Is Kamala Harris, the new vice president, the “future of American religion” as a headline on a recent Religion News Service article seems to suggest? If this is true, then America’s religion will become very liberal, multi-faith and political.
The RNS article refers to her multicultural background: Harris’s mother was Hindu Indian, her father Catholic Jamaican. Her name means ‘lotus’ in Sanskrit and is another name for a Hindu goddess. Her husband is Jewish. This is said to reflect the increasing diversity of American society, in religion and ethnicity.
The American election
This year's US presidential election must be the most bitterly fought in living memory. Any election in America involves professions of faith and attacks on the other side's faith, or alleged lack of it. It’s hard to work out what the candidates truly believe.
A Facebook post claiming that Harris refused to swear on the Bible went viral recently, but fact checkers say this is fake news.
Harris certainly portrays herself as a person of faith. In 2019, her opening gambit was: “With faith in God, with fidelity to country, and with the fighting spirit I got from my mother, I stand before you today to announce my candidacy for president of the United States.”
She is said to attend the Third Baptist Church of San Francisco. Its pastor, Rev Amos Brown, says Harris is “a quintessential scholar” who would unite “the spirituality, the genius and the non-violent traditions” of her parents’ backgrounds and the African American community. “She’s a spiritual person,” he is also reported to have said.
Harris must have listened to sermons about social justice in this church - the church’s website says the pastor “has never seen the issues of society as separate from the mission of the church, especially when the members of the church are directly affected by systems of evil”. When Harris cites the Bible, she tends to use it more as a demonstration of liberal values, than Christian faith.
At an event hosted by the Poor People’s Campaign she discussed the parable of the Good Samaritan: “Neighbour is not about having the same zip code,” she said. “What we learn about in that parable is that neighbour is someone you are walking by on the street…Neighbour is about understanding and living in service of others — that we are all each other’s brothers and sisters.”
In a 2017 speech at a church, she referred to the Old Testament concept of justice: “You know, all the great prophets spoke about justice. And they spoke about justice in a particular way. They spoke about it with special attention to the oppressed, the weary and the weak. And so I want to take as my text today Proverbs 31:9, which says: ‘Speak up for the poor and helpless, and see that they get justice.’"
She continued with a nod to Hinduism, and common goals of social justice: “I grew up in Oakland, then, attending the 23rd Avenue Church of God, where we’d learn about caring for the least of these. And I sang in the choir about how faith combined with determination will always see us through difficult times. My mother was from India, so in addition she would take us to a Hindu temple, to see that all faiths teach us to pursue justice.”
Though the talk is littered with biblical references, it’s the values of social justice that she focuses on, rather than Christian doctrine.
Harris has liberal political beliefs that put her at odds with many traditional or conservative religious voters. For example, she is pro-choice and although she has never explicitly stated that she supports the termination of a pregnancy at any time, she has supported political moves that would allow late-term abortion.
She has appeared to attack the Knights of Columbus group, a Catholic organisation for men, that supports pro-life activities. This prompted a recent tweet from President Trump:
Ironically, in some ways Harris appears to have been quite conservative as California’s Attorney General. Her subsequent adoption of the Black Lives Matter campaign has been seen as opportunistic by some.
For many voters, Harris’s liberal political beliefs and her trailblazing as a woman of colour are of great value and are much more important than her faith. For others, her open support of abortion will mean they couldn’t support her.
US Christian leaders are divided: some support Trump and Pence, others Biden and Harris. Like its society, America's Church is deeply divided. Harris's position in the culture wars is clear, and her faith will likely weigh less on the minds of voters than will her politics.