Faith leaders from multiple religious identities participated in a discussion Thursday focusing on religious divides in the United States as well as areas of common ground that divergent faith groups can work on together.
The Zoom webinar, titled “Moving Forward with Faith — Religion and Politics in a Biden Presidency,” was moderated by Peter Smith, the former president of Religion News Association and religion reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and hosted by The Associated Press, Religion News Service and The Conversation. Panelists shared their thoughts about the state of religion and politics in the U.S. before Smith shared questions submitted by viewers for them to answer.
Participants included Barbara Williams-Skinner, CEO and co-founder of Skinner Leadership Institute and co-convener of the National African American Clergy Network; Dilshad Ali, an editor at Haute Hijab and a member of Religion News Service’s journalism advisory board; Steven Millies, an associate professor of public theology and the director of The Bernardin Center at Catholic Theological Union; and Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
Williams-Skinner contended that while “religion and a belief in a God of compassion ought to be uniting us now,” the U.S. is more divided than ever before. She pointed to wide disparities in the voting patterns of “two of the most religiously active groups diametrically opposed, not necessarily in their faith beliefs, but in their politics": white evangelical Christians and black Protestant Christians.
She described the groups as “totally opposite in their politics and their core beliefs, almost as though they’re serving a totally different God.”
According to Williams-Skinner, “African American Christians were just shocked that 74 million Americans were about to reelect a man who has, with the support of a majority of white evangelicals and Catholics and others, including a few Hispanics and blacks of course, but who had no moral grounding whatsoever and who, from their perspective, was basically from a biblical perspective not just flawed but … evil.”
“The thought that people who say they follow Jesus, who’s committed to the least of these from a Matthew 25 sense and who called us to love our neighbors as ourselves … could have the audacity not only to embrace once but almost at the same level again?,” she said. “It is hard to believe that again … that we serve the same God.”
After discussing her belief that African American Christians strongly dislike President Trump, Williams-Skinner posited that religion has become “one of the most divisive institutions in America.”
Moore also expressed concern about “this overwhelming sense of political identity and division” and its implications for the country. He described the country as “exhausted” by “either this exuberance when one side is winning or despair when one side is losing,” adding, “That is no way that we can go forward as a country.”
According to Moore, “Religion cannot be another form of politics and politics cannot be another form of religion. Religion, in my case, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, can’t be a means to any end. This has to be the end.”
“One of the things that we’re all going to have to combat in our religious communities is a sense of cynicism, often well-earned, that religion and every other institution is just another form of getting or maintaining power. That’s not what religion is,” he stressed.
While other panelists discussed divisions among religious groups and demographics, Millies focused on divisions within the Catholic Church, specifically referencing the division in the Catholic Church over presumptive President-elect Joe Biden’s support for abortion. “Religion was never more divisive, I think, in American politics, than it was during the 2020 campaign. And Catholics have never been more divided than we are now, at least in American history,” he said.
Millies explained that there are conflicting signals about whether division in the Catholic Church will continue throughout a Biden presidency.
He pointed to “a committee of leading bishops that will meet to deal with what they seem to think is their Biden problem” as a signal that division would persist, and cited Pope Francis’ use of Biden’s campaign slogan “build back better” in a statement on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities as a sign that “there are leaders in the Catholic Church that are ready to work with Joe Biden.”
Noting that “in the past two decades, Muslim communities across the U.S. have continually increased their political engagement and activism through each election cycle,” Ali acknowledged that “our communities haven’t always been aligned in who the right candidate is or what should the most important issues be that we should be coalescing around or even who we should ally ourselves with.”
Ali said that while not all Muslims supported Biden in the Democratic presidential primaries, they largely united around him in the general election as they worked to achieve their shared goal of defeating Trump.
She expressed bewilderment that a poll showed 35% support for Trump in the Muslim community after he implemented a so-called “Muslim ban,” and accused the president of “xenophobic rhetoric that helped lead to a significant rise in attacks and hate speech toward Muslim and other marginalized communities.”
The "Muslim ban" was a 90-day travel ban on individuals from countries the Department of Homeland Security listed as "countries of concern," which included: Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, North Korea and Venezuela.
In June 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision to uphold the travel ban. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority decision that “the text says nothing about religion,” adding, "The Proclamation is expressly premised on legitimate purposes: preventing entry of nationals who cannot be adequately vetted and inducing other nations to improve their practices."
In December 2015, former President Obama signed legislation to restrict travel for individuals from certain countries, known as the “Restriction On Use Of Visa Wavier Program For Aliens Who Travel To Certain Countries,” that was part of a larger appropriations bill.
The panelists also discussed priority issues that they hope faith groups of differing denominations and backgrounds can push for in unison. Millies cited a “pandemic response, access to healthcare, economic relief,” and wealth inequality as well as climate change and police reform as areas of common ground that faith groups can agree on. Williams-Skinner agreed that “criminal justice reform has proven in the past to be a uniter between conservative and more liberal groups.”
Moore cited “the issue of refugees” as an area of common concern shared by conservative and liberal faith groups. The panelists agreed that it's necessary for people of faith to work together as much as possible on the areas where they agree and focus less on areas of division.
“The best place for faith groups to be in public always is where we all, or mostly, at least agree,” Millies added. “The religious voice is strongest when believers of all stripes say what we can affirm in unison. That’s not abortion or marriage equality or the Obamacare contraceptive mandate.”
Ali agreed, saying, “We’re going to be … painting ourselves up against the wall if we are not willing to work on a variety of issues together when we don’t always agree on the same things together.” She spoke in favor of “working issue by issue, question by question … working with Biden on one issue but disagreeing with him on another issue.”
Moore condemned the tribalization in American politics, maintaining that “we ought to have the posture of not having any permanent alliances or any permanent warfares, but to be able to speak to one another, speak honestly about our disagreements and then work where we can, sometimes issue by issue.”
To illustrate his point, Moore said: “I would oppose President Obama on the same day on abortion, I’m a committed pro-life Christian, and then, on the same day, work with him on refugee policy. In the Trump administration, I would work the same day against him on refugees or fleeing persecuted Christians or about children on the border and then work with him on issues of Uyghurs being persecuted in China, for instance.”
“That ought to be the posture that we all take toward every issue, issue by issue, moment by moment, without having to seek a messiah or to seek to be disciples of anyone other than the one who’s calling us to be disciples,” he asserted.
“I think the challenge for us is to get past the silos and demonizing people because they don’t believe what we believe,” Williams-Skinner remarked. Moore concurred, reiterating his support for “getting into a mode where we can oppose one another on five issues and work with one another on one issue.”