ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
On the 2020 campaign trail, Democrats are getting personal about their faith.
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KAMALA HARRIS: With faith in God, with fidelity to country...
CORY BOOKER: Christ is the center of my life. I believe in that radical love.
ELIZABETH WARREN: The story for me is Matthew 26.
PETE BUTTIGIEG: You know, the imagery of Christ when the divine comes to earth as being in a servant mode, it comes from my community.
SHAPIRO: Those voices were Senators Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren, and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. As these presidential candidates reach out to religious voters, conservative Christian leaders are speaking up and questioning their beliefs. NPR's Sarah McCammon reports.
SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: For the better part of a generation, Republicans have had the white evangelical Christian vote mostly locked down. That did not change in 2016, despite Donald Trump's personal behavior and rough language, like this infamous attack on the late Senator John McCain's military service.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He's not a war hero.
FRANK LUNTZ: He is a war hero.
TRUMP: He's a war hero...
LUNTZ: Five and a half years in a POW camp...
TRUMP: He's a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren't captured, OK? I hate to tell you.
MCCAMMON: That was then-candidate Trump at the Family Leadership Summit in the summer of 2015. It's traditionally a place for Republican presidential hopefuls to make their pitch to conservative Christians ahead of Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses. But this year, The Family Leaders' president, Bob Vander Plaats, wants Democrats to come.
BOB VANDER PLAATS: If they're going to talk about their faith, and their faith is going to be a centerpiece, let's have a conversation about the faith. Where are they coming from? What makes them tick? Why do they believe what they believe to be really, really true and really real?
MCCAMMON: Vander Plaats, known for his anti-LGBT positions, is inviting the top seven Democratic hopefuls in current polls to his event on July 12 near Des Moines. He points to comments by South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who's spoken openly about his Christian faith and coming out as gay in a conservative state. Speaking to the LGBTQ Victory Fund this month, Buttigieg took on religious conservatives, like Vice President Mike Pence, and said being gay was not his choice.
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BUTTIGIEG: And that's the thing I wish the Mike Pences of the world would understand, that if you've got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.
MCCAMMON: This week, another conservative Christian leader, Franklin Graham, criticized Buttigieg on Twitter, saying that the Bible, quote, "defines homosexuality as sin, something to be repentant of, not something to be flaunted, praised or politicized." Vander Plaats says he agrees with Graham, but he thinks it's a discussion worth having.
VANDER PLAATS: Because, you bet, I agree with what Franklin tweeted. My guess is the base that's going to show up at the Family Leadership Summit is going to agree with what Franklin tweeted. But again, why run from that conversation?
MCCAMMON: According to a poll last year by the Public Religion Research Institute, large majorities of American Christians support same-sex marriage, although most white evangelicals oppose it. NPR reached out to all seven Democratic candidates who were invited to speak to Vander Plaats' group, and most declined to comment on the record. A Buttigieg campaign spokesman said he would consider participating. A spokesman for former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke declined, saying in a statement, quote, "Vander Plaats and The Family Leader have unapologetically provided a forum for dangerous anti-LGBTQ hate speech on numerous occasions."
While The Family Leader might be an unconventional and uncomfortable forum, Democrats should consider it, says Christopher Hale, a faith adviser to President Obama's 2012 campaign.
CHRISTOPHER HALE: I don't know a pathway forward for a Democratic candidate to win back the states we lost in 2016 without winning a higher percentage of the evangelical vote.
MCCAMMON: Hale says he's pleased to see some 2020 hopefuls trying to speak the language of religious voters. He says Democrats often talk about the Founding Fathers, but they'd also do well to talk about Jesus and his disciples. Sarah McCammon, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.