Trump, Biden, and Religious Claims in a Secular Space
John E. King
At a campaign event in early August 2020, President Trump made statements about his Democratic rival for the presidency, Joe Biden, that went beyond his typically disparaging remarks about Biden’s policies, cognitive abilities, or political record. Instead, Trump’s comments were decidedly religious. Trump informed the crowd of reporters that if Biden were elected, it would “hurt the Bible, hurt God.” Rather than recycling his typical anti-Biden stump statements, Trump made a simple and straightforward argument about the effect Biden would have on the Christian faith if he were elected.
From a political standpoint, Trump’s comments can be interpreted as him simply playing to his base. The rest of the comments from this event seem to support this standpoint, with Trump adding that Biden will “(t)ake away your guns, destroy the Second Amendment. No religion, no anything.” Even in “secularizing” the argument by referencing guns, Trump cannot resist again including an argument about religion.
Whether or not this type of religious appeal has any place in either the broader political discourse or in the process of campaigning for office is in question. Given the secular trend in liberal democracy, it would follow that any attempt to involve religion in state business is unacceptable. That would include religious justifications and arguments – which are what the president uses here.
In addition to the problematic use of religious justification, Trump’s argument clearly prioritizes one religious tradition over another. It isn’t the Torah that is threatened but the Bible; it isn’t that Biden will harm Allah or Vishnu, but God. Inadvertently, Trump’s comments reveal part of the reason why liberal democracies are disinclined to introduce or allow religion into the political sphere: religions are inherently divisive.
In order to understand why religions are divisive, a clearer definition of religion is essential. There are multiple positions on what constitutes a religion. Some hold the position that religion is a belief system structured around a set of truth claims about god(s), what happens after death, and how someone is supposed to live a good life. Others hold the position that religion is more about the actions that adherents take, their rituals, education, and the ways that they worship.
Either position highlights an important fact about religions: their beliefs, claims, and practices generally compete. If someone adheres to Christianity, they most likely will not also adhere to Islam because these religions have mutually exclusive claims about issues their followers find non-negotiable. Christ cannot operate as the Son of God and as the third person of the Trinity while simultaneously being an important human (non-divine) prophet. Their practices diverge as well, with Muslims generally worshipping on Fridays through prayer and Christians holding services on Sundays in a different manner. Regardless of how religion is defined, religions compete and divide inherently. Either position of defining religion has its blind spots – not to mention that there are plenty of “religions” that do not qualify from either perspective – but what is more important for this analysis is to determine what position Trump’s comments are coming from.
While these comments are not entirely indicative of Trump’s views on religion, they continue a trend where Trump relies on Christian imagery and concepts in statements made in both a presidential and a candidate capacity. In June of this year, Trump posed in front of a church while holding a Bible in an attempt to appeal to the country to unify amid widespread protesting. Again, religion is only useful to Trump insofar as it is convincing to whichever group he targets. Trump’s view of religion appears to fall more on the side of a belief-oriented approach than a practice-oriented approach. Christians hold the Bible sacred, and it goes without saying that referencing God will resonate with them as well – so Trump pushes on those points.
In his essay “Religion in the Public Sphere,”1Habermas, Jurgen, Religion in the Public Sphere, 14 European Journal of Philosophy1 (2006). the socio-political philosopher Jürgen Habermas presents a perspective on the relationship between religion and state that proves useful for an analysis of Trump’s comments. In the essay, Habermas addresses John Rawls’s strongly secular argument that favors a form of public debate that excludes religious arguments and evidence. Rawls argues for this form of debate for generally the same reasons secularism provides for its prohibition against religious evidence: secularism privileges a rational, scientific form of argumentation that religion typically does not fulfill. Trump’s argument that Biden’s election will harm God and the Bible is not scientifically provable, or even rationally provable. Even so, his argument still may resonate among the religious.
Habermas is not convinced by Rawls’s conclusion that because secularism demands the exclusion of religion from the public sphere, we ought to privilege specific types of reasoning in public debates. Instead, Habermas argues in favor of a different approach that would allow for multiple types of reasoning to belong in the public discourse. He is concerned that excluding religious forms of argumentation fails the populace because nonreligious and religious citizens have to dialogue in a pluralistic liberal democratic setting, unless both sides are willing to compromise in how they engage. Habermas is onto something with this assertion: in pluralistic democracies, political discourse requires compromise, and Rawls’s position does not leave much room for ideological compromise.
When dealing with claims made during a campaign, though, it might be the case that ideological compromise isn’t enough to uphold a liberal democracy. President Trump’s religious comments against Biden are non-verifiable in a publicly available way, which draws into question whether such comments should be welcome in campaign discourse. This is precisely Rawls’s concern. Trump has made the claim that the Bible is at risk if the country elects Joe Biden – but without offering any rational evidence as to why. In reality, Biden is a devout Catholic who has spoken frequently about how important his Christian faith is to him.2BBC Staff, “US Election 2020.” However, Trump discounts Biden’s faith when he argues that Biden will harm Christianity, the faith Trump prioritizes above others when appealing to his base.
Rather than repudiating Trump’s claims, the Biden campaign’s response has stated that Biden is a Christian and that his faith is important to him. They offer no refutation to Trump’s claims because there is no rational way to refute them. Biden’s campaign cannot simply offer three reasons as to why Biden will not hurt God or the Bible not because Biden, being a Christian, probably understands that it would be impossible for him to do so, but because how does one effectively argue that while maintaining a secular position? Here is the trouble with religious arguments in the public sphere: they are only verifiable by themselves and are only convincing to individuals who are already convinced they are true.
If one follows Habermas’s reasoning, in which these types of religious appeals are allowed in political discourse, Trump’s argument would still risk being ineffective. Operating within Habermas’s ideal of pluralist dialogue, religious individuals would have to adjust their arguments to appeal to secular individuals, and it is challenging to imagine how Trump could secularize his attack against Biden. Secular citizens are not concerned if the Bible or God is harmed, or at least not to the same extent that Christians are. Trump adds that Biden will take away religion full stop, which is problematic for all citizens in a liberal democracy, religious or otherwise. However, the core of his argument remains that if Biden is elected, he will harm the two most important aspects of Christianity. This is not an argument that he can make secular, which means it is not convincing to most parts of society. Ultimately, however, that is not the problem. The problem is that he is accusing and slandering Biden in a way that is not provable or disprovable – and such arguments should not have a place in public discourse. ♦
John E. King is a second-year MTS Student at the Candler School of Theology. He does research on evangelicals and political engagement.
King, John E. “Trump, Biden, and Religious Claims in a Secular Space.” Canopy Forum, November 2, 2020. https://canopyforum.org/2020/11/02/trump-biden-and-religious-claims-in-a-secular-space/