— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) March 19, 2019
I am an admitted Warren fan, though I haven’t backed her in the 2020 primary. But this is first of all a master class in taking an off-message question and steering the subject back to what the candidate wants to talk about. It takes discipline and preparation to come up with an answer like that, and Warren makes it look easy. Jack Jenkins points out that she’s given variations on this response before, but that’s sort of the point. In less assured hands, it would come across as scripted, rote. From Warren, it seems off the cuff. By the end, you can hear the cadences of an Oklahoma preacher slipping in. Seriously, the last time I saw a candidate this good at a quick reframe was Barack Obama, and we all know what he did with that power.
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More important, Warren’s answer avoids two traps in the conventional framing of the question about a candidate’s faith. The first trap is the personal. Which is to say, the more you have to emphasize your faith credentials, the less likely the audience is to take the story seriously. This is particularly the case for liberal pols, who everyone seems to assume is lying about their religious practice. (See: Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, among many others.)
Bernie Sanders, in his speech at Liberty University, found one way out of that trap, which was to be upfront about not being very religious. It didn’t seem to faze the conservative audience, which apparently assumed he wasn’t; and of course, none of the liberal audience listening in cared very much, either.
Warren’s strategy seems to have been simply not to dwell on the personal aspect. I was raised Methodist, and raised my children Methodist, she says, followed by a light joke about being a Sunday School teacher. That’s 23 seconds, and then she’s off like a shot into the meat of her response. In other words, she didn’t leave much for critics to pick at. Nor does she overplay her hand with a schmaltzy, long-winded story about John Wesley or her youth-group advisor. Conservatives are going to call her a phony anyway, but what of it? She tells the story the way she wants to tell it, without seeming to pander for the People-of-Faith vote.
Which leads us to the other trap Warren manages to avoid. Her response works so well because, as she herself says, faith for her isn’t about ideas, it’s about action. Warren repeats the story of the sheep and the goats from the gospel of Matthew (again, Jack Jenkins points out that she flubs the chapter—it’s 25, not 26), and uses it to make a simple point: that faith, in the terms of scripture itself, demands that Christians feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked. (She might have pointed out that this is the only place in the New Testament that describes the requirements for salvation, but oh well, next time.)
Warren only mentions values once and morals not at all, much less #reclaimingChristianity, #moralrevolution, or whatever other silly focus-grouped hashtag is going around these days. That allows her to step out of the weak framing of “liberal people have values too,” which only ends up reinforcing the conservative message that they don’t. Because of that, she’s able to effectively shift the intellectual burden back onto anyone who questions her faith. You say I don’t believe in Jesus? Well, here’s the results of my faith. What have you got to show? From there, it’s only a short step to talking again about her agenda.
In short, Warren doesn’t spend a minute defending or explaining or asserting her faith. She assumes it and moves on. It won’t stop attacks, of course, but it will blunt them.
There’s one other piece, quite a subtle one, that makes this answer so good. Towards the end, Warren draws the lesson that there is “something of God, of value” in every person. That’s fairly anodyne, though it makes a good contrast with the current occupant of the White House. But then she launches into the applause line, about how faith involves seeing the hungry, the naked, the sick, and so on.
American politics is about nothing these days if not about who’s being seen and who isn’t. Warren’s message, delivered in all the altar-call thunder she can muster, is that she will see the vulnerable, and she calls on others to do the same. That’s emotive, and therefore powerful, and it doesn’t have a thing to do with claiming Christianity for liberalism or not-conservatism or anything at all political. From a Christian who’s weary of his faith being used as a football, that earns a word of thanks and praise.