(RNS) — As his name is mentioned among potential presidential contenders, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker has put his faith at the center of his speeches and his political persona. The 49-year-old Democrat sat down with Religion News Service reporter Jack Jenkins in early October at the senator’s Washington, D.C., office to talk about religion, politics and the intersection of the two. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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Jack Jenkins: You were raised in an African Methodist Episcopal church and now you go to a Baptist church. How did you get from where you grew up to now with your faith?
Sen. Cory Booker: I was raised within a very religious family, in a small church in Closter, N.J., very much in the black church tradition. A lot of my life has been governed by the values from my faith. I think that faith without works is dead, and it’s really at the center of what motivates me on a lot of the major decisions I’ve made in my life.
JJ: How does that faith animate your politics?
CB: The life of Jesus is very impactful to me and very important to me. He lived a life committed to dealing with issues of the poor and the sick. The folks that other folks disregard, disrespect or often oppress. He lived this life of radical love that is a standard that I fail to reach every single day, but that really motivates me in what I do.
I wanted to live in a community where there was that struggle going on. I love what the pope said to his pastors: Go out and live amongst your flock, or “smell like your flock,” I think, was the quote.
Look, I’m not afraid to talk about my faith. In fact, I just came from a hearing where I got in a back-and-forth with a judge about religion.
CB: I asked him about LGBTQ issues in that context and the decision he made to deny same-sex marriage.
JJ: What would you say to those who say you cannot possibly be LGBT-inclusive and a Christian?
CB: Well, remember, people have been using the Bible to justify subjugation for generations. People used the Bible to subjugate women and deny them the right the vote. People used the Bible to justify slavery. People used the Bible to justify Jim Crow.
I know that history coming from, again, the sort of liberation theology of the black church — this idea that we’re all created equal, that we’re all equal in God’s eyes. And the LGBTQ community, to me, are my brothers and sisters. They’re children of God. We still live in a country where in the majority of states you can get fired from your job just because you’re gay and you have no legal recourse. This, to me, is not an affirmation of dignity.
We are not a theocracy. We are not a monarchy. … There is a residue of their bigotry in (our founding) documents. The Native Americans are referred to as savages in the Declaration of Independence. Women aren’t referred to at all. African-Americans, slaves, were counted as fractions of human beings.
But the reality is the founders were geniuses, in the sense of really putting into our governing documents a kind of radical love and appreciation that everyone has dignity. That we’re all created equal. Those words have influenced democracies ever since — it’s pretty powerful.
And I think Jesus had this incredible democratizing love.
JJ: You appear at “religious left” protests and events, more so than most other lawmakers. You spoke a few years ago at the Sojourners summit and appeared last year at a protest in support of Obamacare with the Rev. William Barber. Even during the recent Supreme Court confirmation debate you introduced the Mormon women’s letter calling for an investigation into the sexual assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh into the record. You lifted up those events in a big way.
CB: Well, first and foremost, I don’t know how many speeches of mine you can listen to and not have me bring up faith. I think the Democrats make the mistake often of ceding that territory to Republicans of faith.
I find kinship with people I find inspiration from — people I would love to be more like. I was just in Iowa and told the story of going to my grandmother’s church. She grew up in Des Moines, and that Christian community saw her dignity and gave her money to go off to college, where she met my grandfather.
Rev. Barber is powerful. To me, his charisma speaks, in an instructive way, towards my heart and my being. He is somebody who believes that being poor is not a sin or that poverty is a sin.
And I think I have a natural affinity for religious people, and not just Christians. I have one very Orthodox Jewish friend of mine who gave up his very fancy, high-paying job, to go serve poor people. People like that, to me, are heroic.
When I get up in the morning, I meditate. Actually, I pray on my knees, and then I meditate. And I love when I find that kinship which I find with lots of different people of faith. But I’ve tweeted this out before: Something like how I prefer to hang out with nice, kind atheists than mean Christians any day. Because I think that some of the most righteous souls I’ve ever met, that I imagine God has a place in heaven for, are people that don’t believe in God but live every day in accordance to the precepts that I try to live up to.
JJ: About that: The Democratic Party is now made up of some of the most and least religious people in the country, in terms of worship attendance.
CB: (Laughs.) I never thought of it that way.
JJ: How do you square that circle, between those who may not be comfortable hearing faith from a podium and those who yearn for it?
CB: I think God is love. I think God is justice. I think the ideals of this country are in line with my faith. I don’t need to talk about religion to talk about those ideals that all Americans hold dear.
When I’m in Iowa just now calling for a revival — using a religious term — I’m calling for a revival of grace in this country. I speak very passionately for the need to love each other. I used this line in a hearing just now: “Patriotism is love of country, and you can’t love your country unless you love your fellow countrymen and women.”
We preach a gospel in this country every day, a civic gospel. We swear an oath when we put our hand over our heart and pledge to these ideals of liberty and justice for all, in the same way I do on my knees when I say, “Our Father.” We can say all the words we want, but this civic gospel that we all share … we’re not living up to it yet.
Those words we say when we pledge allegiance to the flag are aspirational. When we say, “We the people,” “E pluribus unum,” it’s “We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”
That is grace. And right now I see moral vandalism going on from the highest office in the land.
So every speech I give, I will not yield from talking about that revival of civic grace. Talking about revival of the civic gospels. Talking about the need to love one another.