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Political Conventions Show How Religion Is Playing A Role In Campaigns


When Joe Biden delivered his Democratic convention speech last week, he spoke of God and country in a certain old-school way. His theme about giving light to the world appeared to reference a biblical line attributed to Jesus. This and other lines started me looking at some earlier convention speeches. And while nearly all candidates say something like God bless America at the end, not all refer to religion as fully as Biden did. This week, we hear what President Trump does in his speeches.

And NPR's Tom Gjelten is listening to all this. Hi there, Tom.


INSKEEP: What did you hear from Biden?

GJELTEN: You know, what stood out for me was when he talked about how he's dealt with the death of a loved one. Here's what he said.


JOE BIDEN: I found the best way through pain and loss and grief is to find purpose. As God's children, each of us have a purpose of - in our lives.

GJELTEN: And you know, Steve, that idea of us all as God's children, I get the feeling those words echo Biden's Catholic upbringing.

INSKEEP: Yeah. And again, that's not something every candidate will say. I went back looking. John McCain used this phrase in 2008, but it's rare that anybody gets quite that personal. This is personal for Biden. He is Catholic. And it's also political, right? There are certain groups that Biden wants to appeal to.

GJELTEN: And Catholics are right up there, and they're a group that Republicans want to reach as well, of course. And the Republicans opened their convention yesterday with a prayer from one of the highest-profile Catholics in the country, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York. Dolan said he wasn't there to endorse Trump, but they are old friends. And in his prayer, Steve, Dolan touched on some of the president's favorite themes. You know, Trump has attacked the Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality around the country. Consider what Cardinal Dolan said.


TIMOTHY DOLAN: Pray we must that all lives may be protected and respected in our troubled cities and the police who guard them, in tense world situations where our men and women in uniform keep the peace, for the innocent life of the baby in the womb.

INSKEEP: Wow, a lot in there - all lives - with the emphasis on all lives - being protected and then the reference to abortion at the end. How much is that going to come up?

GJELTEN: That'll come up a lot, and it won't be just Cardinal Dolan. Another Catholic, Abby Johnson, will speak. She's a former Planned Parenthood director, now an anti-abortion activist. The Democrats are squarely in favor of safe and legal abortion. The Republicans are dead set against it.

INSKEEP: Is this a liability for Biden as a Catholic?

GJELTEN: Well, I think with him as the candidate, we may actually see his campaign moving a little bit more toward the center on this. I thought it was interesting that the Democrats invited Father James Martin to give a prayer. He talked about the importance of opening hearts to people in need. And listen to what he said - the people that he included in that category.


JAMES MARTIN: The homeless person looking for a meal, the LGBT teen who is bullied, the unborn child in the womb...

GJELTEN: There you had, Steve, Father Martin using the same language Cardinal Dolan used. The convention organizers knew that would happen, and they invited him anyway.

INSKEEP: White evangelicals, obviously, are vital to Republicans. Surely, we'll be hearing from them.

GJELTEN: We will. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, himself an evangelical, will speak tonight from Jerusalem. He'll presumably tout the president's decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, something Trump said he did, quote, "for the evangelicals." But we should point out that one of the president's most prominent evangelical supporters, Jerry Falwell Jr. from Liberty University, is facing a sex scandal. He revealed this week that his wife had had an affair with a pool boy. He did not acknowledge any misconduct of his own, though his future at Liberty is very much in doubt.

INSKEEP: OK. Thanks. That's NPR's Tom Gjelten. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.
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