ROME – During a CNN Town Hall for Democratic presidential candidates on Wednesday, former Vice President Joe Biden spoke openly about his faith with a black pastor from Charleston, South Carolina, who had lost his wife during a 2015 mass shooting by a white supremacist.
Invoking his loss of his own wife, daughter and later his son, Biden said the only way he’d been able to cope was by falling back on his religious beliefs.
“I’m not trying to proselytize, I’m not trying to convince you … to share my religious views. But for me it’s important because it gives me some reason to have hope and purpose,” he said.
The language tracked with a new poll released Thursday, which found that Biden is the lone major Democratic contender viewed as at least “somewhat” religious by a majority of Americans.
That includes a majority of American Catholics, almost 60 percent of whom say they view Biden as either “very” or “somewhat” religious. The results are from a new Pew Research Center survey conducted Feb. 4-15, just after the Iowa caucuses.
However, the Pew poll showed that only nine percent of Americans, meaning less than one in ten, see Biden as “very” religious. Moreover, it also showed that Biden has yet to persuade many white Evangelicals of his religious sincerity, with only 36 percent saying they find him at least “somewhat” religious as compared to 72 percent of Black Protestants.
The contrast is even starker when adjusted for partisan preference – while 70 percent of self-identified Democrats see Biden as religious, only 37 percent of Republicans do so.
Biden is Catholic, and a recent EWTN/Real Clear Politics poll found among Catholics voting in the Democratic primaries Biden has a narrow lead over Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, 29 to 24 percent. If elected, he would be the second Catholic U.S. president after John F. Kennedy.
In addition to Biden, the poll inquired about attitudes to Sanders, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Only 34 percent of Americans generally described Sanders, who’s Jewish though non-practicing, as either “very” or “somewhat” religious. Warren, a Methodist, drew 36 percent seeing her as religious, and Buttigieg, an openly gay ex-Catholic who now attends the Episcopalian church, got 32 percent.
Once again those results are generally reflected among American Catholics, 37 percent of whom described Warren as at least “somewhat” religious, 36 for Sanders and 35 for Buttigieg.
While slightly higher percentages of Hispanic Catholics were willing to call Biden, Warren and Sanders “religious” than white Catholics – the biggest gap was with Sanders, with only 33 percent of white Catholics saying he’s religious as compared to 39 percent of Hispanics – notably, that gap runs in the opposite direction with Buttigieg.
Among white Catholics, 39 percent found the former South Bend mayor at least “somewhat” religious, a number that drops 11 points to 28 percent among Hispanic Catholics. He also struggles to persuade Black Protestants, with a majority seeing Biden, Sanders and Warren as religious but only 39 percent viewing Buttigieg in the same terms.
It’s unclear how the perceptions revealed by the new Pew study may shape the politics of 2020, especially given that Democratic voters tend to be less driven by explicitly religious considerations. According to Pew numbers, over the last ten years the number of registered Democrats who identity as “Christian” dropped from 72 to 55 percent, while the number who are religiously unaffiliated now stands at 34 percent.
To the extent that religion may be a factor in a general election, however, the new Pew poll may bolster Biden’s argument that he stands the best chance of defeating President Donald Trump, who made religious voters an important element of his electoral base in 2016.
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