Hoping to improve its standing with Catholic voters, the Trump campaign on Oct. 12 demanded an apology from the Clinton campaign for a string of leaked emails that critics say show an anti-Catholic bias from some of Hillary Clinton’s top aides.
In a 2011 email chain made public on Tuesday, Clinton communications chief Jennifer Palmieri responded to an email from John Halpin, a staffer at the Center for American Progress, about conservatives who convert to Catholicism, highlighting Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch whose children were raised Catholic. Mr. Murdoch himself is not Catholic, but he has been active in Catholic circles.
Mr. Halpin wrote that conservatives are attracted to Catholicism because of “the systematic thought and severely backwards gender relations” calling such beliefs “an amazing bastardization of the faith.”
Ms. Palmieri, who also worked at the Center for American Progress at the time, responded, “I imagine they think it is the most socially acceptable politically conservative religion. Their rich friends wouldn't understand if they became evangelicals.”
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Ms. Palmieri said that she does not “recognize” the emails and that she herself is Catholic, according to a tweet from a BuzzFeed political reporter. She reportedly stopped short of denying their authenticity.
Copied on the exchange was Clinton campaign chief John Podesta, a practicing Catholic whose email account was hacked and its contents published by WikiLeaks. Mr. Podesta has acknowledged that his account was hacked, but he has cast doubt on the veracity of the contents published by WikiLeaks.
It does not appear that Mr. Podesta replied to the Palmieri-Halpin thread, but the Trump campaign highlighted the emails on Wednesday. Speaking at Liberty University on Wednesday morning, G.O.P. vice presidential hopeful Mike Pence condemned the emails and called on the Clinton campaign to apologize.
“If only on behalf of her Catholic running mate,” Mr. Pence said, referring to Tim Kaine, “Hillary Clinton should denounce those bigoted, anti-Catholic, anti-evangelical remarks and her campaign staff should apologize to people of faith and do it now.”
In the same speech, Mr. Pence, who was brought up Catholic before converting to evangelical Christianity in college, said he “didn’t see much relevance for the faith that I’d been raised in.”
Mr. Trump weighed in on the leaked emails later in the day during a speech in Florida.
“She did a big number on Catholics, a horrible number on Catholics. She did a horrible number on evangelicals, through her people,” Mr. Trump said, tying Mrs. Clinton to Ms. Palmieri’s email.
Polls show Mr. Trump lagging with Catholic voters.
A poll from PRRI released on Tuesday found Mrs. Clinton leading Mr. Trump 55 percent to 34 percent among all Catholic voters. The Republican candidate does better with white Catholics, trailing just four points behind Mrs. Clinton. The poll was conducted on Oct. 5-9.
CatholicVote, a politically conservative organization that last week denounced Mr. Trump after leaked tapes revealed he used lewd language about women, called on Ms. Palmieri to resign.
“Make no mistake, had Clinton staff and allies spoken this way about other groups, they would be dismissed,” the group said in a statement. “Just imagine if Clinton’s spokesperson was caught calling prominent Muslims or Jewish converts frauds for embracing their faith and mocking them for doing so because it was socially acceptable.”
The head of the group, Brian Burch, faulted Mr. Podesta for not replying to the email.
“And there's no evidence that Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta ever pushed back at these smears against Catholicism,” he said in a statement. “Everyone has a unique faith journey, and it's just insulting to make blanket statements maligning people's motives for converting to another faith tradition.”
Other Catholics are accusing Mr. Podesta of trying to foment division in the church, pointing to a separate email exchange about opposition from some bishops to certain elements of the Affordable Care Act based on the church’s stance against contraception.
In a 2012 email to Mr. Podesta, Sandy Newman, president of Voices for Progress, wrote that while he does not understand how the Catholic Church operates, he wanted somebody to launch a “Catholic Spring, in which Catholics themselves demand the end of a middle ages dictatorship and the beginning of a little democracy and respect for gender equality in the Catholic church.”
Mr. Podesta responded by highlighting two organizations he helped create that could fill such a role.
“We created Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good to organize for a moment like this,” he wrote. “Likewise Catholics United.”
Thomas Peters, a conservative writer and member of CatholicVote, wrote that the emails show a concerted effort by Clinton allies to undermine the Catholic Church.
“[R]emember @HillaryClinton said "deep-seated religious beliefs have to be changed" - @johnpodesta emails show he was doing just that!” Mr. Peters tweeted, referring to a 2015 speech Mrs. Clinton gave about expanding global access to reproductive healthcare.
He followed that tweet with, “@johnpodesta emails are especially alarming because they show the tip of an iceberg. They created a network. This is just a snapshot.”
Christopher Hale, the executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, told America that his organization is fully on board with U.S. bishops and the teachings of the Catholic Church.
“We’re not a church reform group,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is to promote the settled issues of the church in the public sphere, like the dignity of all human life from conception to death, the dignity of immigrants, economic justice for the poor, care for God’s creation, and inclusion for marginalized communities throughout the nation.”
Michael O’Loughlin is the national correspondent for America and author of “The Tweetable Pope: A Spiritual Revolution in 140 Characters.” Follow him on Twitter at @mikeoloughlin.