Can Catholic Biden capture his faith’s vote?

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In the US presidential election, both campaigns have realised that the path to victory is effectively through the white Catholic vote.

Millions are being spent to secure support in the swing states of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, where there are significant Catholic populations.

The crucial importance of the Catholic vote and the impact of Joe Biden’s “innate” living faith was the subject of a Religion Media Centre zoom briefing, when Christopher White, correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, and Dr Steve Schneck, who co-chairs Catholics for Biden reflected on the campaign and Biden the man.  

Christopher White said Biden’s faith was more reflective and innate than it was for John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic to hold the office. Biden had a natural instinct to gravitate to matters of faith and referenced it in most of his speeches, keeping it so close that he carried a rosary in his pocket. Dr Schneck, who knows Biden well, said he was a man who was serious about his faith and in private meetings, reflected on how it pertained to moral issues of the day.

A rich and powerful body of conservative Catholics, however, has poured more than $7m into a campaign for Donald Trump. Christopher White explained that Catholics at first opposed his nomination, but coalesced round him once he had been selected as candidate. Key was his promise to nominate pro-life judges who would eventually overturn Roe vs Wade, the judgment that legalised abortion.

At a personal level, Biden embraces the Catholic teaching on abortion, that life is sacred from conception, but does not wish to impose this as a matter of public policy. As a result, he is at odds with the church’s position, which opposes abortion legislation. Dr Schneck said without doubt Biden had been a disappointment to Catholics who think the only solution is to overturn Roe vs Wade. 

This issue had also attracted the support of white evangelicals. But both commentators agreed that the unlikely religious alliance was fraying over the issues of race, the death penalty and immigration. 

Conservative Catholics find themselves having to reckon with Pope Francis’ teaching, where he broadens out the understanding of “pro-life”, speaking of the equal sacredness and dignity of the life of an immigrant and a person on death row, and the importance of climate change.

Christopher White said Biden had emphasised in his campaign, that racism was a defining issue and Catholic voters had been turned off by Trump’s attitude to race and immigration. 

Dr Schneck observed that social justice Catholics are attracted by campaign issues such as health care, immigration, the economy and climate change. 

The deep polarisation between conservatives and progressives in American society is echoed among American Catholics, he said. 

The journalist and author Christopher Lamb, host of the debate, asked whether the Catholic church had become a vehicle for some elements of the Republican Party or conservative thought, with wealthy philanthropists driving Catholic universities and institutions in an opposite direction to Pope Francis.

Dr Schneck explained that during the Reagan presidency in the 1980s, conservative Catholics began to build a “parallel magisterium” – institutions and separate organisation – within the Catholic church,  so that now it is difficult to see where the Catholic church ends and conservative organisations begin. 

They had the President’s ear, Christopher White said, and Trump responded by saying life, religious liberty and school choice was on the ballot and that he would protect them on these issues. 

There is evidence of a shift in church leadership. In November 2019, Catholic bishops produced Faithful Citizenship, a document guiding the faithful in how to vote, which said abortion was the preeminent issue.  But now there is a change of tone among the Bishops, with different language on public issues reflecting a broader base.  

In 2016, Donald Trump won the white Catholic vote in “rust belt” states by a 33 per cent margin, but Pew Forum research indicates this has reduced to 19 points.

Dr Schneck said the Latino Catholic vote was important, for example in Florida and Arizona. Recent polls showed that counting all Catholic votes – Latino, white, black – Biden was leading Trump by 51:44. 

View the RMC briefing on our You Tube site here

COMMENTATORS 

Christopher White, National Catholic Reporter

Steve Schneck, Franciscan Action Network