through election night. All people are welcome, including religious Americans who may have never voted for a Democrat before. “I know so many people who might identify as evangelical and LDS whose values are deeply aligned with the values that we’re fighting for, but who maybe haven’t voted for us in the past,” Dickson said. “We are making the affirmative case that the Biden-Harris agenda resonates and aligns with the values these people hold.”

Editor’s noteThe views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.