2020 elections

Is Cory Booker the Candidate of the Christian Left?

Booker’s religiosity could freak some people out on both the left and right. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In a potentially vast field of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, one aspirant stands out for having said: “I love you, Donald Trump,” because, well, that’s what Jesus would do.

That would be New Jersey senator Cory Booker, the former Newark mayor who bids fair to become the most overtly Christian Democratic presidential candidate since Jesse Jackson and perhaps even Jimmy Carter, at a time when his party is trending irreligious and the opposition claims a monopoly on all things biblical. What makes Booker different from many left-of-center figures who are “personally” religious is that he purports to be progressive because of his faith, not despite it or incidentally alongside it (e.g., the way John F. Kennedy referred to his own faith as an “accident of birth”). If this becomes central to his identity as a presidential wannabe, it will be provocative to both the Christian right and to secular Democrats. And that could be both a benefit and a handicap for Booker ’20.

Booker is not one of those churchgoing pols who rarely talk about faith the other six days a week (in the genteel tradition of both mainline Protestants like Hillary Clinton and Catholics like John Kerry). As Jack Jenkins noted earlier this year, it permeates his rhetoric:

Asked about his tendency to fuse the political with the spiritual, Booker shrugged.

“I don’t know how many speeches of mine you can listen to and not have me bring up faith,” he said. He noted he had just come from a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting where he had lifted a line from his stump speech: “Before you tell me about your religion, first show it to me in how you treat other people.”

The sentiment, along with a message of unity that he brands as a “new civic gospel,” is generating buzz among Democrats. But Booker’s brand of public religiosity is especially attractive to an oft-forgotten but increasingly powerful group: the amorphous subset of religious Americans sometimes known as the religious left.

Like most black (and many white) politicians, Booker has often invoked the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., the closest thing the “religious left” had to a saint during its heyday in the civil-rights and antiwar struggles of an earlier generation. But he’s also associated himself closely with a leader frequently regarded as King’s present-day heir, the Reverend William Barber II, founder of North Carolina’s Moral Mondays movement and currently co-director of a revived version of King’s Poor People’s Campaign.

Like Barber, Booker is adamant about demanding that Christian witness include solidarity with all marginalized communities, most notably LGBTQ folk. This enrages some conservative Christians, who if asked would probably deny that Booker (who is also pro-choice, to the point where Breitbart.com published a post calling him “NARAL’s puppet”) is a “real Christian” at all. This is the sort of thing that separates him from “Christian left” figures like Jim Wallis who are progressive on economic but not cultural issues. But he wears his religiosity on his sleeve just enough that he’s clearly distinguishable from Barack Obama, who treated separation of church and state as almost a sacred thing, and rarely attended religious services after being elected president (and getting burned, as it happens, for his once-close association with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright). Religion, as I suggested at the top of this post, is Booker’s rationale for bipartisanship, as he explained to Franklin Foer:

My faith tradition is love your enemies. It’s not complicated for me, if I aspire to be who I say I am. I am a Christian American. Literally written in the ideals of my faith is to love those who hate you.

Other ostensibly Christian Democratic pols have not exactly rushed to Booker’s defense on this point.

But if Booker does make his brand of Christian progressivism a signature of his campaign, will it help or hurt him? That’s not easy to say.

Certainly it would make Booker more easily identifiable in the herd of 2020 candidates, by separating (to use a biblical metaphor) this sheep from the goats. You often hear of Democratic presidential candidates having to pass the test of sounding authentic in a black Baptist church in South Carolina (there was a famous incident in 2004 when an enthusiastic minister asked Joe Lieberman if he “loved Jesus,” leaving the Orthodox Jewish candidate to simply smile). Booker won’t have that problem (he’s a member of a National Baptist congregation in Newark, and was raised in the AME church), and it may help him not only against white candidates like Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden but against fellow senator Kamala Harris, who says she split time between a black Baptist church and a Hindu temple growing up, but sounds devoutly Californian now. The Christian left may be much smaller and less powerful than the Christian right, but it does offer Booker a national identity and a warm welcome wherever the more liberal mainline Protestants and Catholics meet.

On the other hand, God talk — and especially the more exuberant variety espoused by African-American Christians as well as their white conservative Evangelical rivals — can be off-putting to the unchurched. Over a half-century ago Jimmy Carter lost a significant number of traditionally Democratic voters (he ran behind George McGovern’s 1972 performance in some liberal precincts) who found his particular form of religiosity alien. Now the religiously unaffiliated represent (according to Pew) a solid third of self-identified Democrats and those who lean that way.

Concerns about Booker’s churchiness could merge with other progressive misgivings about him, notably his past coziness with Wall Street and support for subsidized school choice (extending beyond the charter public schools that many Democrats support to private-school vouchers). He could most definitely come across as a dangerous throwback to those who think a secular-minded democratic socialism is the future.

It’s also entirely possible Booker could tone down the religious talk; much of his “new civic gospel” and talk of loving one’s enemies can easily be secularized into nontheological, New Age-y do-gooderism. Jonathan Van Meter recently wrote a long, perceptive profile on Booker accentuating his upbeat approach to public life (it’s titled “Can I Get a Hug?”) without mentioning his religion.

But if Booker goes in the other direction in a presidential run, his campaign could become more interesting and complicated than the obvious effort to elect a second African-American president with an unusual background and a hard-to-put-your-finger-on-it ideology. Yes, if he stays single he could become the first single president since Grover Cleveland (a distinction that has led to rumors he is gay, which he has denied). But as an outspoken Christian progressive he’d provide a different sort of challenge to the heathenish Donald Trump and his conservative Evangelical supporters. Just don’t expect “Love your enemy” to be on his campaign signs.

Is Cory Booker the Candidate of the Christian Left?