Catholic voters have an opportunity in November to help elect only the second Catholic president in U.S. history in former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, but already the more devout followers are lining up behind President Trump.
Gone are the days when nearly 80% of Catholic voters united to push Irish-Catholic Democrat John F. Kennedy into the White House in 1960. Catholic voters today are split on the 2020 candidates, even though Mr. Biden is a lifelong Mass-attending Catholic, and Mr. Trump is a Presbyterian.
A Pew Research Center poll released last month found that 50% of registered Catholic voters plan to vote for Mr. Trump, while 49% back Mr. Biden.
“The Catholic vote is not a monolithic vote in America,” said Brian Burch, president of the conservative CatholicVote. “We’ve moved away from that kind of tribal, if-he’s-a-Catholic-therefore-I-trust-him view. There are other reasons inside our own church for that as well. It’s not enough to merely say you’re Catholic.”
While Mr. Biden is known for his regular church attendance — he and his wife Jill Biden worship at St. Joseph on the Brandywine in Greenville, Delaware — polls show his supporters within the church tend to be less fastidious in their Sunday habits.
“The more you go to Mass and the more you self-describe as following the church’s teachings, the more likely you are to be voting for Trump,” said EWTN executive editor Matthew Bunson. “If you go to Mass less often and disagree with key teachings, you’re more likely to support Biden.”
About 18% of Catholics say they accept all the church’s teachings, versus 38% who say they accept most of them, and 29% who say they do not accept some key teachings, according to a February EWTN News/RealClearOpinion poll.
“Among Catholics who do practice the faith in a substantive way, yes, there’s been a dramatic shift over the last several decades away from the Democratic Party and into the Republican Party, and I think it’s been especially pronounced under President Trump,” Mr. Burch said.
He cited not only the abortion issue, on which Mr. Trump has been widely described as the most pro-life president ever, but his appeals to “this notion of the importance of place, of country, of patriotism, of family, of meaningful work,” as well as his political grit in the face of opposition.
“His policies are demonstrative proof of his pro-life credentials, but more important, and I increasingly hear this from Catholics, are his fortitude and courage,” Mr. Burch said. “Many Republican administrations in the past have paid lip service to the issue, and while they might be sympathetic to our cause, when things got difficult, they abandoned ship.”
Both camps are making plays for Catholic voters, and for good reason: Not only do they make up 22% of the U.S. electorate, but in nine of the last 10 presidential elections, Catholics voted with the winner, Mr. Bunson said.
Mr. Biden has sought to press his advantage with regular references to his faith. In a video released before the Democratic National Convention, he recalled meeting Pope Francis and talking with several nuns during a visit to the Vatican.
“That’s what in my experience — being raised Catholics and being educated by the nuns — that’s those lovely women I’m talking to symbolized to me,” Mr. Biden said in the video. “We are our brother’s keeper. We have an obligation. I think that’s the only way we’re going to make the world better and safer.”
DNC emcee Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who starred in “Seinfeld,” managed to ding Mr. Trump and showcase Mr. Biden’s churchgoing in her crack about the president’s appearance in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church after it was torched by rioters.
“Just remember, Joe Biden goes to church so regularly that he doesn’t even need tear gas and a bunch of federalized troops to help him get there,” said Ms. Louis-Dreyfus.
For traditional Catholics, however, Mr. Biden remains a hard sell, given his pro-choice stance on abortion and his opposition to conscience exemptions for religious organizations, business owners and medical professionals under Obamacare.
CatholicVote sought to drive home the point by unveiling Tuesday a $9.7 million campaign in six key swing states targeting “Joe Biden’s anti-Catholic record and policy agenda,” including digital ads, canvassing and direct mail.
In October, Father Robert Morey of St. Anthony Catholic Church in Florence, South Carolina, said he denied Mr. Biden communion over his abortion stance.
Then there’s Mr. Biden’s running mate. Sen. Kamala D. Harris, California Democrat, is viewed on the right as overtly hostile to Catholics based on her December 2018 grilling of federal judicial nominee Brian Buescher over his membership in the Knights of Columbus.
“Since 1993, you have been a member of the Knights of Columbus, an all-male society comprised primarily of Catholic men,” said Ms. Harris during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. “Were you aware that the Knights of Columbus opposed a woman’s right to choose when you joined the organization?”
The Catholic Association described Ms. Harris, a Baptist, as “the ringleader of the anti-Catholic bullying stance adopted by the Democratic Party.”
“With Harris now joining the race to become the next Vice President of the United States, Catholics are (rightfully) concerned about what the future of the country has in store, and whether the anti-Catholic sentiments will only get worse,” TCA said in an Aug. 13 statement.
Mr. Trump had a strong showing with Catholics in 2016. Pew Research said he won the Catholic vote by 52%-46% over Democrat Hillary Clinton, although other measures have characterized the results as more of a toss-up.
Mr. Biden’s greatest strength may lie with Hispanic Catholics. While 59% of White Catholics plan to vote for Mr. Trump, according to Pew, 65% of Hispanic Catholics support the Democrat — in both cases a number more in line with people of their ethnicity regardless of religion.
There was a similar split in 2016, with 64% of White Catholics backing Mr. Trump and 78% of Hispanic Catholics supporting Mrs. Clinton.
Even though no Catholic has been elected president Mr. Kennedy, since 2004 there has been a Catholic on at least one of the major party tickets. The last Catholic presidential nominee was Democrat John Kerry, who lost to President George W. Bush in 2004.
Win or lose, Mr. Biden has already made U.S. religious history. He became the first Catholic vice president in 2009 after winning election as Democrat Barack Obama’s running mate.
Ironically, if Mr. Biden is denied the presidency in November, it may be conservative Catholics who stand in his way.
“I expect record turnout among Mass-attending Catholics,” said Mr. Burch, “given the existential stakes of this election.”
Sign up for Daily Newsletters