Donald Trump is seeking to woo Catholics via a letter writing campaign as a new poll suggests the candidate is making up ground with Catholic voters, especially white Catholics who may hold the key to a Trump victory. In a letter to participants at the Catholic Leadership Conference being held in Denver, where one of Trump’s Catholic and pro-life advisers was advertised as a featured speaker, the Republican presidential hopeful said that Democratic rivals Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine would seek an agenda hostile to Catholics.
“On issues and policies of greatest concern to Catholics, the differences between myself and Hillary Clinton are stark,” the letter said. “I will stand with Catholics and fight for you.
“Hillary Clinton has been openly hostile to these core Catholic issues for a long time, and is only going to be worse with Tim Kaine now following her lead,” it continued.
Kaine, a practicing Catholic, says he is personally against abortion and supports the ban on using federal money to fund abortions called the Hyde Amendment, a break with Clinton. But he believes the procedure should be legal, a case he made in Tuesday night’s vice presidential debate against Trump running mate Mike Pence.
Among the issues cited in the letter were abortion, religious liberty, homeschooling and jobs. The letter was posted by the Catholic News Agency earlier this week. As president, the letter said, Trump would not force employers, such as the Little Sisters of the Poor, to offer health insurance plans that cover contraception if they object on religious grounds.
This has been a battle between some Catholic groups and the Obama administration for several years, with the employers citing religious liberty concerns and the administration saying the government has a compelling interest in expanding access to contraception.
“That is a hostility to religious liberty you will never see in a Trump Administration,” the letter says.
In a separate letter sent to the conservative lay group CatholicVote, Trump wrote, “Our current president has not respected Americans’ First Amendment rights. Many believe he has declared a war on Catholics. And my opponent promises to be even worse!”
CatholicVote published an essay in January assailing Trump for “appealing to our worst fears instead of our best hopes” and urging Catholics to “look beyond Trump.” In September, the group reversed course, writing, “Catholics can in good conscience vote for Donald Trump.”
Trump wrote in the letter that if elected, he would support legislation that would allow businesses to refuse to serve same-sex couples based on religious objections as well as provide conscience protection measures for healthcare workers opposed to abortion.
A Pew poll last month found that most U.S. Catholics do not support businesses refusing to serve same-sex couples based on religious objections.
“As President, I promise that I will protect the rights of Catholics to live their faith, to serve their communities, and to act on their beliefs without fear,” the letter says. “This approach one would think is just common sense. And I don’t care if people call it politically incorrect.”
Several prominent Catholics active in conservative political circles have doubted Trump’s commitment to pro-life causes. The candidate was in favor of abortion access for many years until switching sides as he geared up for a presidential run.
In recent months, some of those Catholic critics said they now believe Trump is committed to pro-life causes, and some joined Trump’s Catholic advisory board last month. The candidate used the letter to the Catholic Leadership Conference to reiterate his promise to appoint pro-life judges.
“I will appoint Justices to the Supreme Court who will strictly interpret the Constitution and not legislate from the bench, like Justice Clarence Thomas and the late and beloved great Catholic thinker and jurist, Justice Antonin Scalia,” the letter said.
Trump also gave shoutouts to two Catholic bishops with ties to Denver: Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, the previous archbishop of Denver, and the current leader of the Archdiocese of Denver, Samuel Aquila.
On the same day Trump’s letter was released, Archbishop Aquila published a column on the archdiocese’s website in which he implied that supporting the Republican Party is a more acceptable choice for Catholic voters. He wrote that he holds an “aversion for both candidates,” but he said Catholics nonetheless should vote in the election on Nov. 8. Before doing so, however, he said they should consider their relationship to Jesus versus party loyalty.
Part of that discernment process should involve looking at the party platforms and considering which one “supports human life from conception through natural death, the freedom of religion and the freedom of conscience, the family, and the poor.”
“We are where we are today because too many Catholics and other people of faith have embraced the ways of the world and not the ways of Christ,” Archbishop Aquila wrote.
“One only needs to look to the Health and Human Service contraceptive mandate, or the attempt by President Obama to force a transgender agenda onto public schools,” he wrote. “We are witnessing the dictatorship of relativism and the erosion of true freedom.”
A poll from the Public Religion Research Institute conducted in late September and released this week shows Catholic voters may be receptive to Trump’s message.
While most other surveys until now show Clinton leading among Catholic voters, the P.R.R.I. poll found nearly half (49 percent) of all Catholic voters say they plan on voting for Trump, with 42 percent picking Clinton. Among white non-Hispanic Catholics, Trump does even better—56 percent to 31 percent.
A P.R.R.I. poll from August had Clinton up 55 percent to Trump’s 32 percent among Catholic voters.
Sister Simone Campbell, head of the social justice organization Network, said in a statement on Friday that Trump’s letter to the Catholic Leadership Conference was “a political ploy” that “won’t fool anyone.”
“Donald Trump is once again trying to use dog whistle politics to appeal to voters; he tried using the old code words and failed,” the statement continued. “What Donald Trump doesn’t realize is that in this election, Pope Francis voters are carefully weighing their choices to vote for the common good.”
Michael O’Loughlinis the national correspondent for America and author of “The Tweetable Pope: A Spiritual Revolution in 140 Characters.” Follow him on Twitter at @mikeoloughlin.