With Court Battle Looming, Trump and Biden Compete for Catholic Voters

September 28, 2020by Daniela Altimari, The Hartford Courant (TNS)
St. Martin of Tours Roman Catholic Church. (Photo by Dan McCue)

HARTFORD, Conn. — Four years ago, Marge Hansen was deeply skeptical of Republican Donald Trump, dismissing the thrice-married businessman who once boasted about grabbing women “by the p—y” as sharply out-of-step with her own conservative Catholic values.

This year, she’s firmly behind Trump — even though former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee, is Catholic.

“I don’t want to date the man, but I do want him to run my country,” said Hansen, a 67-year-old widow from Wilton who considers herself a devout Catholic and regularly attends Latin Mass. “I had been on the fence with him, but the decisions he’s made as president have surprised me in a very pleasant way.”

Trump won over white Catholics such as Hansen with his efforts to limit access to abortion, protect religious freedom and advocate for Catholic schools. A Presbyterian who rarely attends church, he was the first sitting president to attend the annual March for Life anti-abortion rally in Washington in January.

“He’s been the most pro-life president we’ve ever had,” said Peter Wolfgang, president of FIC Action, the political arm of the socially conservative Family Institute of Connecticut.

The looming battle over a replacement for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has brought the conflict over abortion into sharper focus less than six weeks before Election Day. On Saturday, Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett, a conservative Catholic who is the ideological opposite of Ginsburg on abortion and a host of other issues.

“This will have repercussions long beyond the Trump era,” Wolfgang said. “Judges will be there forever. … This is really the whole ballgame.”

Although there are wide demographic and ideological differences among the 51 million American adults who identify as Roman Catholic, the sheer size of the Catholic population is likely to shape a close election. According to exit poll data, Catholic voters have picked the winning candidate in every presidential election since 2004.

Biden carries rosary beads in his pocket and often speaks about his faith. If elected, he would be the second Catholic president, after John F. Kennedy 60 years ago.

His support of abortion rights puts him at odds with some conservative Catholics. For them, abortion is the “preeminent issue,” a view that reflects the official position of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

White Catholic voters are a key constituency in swing states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. But the campaign for the Catholic vote also reverberates in Connecticut, the nation’s fourth most Catholic state, where roughly 40% of the population identifies as Roman Catholic.

REPUBLICANS COURTING CATHOLICS

Trump is making a strong push to replicate his success in 2016, when he won the vote of white, Mass-attending Catholics by 23 percentage points.

The Republican National Convention put abortion front and center last month. The largely virtual gathering featured an opening prayer by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York urging delegates to protect the unborn and a graphic speech by a former Planned Parenthood employee who now opposes abortion. Former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz took the stage to denounce Biden and running mate Kamala Harris as “the most radically pro-abortion ticket in history.”

“We’re seeing some pretty serious Catholic outreach on the Republican side,” said Mark Silk, director of the Greenberg Center and professor of religion in public life at Trinity College in Hartford.

Earlier this month, CatholicVote, a conservative political advocacy group, announced a $9.7 million campaign in support of Trump in several battleground states. The effort will feature digital ads and mailers as well as voter outreach on a parish level, said President Brian Burch.

“President Trump has embraced the life issue in a way that many did not think was even remotely possible,” Burch said. “These are not easy issues to defend publicly, especially when you have a cultural elite that is extraordinarily hostile to you.”

Trump has sought to paint Biden as a radical extremist who is opposed to religion. “Hurt the Bible. Hurt God. He’s against God,” Trump said of Biden last month.

That strategy may face resistance from some Catholic voters this year. A poll last week produced by EWTN News/RealClear Opinion shows Biden with a 12-point lead among voters who identify as Catholic.

“It’s very difficult to make the case that Joe Biden is anti-Catholic when he carries a Rosary,” said Steven A. Krueger, president of Catholic Democrats, a national nonprofit that backs Biden and Harris.

Over the past year, Biden has moved sharply to the left on several social issues, including abortion. He had long been a supporter of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of Medicaid dollars for abortion in almost all cases. But last year, when he was running in a Democratic primary field with several more liberal candidates, Biden flipped and announced his opposition.

“Even though he was pro-choice, he believed in the Hyde amendment and restraints on late-term abortions,” said Christopher Healy, the former chairman of the Connecticut Republican Party who currently works as the executive director of the Connecticut Catholic Conference. “He’s abandoned those things and has gone to the more radical side of the progressive agenda.”

Biden, an Irish Catholic who was educated by nuns in Pennsylvania, often speaks about his Catholic faith, and how it provided him comfort and strength after the death of his son, Beau, from brain cancer. The rosary beads he carries once belonged to Beau.

“I’m as much a cultural Catholic as I am a theological Catholic,” Biden wrote in his memoir, “Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics,” published in 2007, prior to Beau’s death. “My idea of self, of family, of community, of the wider world comes straight from my religion. It’s not so much the Bible, the Beatitudes, the Ten Commandments, the sacraments, or the prayers I learned. It’s the culture.”

Indeed, said Trinity’s Silk, Biden’s persona is likely familiar to many older, white Catholics. “He’s one of them,” Silk said. “And not just he carries around a rosary. … He feels like a guy at the parish.”

DEEP DIVISIONS OVER ABORTION

But for some Catholics, abortion remains the central issue.

Leticia Velasquez, a 58-year-old mother of three from Canterbury, said she “held her nose” and voted for Trump in 2016, mainly as a protest against Democrat Hillary Clinton.

This year, Velasquez, whose husband came to the U.S. as a refugee from El Salvador in the mid-1980s, said she will enthusiastically support the president.

“Catholics can agree to disagree with Trump on immigration or other issues,” said Velasquez, who runs an anti-abortion pregnancy center in Norwich. “There are other evils, but abortion is an intrinsic evil. … It’s the predominant human rights issue in our country.”

Catholics, like the electorate in general, are deeply polarized along party lines. According to a 2019 Pew Research Center poll, a slim majority — 56% — of Catholics say abortion should be legal in most cases.

“Obviously, Catholics are not monolithic,” Healy said. “They weigh all sorts of issues. … We’re still a very divided country.”

The same bishops who denounce abortion and marriage between partners of the same sex also vigorously defend the rights of immigrants and the poor and speak loudly against the death penalty.

Janice Steinhagen, a retired freelance writer from Griswold, said she has Catholic friends who span the political spectrum. While she concurs with church teachings that life begins at conception, she says Catholic respect for life transcends abortion.

“I can understand the rationale for trying to make abortion a litmus test because it deals with the most vulnerable, the human in the womb who is completely dependent on another human,” said Steinhagen, who spent part of her youth in Western Pennsylvania and is a “cradle Catholic,” born and raised in the church.

“My opposition to abortion has not ever wavered, but it’s easy to want to protect the unborn child,” she said. “It’s harder for us to want to protect the convicted killer or the sex offender or the illegal immigrant or the drug addict. Some people are harder to love, but our faith compels us to protect them, too.”

Steinhagen and other liberal Catholics said Trump’s embrace of an anti-abortion platform is borne of political expediency, not deeply help religious or moral beliefs.

“He’s long ago pressed the mute button on his own conscience,” she said. “He’s using the faith of others, with abortion as a lever, for his own self-glorification.”

But to Peter Wolfgang, of the Family Institute’s political action committee, Trump’s motivation hardly matters.

“Maybe he truly believes with us, maybe he doesn’t,” Wolfgang said. “Even if he doesn’t, he’s still done more for us than anyone who claims they do.”

———

©2020 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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