With a little more than three months to go until the Nov. 3 election, the campaigns of President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden are each making efforts to attract Catholic voters, a once-reliable Democratic constituency that in recent years has been up for grabs. The campaigns and their surrogates say the choice is stark, each highlighting issues they believe will appeal to their kinds of Catholic voters: those motivated primarily by abortion and those who see in the last four years a turn away from caring for society’s most marginalized.
Mr. Biden has spoken frequently about his own faith while talking to voters, especially in the early primary states. His campaign has so far courted voters motivated by their faith by inserting “values” language into outreach aimed at traditional Democratic cohorts, such as women, Hispanics and L.G.B.T. people. The Biden campaign also plans to announce a group of high-profile Catholics endorsing the former vice president later this summer. In the meantime, the campaign launched a “Believers for Biden” online campaign, which includes virtual conversations with campaign staff and weekly prayer reflections.
The Biden campaign recently hired a faith outreach director, and it has specifically targeted Jewish, Muslim and even Republican-leaning evangelical Christian voters, but it is seeking to imbue Mr. Biden’s entire message with language informed by faith and values. A recent campaign ad from the Biden campaign, for example, includes an image of a priest standing in a hospital room. As for Catholic voters specifically, John McCarthy, a staffer on the Biden campaign, said Mr. Biden’s personal story, as well the campaign’s theme, will speak directly to faith voters.
“At the core of Catholicism is the message that we look out for our neighbor. As we look toward the general election, America has to answer the question of who we are.”
“At the core of Catholicism is the message that we look out for our neighbor. As we look toward the general election, America has to answer the question of who we are,” Mr. McCarthy said in a phone interview with America. “For Catholics, and for faith voters, the question is, are we going to look out for one another, see the other as ourselves? If they ask that, these voters will ultimately stand with Vice President Biden, who has a lifelong commitment to issues at the core of Catholic Social Teaching.”
Michael Wear, who worked in faith outreach for former President Barack Obama, has been critical of Democratic efforts to reach faith voters, especially in the 2016 election. In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama announced a National Catholic Advisory Council in April but in 2016, Hillary Clinton’s campaign did not organize a Catholic leadership team. Mr. Wear said he sees signs that the Biden campaign is taking faith outreach more seriously.
“The most important thing there needs to be is an explicit invitation to religious voters that Joe Biden wants their vote. That needs to be clear,” Mr. Wear said. “The vice president doesn’t need to be doing faith events every other day, but what we’re looking for is one or two key moments where faith takes center stage.”
(One small example: In a 2016 interview with The Atlantic, Mr. Wear recalled that he had once drafted a strategy memo about the Democratic Party’s concern for “the least of these,” a nod to a story in the Gospels about Jesus’ concern for the poor and marginalized, a phrase met with confusion by another staffer. Four years later, on the Biden campaign’s web page highlighting his outreach to Catholic voters, is a section about the former vice president’s commitment to build an economy that protects “the least of these.”)
The Trump campaign, meanwhile, has resurrected its Catholics for Trump group, which got off to a rocky start earlier this year. The campaign published a video in May—conversations with some of the group’s members, including the political pundit Mary Matalin and the conservative activists Matt and Mercedes Schlapp—after an in-person launch was scrapped in March because of the pandemic. The event, which was supposed to be held in Wisconsin, drew criticism from at least one Catholic bishop, who wanted to distance the institutional church from the rally.
“Like all voters, Catholics have concerns on a number of issues and especially those that impact the most vulnerable.”
Another member of Catholics for Trump who was part of the YouTube event says she is supporting the president’s re-election because of his views on abortion, an issue she said “reveals the heart and soul of a candidate and is a roadmap to their other positions.”
“Like all voters, Catholics have concerns on a number of issues and especially those that impact the most vulnerable,” Kristan Hawkins, who leads Students for Life, wrote in an email to America. “But people first need to be welcomed into the world. Without that, all other conversation is rather pointless to those thrown away before they ever had a chance at life.”
Some Catholic political groups and media figures not officially linked with the campaign have also been vocal in their support of the president. The Michigan-based organization Catholic Vote has used social media and direct mail to make the case that Mr. Trump is good for Catholic voters, highlighting his opposition to abortion. Raymond Arroyo, a talk show host for the influential Catholic television channel EWTN, interviewed Mr. Trump in June, joking with Mr. Trump and complimenting his rally crowd sizes. Mr. Arroyo is also a contributor to Fox News, where he regularly questions Mr. Biden’s fitness to be president.
Catholics comprise about 23 percent of the electorate, according to a recent analysis from Frank Newport, a political scientist at Gallup. But Mr. Newport notes that just being a member of the same faith may not give Mr. Biden an edge, noting “the lack of evidence that Catholics in any way vote as a bloc or that their religion differentiates them from all other voters.” Catholics mirror almost exactly the sharp polarization found in the overall U.S. population. Recent polls suggest that Catholics are more or less split when it comes to the two candidates, though as in 2016, sharp divides exist between Hispanic Catholics, who largely favor Mr. Biden, and white Catholics, a majority of whom plan to back the president.
Recent polls suggest that Catholics are more or less split when it comes to the two candidates.
Mr. Trump’s own history with Catholic leaders is complicated. He has over the years made a few visits to New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who earlier this spring praised the president’s leadership during a campaign-style call between a number of Catholic schools leaders and the White House, and then again during an appearance on Fox News.
But the president has also received criticism from Catholic leaders, including the pope, who has implicitly criticized Mr. Trump’s hardline views on immigration. During the height of the racial justice protests earlier this summer, the president drew condemnation from the archbishop of Washington, D.C., Wilton Gregory, for politicizing religious faith.
The president has also touted the endorsement from a controversial Italian archbishop who has called on the pope to resign, which has led some Catholic commentators to question how well the president understands Catholic voters.
“Trump is on dangerous terrain with white Catholics,” David Gibson, who leads Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture, told The Tablet last month. “Catholics who support him may not love Francis, but if they see the president [as attacking] the pope they may not be happy.”
Some Catholic groups believe Mr. Biden can make inroads with Catholic voters who are increasingly wary of Mr. Trump’s style, hoping that voters will look at the totality of Catholic social teaching when making their decision about which candidate to support.
Simone Campbell, a Sister of Social Service, runs the social justice advocacy group Network. She said she regularly receives emails from Catholics who are “anguished” by the idea of voting for a candidate who supports abortion rights but who are turned off by Mr. Trump.
“Donald Trump has done everything to demonize and hurt immigrants, and hurt children for God’s sake. He has done everything conceivable to undermine wages and the dignity of workers.”
“It’s the consistent ethic of life,” Sister Campbell said. Her group plans to release a scorecard of the two candidates later this summer, grading them on issues she said are as equally important to the pro-life cause as abortion, such as climate change, health care and the rights of workers.
“Donald Trump has done everything to demonize and hurt immigrants, and hurt children for God’s sake. He has done everything conceivable to undermine wages and the dignity of workers,” Sister Campbell said, adding that concern for the vulnerable is “in Joe Biden’s blood.”
Still, one issue that will undoubtedly dog Mr. Biden as he seeks Catholic votes is abortion. Last year, a priest in South Carolina said he denied Mr. Biden Communion because of his support for abortion rights, signaling perhaps a return to the “Communion wars” of 2004, when John Kerry, a Catholic and the Democratic nominee for president, faced similar resistance from some church leaders. (Cardinal Dolan said last year he would not have denied Communion to Mr. Biden.) While the former vice president has long supported legalized abortion, he recently shifted his views on the so-called Hyde Amendment, a once-bipartisan policy that has prevented taxpayer money from being used to pay for abortions, saying he is now opposed to the policy.
The Trump campaign regularly highlights the president’s opposition to abortion as a reason why he deserves the support of Catholic and evangelical Protestants. The controversial head of Priests for Life, the Rev. Frank Pavone, endorsed Mr. Trump in 2016 and again this time around. He had been acting as an advisor to the campaign but recently stepped down, as priests are generally discouraged from partisan politicking . Still, he said in a statement on July 27, “I call upon all of my fellow patriots who embrace pro-life and conservative principles to put aside, as much as possible, all other activities and to make it their first priority, as it will be mine, to re-elect President Trump, to give him a Republican House and Senate, and to elect Republicans on the state and local level as well.”
Some Democrats are urging their party to soften its stance on abortion to send a signal to pro-life voters that they are an important constituency. The Democrats for Life of America sent a letter to Democratic Party officials on July 24, asking them to “embrace policies that protect both women and children” as they draft their platform, in the hopes that some pro-life voters who are unsettled by Mr. Trump might be more comfortable voting for Mr. Biden.
As for creating campaign moments that showcase the importance of faith, as the Democratic strategist Mr. Wear suggested is important for the Biden campaign, many possibilities between now and Nov. 3 remain, but at least one possibility has fallen victim to the ongoing pandemic.
On Monday, the University of Notre Dame announced that it would not host a presidential debate that had been scheduled for Sept. 29, citing safety concerns about the coronavirus, preventing Mr. Biden from speaking about his faith at one of the nation’s most iconic Catholic campuses.