Will faith be a force in uniting — or furthering divisions — during the incoming Joe Biden presidency? Are divisions among believers an outlier or do they mirror trends seen in secular arenas in America today as well?
On Thursday, December 3, the Associated Press, Religion News Service, and The Conversation hosted a virtual conversation with four prominent religious scholars and activists to discuss these pressing questions. Where do we go from here; what is religion’s role in a Biden presidency?
Moderator Peter Smith, the former president of the Religion News Association and current religion reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, hosted the conversation with panelists Dilshad D. Ali, Dr. Steven P. Millies, Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner, and Dr. Russell Moore. Coming from different religious backgrounds, denominations, and political affiliations, the panelists discussed where we can find common ground — and where we can’t sacrifice deeply held convictions — during the next four years.
Williams-Skinner, CEO and co-founder of the Skinner Leadership Institute and co-convener of the National African American Clergy Network, emphasized that faith has become a divisive institution in America. She specifically highlighted divisions between white Evangelicals and African American Christians.
“The same time black religious leaders were holding 40 day fasts before the election, you had white Evangelicals holding prayer circles [for President Donald Trump],” asserted Williams-Skinner.
Ali, the former editor-in-chief of Altmuslim and current editor at Haute Hijab, and the lone non-Christian on the panel, analyzed the American Muslim community and faith communities who generally were not Trump supporters.
“We were looking for a definitive beatdown of the Trump Administration. That didn’t happen. At all,” stated Ali.
Ali was assumingly referencing a presidential election outcome that came much closer than polls predicted, along with down-ballot races that heavily broke for Republicans. As of this writing, Republicans won 25 of the 27 House of Representative seats rated as “toss-ups” by the Cook Political Report and will net between 12-13 House seats, in addition to a governorship and increased seats in several state legislatures. The elections were not a landslide rejection of Trump nor his party, which will have an effect upon Biden’s ability to govern.
“We’re not a monolith. We’re a coalition of numerous faith communities and we don’t always agree,” Ali asserted in regards to the Muslim American community. She herself wonders if the same interfaith alliances that held during the Trump presidency will continue for the next four years.
“Frankly, there were a lot of things that were frustrating to Muslim communities when Obama was president and Biden was vice-president… So, we’ll see what happens,” stated Ali.
Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, refuted the claim that religion is a unique point of division in American society today. “I don’t agree that religion is a divider but rather that religion is divided,” said Moore.
Moore emphasized the need to work together when we agree but not capitulate our beliefs when we don’t.
“Getting into a mode where we can oppose one another on five issues and work together on one issue is a healthy place to be,” asserted Moore. He pointed to criminal justice reform as an issue in the past that has united conservative and more progressive religious groups.
The lone Roman Catholic panelist, Millies, who is an associate professor of public theology and the director of The Bernardin Center at Catholic Theological Union, addressed the challenges and divisions Joe Biden’s candidacy has created among American Catholics.
“Catholics have never been more divided than we are now, at least in the American context,” stated Millies. He continued, “Religion is a divider in our politics. And those dividers have made their way into our pews.”
Despite the objections to Biden’s presidency within his own denomination, mostly over the Biden campaign’s position on abortion, Millies believes that Biden may be uniquely positioned to give leadership to all Americans, but especially to Americans of faith.
Williams-Skinner, however, believes that it will be civil society and interfaith dialogue that renews our social fabric.
“I put more faith in interfaith leaders to bring us together than for him [Biden] to bring us together,” she stated.
The panelists agreed that the church and faith groups must work together with each other and the incoming Biden Administration on the pressing COVID-19 pandemic.
It will be interesting to see the role that religion and interfaith dialogue play during the next four years. Will the divisions that exist between conservative and progressive religious groups be exaggerated, or can leaders find ways to work together across divisions? Will the incoming Biden Administration include and listen to religious leaders that normally stand opposed to its agenda, or will the divisions of the past four years continue to strain chances for unity?