In August, as the presidential campaign was entering its last stretch, President Trump launched a direct attack on Joe Biden’s faith, saying that Biden “hurt the Bible, hurt God. He’s against God.”
The message that Democrats are hostile to religion is one Trump pushed often during his presidency. And Biden’s young director of religious outreach, Josh Dickson, once a Republican who voted for George W. Bush, had to help find ways to counter it. A few weeks later, Dickson was involved in planningthe Democratic National Convention, which put the spotlight on Biden’s Catholic faith, and Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) dedicated his entire segment to discussing Biden’s faith.Support our journalism. Subscribe today.
Dickson also led an outreach effort that was religiously and racially diverse, while also taking aim at the same voters Trump assumed were in his camp. Even as Trump boasted on the campaign trail that “the evangelicals love me, and I love them,” behind the scenes, Dickson was holding private listening sessions with many faith leaders, including leaders at the National Association of Evangelicals.
“There’s a lot more that unites us than divides us to work together under common ground,” Dickson said. The 36-year-old who was driven by his evangelical faith to help persuade religious voters to choose Biden is now considered a leading contender to head the White House office of faith-based partnerships, which could play a key role in Biden’s efforts to heal a bitterly divided nation.
If chosen, Dickson is likely to continue the approach he developed in 2020, which was different from that of previous Democratic presidential campaigns.
When Mara Vanderslice Kelly did faith outreach for John F. Kerry’s campaign for president in 2004, she said she faced “tremendous hostility” internally, with no access to the candidate or people high up in the campaign. Campaign staff thought faith outreach threatened the idea of separation of church and state, LGBT rights and abortion access, she said.
During Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, John McCarthy led the campaign’s religious outreach, but he was hired to focus on courting Irish and Catholic communities. This past election season, McCarthy was Biden’s deputy national political director.
Ralph Reed, a GOP strategist who reaches out to faith voters, said whatever the strategy was, it wasn’t effective. Clinton is a lifelong Methodist who has said she does not wear her faith on her sleeve and doesn’t address it often in public.
“I don’t know if it would’ve mattered if St. Francis of Assisi had been running Hillary’s outreach,” Reed said. “I’m told in private and on a personal level she’s charming and funny and smart, she’s comfortable with her own faith experience and is comfortable talking about it. It never seemed to come through.”
Dickson had somewhat of an easier time messaging for Biden,a Catholic who attends Mass weekly, often carries a rosary and quotes scripture and saints. Dickson didn’t have to force the idea that Biden was motivated by his faith.
“Biden talked about faith and goes to church regularly. That’s just part of his life,” Kelly said, although Biden has faced opposition within his own faith over his support for abortion and LGBTQ rights. Kelly said her husband, John Kelly, who did Catholic outreach for the Democratic National Committee, was part of a team in 2008 that would have to find Catholic churches for Biden where he would not be turned away or denied Communion by conservative priests or bishops because Biden favors abortion rights. Kelly said this was something campaign staffers had to do again in 2012. (Dickson said this was not part of his job responsibilities in the Biden campaign.)
During the 2020 campaign, Dickson focused his outreach by highlighting Biden’s policy positions on issues such as immigration, systemic racism and climate change that have broad support among faith leaders, including many evangelicals. He also coordinated private weekly devotions for Biden. He could sometimes get Biden or now-Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris to join Zoom calls with faith leaders, and he worked on a seven-figure advertisement buy targeting faith voters.
“Josh comes in and he gets ads, he gets access,” Kelly said. “He’s learned from the mistakes we already made.”
Analysts say it is too early to fully assess whether the Biden campaign chipped enough religious voters away from Trump for those votes to have swung the election. Analysts typically look at how White evangelicals and White Catholics vote, because of the size of those populations in certain battleground states.
Nationwide, early exit polls found that not much had changed among White evangelicals. Trump’s margin of support among White evangelical Christians was 73 points this year, the same margin of votes he received in 2016. But in swing states like in Michigan and in Georgia, Trump lost some support among White evangelicals.
Polls also found a shift concentrated among White Catholics, who supported Trump by a 24-point margin in 2016. This year, however, White Catholics favored him by 12 points nationwide.
The Biden administration’s plans for its faith-based initiatives are not yet clear. Each president has taken a slightly different approach since George W. Bush established the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to encourage organizations to compete for social service grants. President Barack Obama appointed Joshua DuBois, Dickson’s counterpart from the 2008 campaign, to lead his faith-based office a few weeks into his term. As Trump’s top faith adviser, Paula White, a preacherwho teaches a prosperity Gospel, helped bring in hundreds of evangelicals to the White House for group meetings on issues such as Israel and criminal justice reform. She also had a personal relationship with the Trump family and christened one of Eric Trump’s children, Reed said.
“You can’t put a dollar on that in terms of what it means to evangelicals,” Reed said. “She could pick up the phone and call the president and an agency head. You’ve never had anybody in that role under Bush or Obama who had that relationship with the president or first family.”
If he serves in the administration, Dickson is more likely to serve as more of a translator between two worlds. He has long had his feet firmly planted in both the Democratic world and in the evangelical world, which leans heavily Republican.
From a small town outside Rochester, N.Y., Dickson grew up going to an independent Baptist church doing evangelical ministry and missions trips. He is the son, grandson and great-grandson of graduates of Moody Bible Institute, a conservative evangelical school in Chicago, though he attended the University of Michigan and received a master’s in public policy from Harvard.
He campaigned for Obama in 2012 and worked in his second administration as the faith-based director in the Commerce Department and did faith outreach for the Democratic National Committee and Teach for America. At the same time, when he would talk to people in the evangelical world, Dickson could signal his bona fide credentials by dropping references to Awana, a kids’ ministry popular in many evangelical churches, or talking about his involvement in the popular college campus ministry Cru (formerly known as Campus Crusade).
“My approach to political work is based in what I learned trained in relational organizing, building coalitions and working across lines of difference,” said Dickson, who now attends Denver Community Church, a large church that became LGBT-inclusive in 2017.
Adam Phillips, a progressive evangelical pastor in Portland, Ore., said Dickson, who co-founded a group called Evangelicals for Marriage Equality in 2014, was instrumental in Phillips’s decision to become an openly LGBT-inclusive pastor. Since evangelicals have become so associated with Trump, Phillips said, Dickson shows a different side to the movement that can be much more liberal.“Josh knows how to reach to conservatives while being a bona fide progressive,” Phillips said.
When he’s not running Zoom calls, Dickson is an avid outdoorsman and has run 35 ultramarathons, marathons that are more than 26.2 miles.
“He has an energy that’s infectious,” said Derrick Harkins, director of interfaith outreach for the Democratic National Committee who worked with Dickson for six months and conducted his wedding. “He runs 100 miles for the heck of it, and he brings that same focus and commitment to his work.”
When he lived in D.C., he met his now-wife, who is a business consultant, when they attended the District Church. He would run home and sleep in an oxygen-deprived tent to help him train for a 100-mile run in Colorado’s high altitude. During the pandemic, he has traded his Washington-based policy wonk look with a trimmed beard and buzzed hair for a shaggier and scruffier look to fit a Colorado mountain man.
Dickson, who is working on Biden’s transition team, expects the new administration will face challenges reaching conservative religious voters. Under Obama, Biden was among Democratic leaders who tried to help with sensitive issues, including mandatory coverage of contraception under the Affordable Care Act that led to several lawsuits.
Looking ahead, observers expect hot-button issues to reemerge, including the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding for abortions. Biden was a long supporter of the Hyde Amendment but changed his position in 2019 after Democratic outcry.
And Biden has vowed to pass the Equality Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, gender identity and sexual orientation. Several conservative religious groups oppose the legislation because they fear it could infringe on their religious liberties.
Dickson said he knows there will be divisions between Democrats and conservative religious voters on issues like abortion and LGBT rights, but is hoping the new administration can find common ground on refugees, systemic racism, poverty and tackling the coronavirus.
“The president-elect talks about healing divisions in America. That doesn’t happen by him winning the election,” Dickson said. “There’s going to be a lot of work done.”