SOUTH BEND, Indiana — With less than five weeks to go until the presidential election, faith leaders are making their pitch for Joe Biden, arguing that he is the best candidate to tackle systemic racism in the country.
While religious groups are known for their influence on political issues such as abortion, a handful of ministers and theologians pushed for a change to that norm at a virtual event hosted by the Biden campaign Wednesday evening called “Racism as a Religious Issue.”
“We as a people of faith can change the discussion about what the religious issues are this time,” said Rev. Jim Wallis, a Christian minister and founder of the magazine Sojourners.
Participants in the discussion devoted significant time to criticizing President Trump for his handling of racial issues at the first presidential debate on Tuesday. During that debate, moderator Chris Wallace asked the president if he would condemn racist militant groups, to which Trump responded “sure,” but shortly after dismissed the issue and called it “a left wing problem.”
At the urging of Wallace and Biden, Trump then told one militant group, the Proud Boys, to “stand back and stand by”– words which some viewed as an endorsement of their activity. Trump later clarified his statement to reporters, calling on the Proud Boys to “stand down” and “let law enforcement do their work.”
Despite Trump’s clarification, Wallis blasted the president for stoking racial tensions.
“Last night brought chaos, for sure, but it also brought some clarity,” he said. “When a sitting president in a presidential debate refuses to condemn white supremacy… that cements racism as a religious issue in this campaign.”
Speakers also recalled a similar incident in 2017, when Trump gave what many called an unsatisfactory statement responding to white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. At the time, Trump called for citizens of all colors to unite, but refused to explicitly condemn white supremacist militants, and blamed the violence on “many sides.”
Wallis, meanwhile, had a stronger opposition to bigotry during the discussion on Wednesday.
“White supremacy is anti-God. Racism is anti-Christ. These aren’t just political views for us, these are theological,” he said.
The hour-long discussion also featured U.S. Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware. The Yale Divinity School graduate, who worked with the South African Council of Churches in the anti-apartheid movement during the 1980s, offered strong support for his fellow Delaware politician.
“It’s Joe Biden who says, ‘yes, this is a nation filled with racial inequality, where we have things for which we must atone, where we must repent, and where we must be reconciled,” Coons said.
The evening closed with Josh Dickson, director of faith engagement for the Biden campaign, urging attendees to volunteer their time for the Democratic nominee’s cause.
“As people of faith, this is a moment not just to take a partisan side, but to take a principled side,” he said. “We need you right now to restore the soul of the nation, to heal our country, and to bend that moral arc of the universe just a little bit more towards justice.”