October 21, 2020
By Tish Durkin
Some of Trump’s most committed Catholic supporters have leveled dark charges against Biden as they battle to sway the vote in crucial swing states. And wait until you hear what they think of the pope.
Joe Biden or Donald Trump: Who’s the better Catholic? If this seems like an odd question to raise in the context of a race for the highest secular office in America—and a race in which one of the two candidates is Protestant—never mind. Both campaigns, and their surrogates, are hotly contesting the answer.
The ex–Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz slammed Biden as a “Catholic in name only” in his appearance at the Republican National Convention.
“President Trump is ignoring Catholic teachings on care for the Earth, feeding the hungry, welcoming the immigrant,” Sister Simone Campbell, a social-justice activist who led a prayer at the Democratic convention, fired back in an interview with me not long after.
There is no reason to assume that strident doctrinal appeals, harnessed to baroque conspiracy theories, will attract most Catholic voters; in fact, the most recent polling data, which show Biden gaining on Trump among white Catholics, strongly suggest that they won’t. On the whole, American Catholics don’t, for example, just accept the concept of birth control; they use it. A majority favors at least some degree of legal abortion—and even those who don’t would probably balk at the idea of Francis as Lucifer’s wingman. To the degree that Catholics are also Americans who admire the Founders of this country—particularly Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin—they might feel the urge to back away slowly from avowed enemies of the Enlightenment.
And yet, a lot has happened, in the Church and in the world, since Obama won a second term. The revival of the sexual-abuse crisis in 2018 unquestionably led all kinds of Catholics to turn fresh rage on the Church hierarchy. The internet, which was still in its baby stage when the previous sexual-abuse crisis hit in 2002, has provided multiple platforms to amplify that anger, and repurpose it. Meanwhile, the Trump phenomenon has made conspiracy-based extremism the stuff of politics, and virtually everything the stuff of political polarization, including Francis himself. In 2014, the pontiff was rated equally favorably by American Catholics in both political parties, according to a Pew Research Center survey. Four years later, he was 10 points more popular among Democrats than among Republicans. Given these developments, it’s certainly conceivable that at least some Catholics have taken a sharp right turn since 2012, or might, if particular messaging were to hit them.
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