The 2016 election highlighted Donald Trump's successful courtship of white evangelicals. This year, much of the focus could be on Catholics. The presidential campaigns are fighting for votes in the Catholic-rich Midwestern states, and the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, is himself a Catholic.
"You could view it as the ultimate swing constituency in the country," says Matt Schlapp, a conservative activist and co-chair of the newly formed "Catholics for Trump" coalition. He was speaking last month on EWTN, a Catholic cable network.
The Trump outreach effort is troubling some Catholic leaders. The church's official document on political participation, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, eschews any partisan viewpoint, a position consistent with requirements in the U.S. tax code.
"Part of the church's mission is to shape the moral character of society," says Chieko Noguchi, spokesperson for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "But the church isn't aligned with any political party, and it doesn't support or oppose any candidate for elective office."
When the Trump campaign in March announced it intended to launch the "Catholics for Trump" movement at a rally in Wisconsin, the archbishop of Milwaukee, Jerome Listecki, took pains in an archdiocese statement to distance his church from the effort.
"The Catholic Church and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee are not endorsing the rally and are in no way affiliated to or sponsoring this event or campaign locally, statewide, or nationally," Listecki said. "The mission of the church is religious, not political."
That message is not what President Trump wants Catholics to hear, however. Although the Milwaukee rally was postponed because of the coronavirus epidemic, the campaign proceeded with an online appeal to Catholic voters, and the effort to win their support remains a top priority.
On a recent Saturday, Trump hosted a call with several hundred Catholic leaders from around the country. Although the call was private, two participants on the call told the online newspaper Crux that Trump repeatedly made a case for his reelection and urged the Catholic leaders to support him.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan was reportedly the first to respond, noting how often he speaks on the phone to the president. Trump was delighted and announced he would watch Cardinal Dolan's online service the next day at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. On the following Monday, Dolan was interviewed on Fox News.
"It was sure good to have the president with us yesterday," Dolan told the Fox & Friends show. "I really salute his leadership."
Progressive Catholics and others who want to keep their church out of politics were dismayed. In an editorial, the National Catholic Reporter called the exchange between Dolan and the president "cringe-worthy."
"We think Cardinal Timothy Dolan ... was really making a mistake in letting this president co-opt him in an attempt to get Catholic votes," says Heidi Schlumpf, the magazine's newly named editor-in-chief. "We called it an unholy alliance."
Like everyone else, however, Catholics are divided. While the church advocates for immigrants and the poor and opposes the death penalty, it vigorously opposes abortion and same-sex marriage. Where Catholics come down politically depends in large part on which of those issues matter most to them.
Surveys suggest that most Catholics voted for Trump in the last election, and many continue to support him. The group CatholicVote.Org hosted a friendly town hall last week with Mick Mulvaney, Trump's former chief of staff and a devout Catholic. One of the program hosts, former Republican Congressman Tim Huelskamp, asked Mulvaney what guidance he had for those Catholics considering whom to support in the fall election.
Mulvaney's answer was clear: Catholics should not consider voting for a Democrat.
"There is something that doesn't connect any more between faith and the Democrat Party," Mulvaney said. "You may like Democrats, but you put the Democrats in charge, and the values that you carry as a Roman Catholic are going to suffer." The party's near-unanimous support for abortion rights, Mulvaney suggested, was "by itself" disqualifying.
"If you want to see your values reflected in policy, there's really no choice," he said. "You have to not only vote the Republican Party, but you have to help get them elected."
Given that Catholics bring a multitude of values to their political choices, however, Catholics should keep all of the church's positions in mind, rather than focus solely on abortion, advises the National Catholic Reporter's Schlumpf.
"Church teaching says that we need to have a consistent ethic of life, where we look at all human life as valuable," she says. "That's why we see this cozying up with one party over a specific issue — admittedly an important issue for many Catholics — as problematic."
This year, Democrats intend to compete vigorously with Republicans for the support of Catholic voters. They may be helped by having a ticket led by a Catholic. Also, the Catholic electorate includes a growing number of Latinos — most of whom opposed Trump in 2016. A February poll by EWTN News and RealClear Opinion Research showed Biden leading Trump among Catholic voters, but Trump led among those who describe themselves as more active in their faith — attending Mass weekly and praying frequently.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
If you spend any time watching Joe Biden speak over the years, you know that he is a Catholic. It is part of his political identity, which is convenient as Catholics make up a large part of the population in states where the election is likely to be decided. Not surprisingly, the Trump campaign is making a pitch for their support as well, and this is just dividing the church more. Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The Catholic Church's official view on how to think about voting is in a document called Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. The bottom line - the church aims to influence parties but does not side with one. Under U.S. law, it can't. Chieko Noguchi is spokesperson for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
CHIEKO NOGUCHI: Part of the church's mission is to shape the moral character of society. But the church isn't aligned with any political party, and it doesn't support or oppose any candidate for elected office.
GJELTEN: That is not the message President Trump wants Catholics to hear. His campaign has organized a Catholics for Trump movement. On a recent Saturday, Trump hosted a call with Catholic leaders, reportedly asking them to support his reelection. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York is said to have boasted how often he speaks with the president on the phone. In turn, Trump announced he'd watch Cardinal Dolan's online service the next day at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. On the following Monday, Dolan was interviewed on Fox News.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS BROADCAST)
TIMOTHY DOLAN: And it was sure good...
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Yes.
DOLAN: ...To have the president with us yesterday. He's been - I really salute his leadership.
GJELTEN: Progressive Catholics and others who want to keep their church out of politics were dismayed. In an editorial, The National Catholic Reporter called the exchange between Dolan and the president cringe worthy. Heidi Schlumpf is the magazine's editor-in-chief.
HEIDI SCHLUMPF: We think Cardinal Timothy Dolan and the other bishops who were on that call - but especially him - that he was really making a mistake in letting this president co-opt him in an attempt to get Catholic votes.
GJELTEN: But many conservative Catholics are all-in for Trump. The group CatholicVote.org hosted a town hall last week with Mick Mulvaney, Trump's former chief of staff and a devout Catholic. Former Republican Congressman Tim Huelskamp had the key question.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TIM HUELSKAMP: If you had one message for Catholics out there in the upcoming election, what would it be?
GJELTEN: Mulvaney's answer - Catholics shouldn't vote for a Democrat.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MICK MULVANEY: There is something that doesn't connect anymore between faith and the Democrat party. And you may like Democrats; you may want to vote for them. But you put the Democrats in charge and the values that you carry as a Roman Catholic are going to suffer.
GJELTEN: Like everyone else, Catholics are divided. The church's opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage inclines many of them to support Republican candidates. But it also advocates for immigrants and the poor and opposes the death penalty. Heidi Schlumpf of the National Catholic Reporter says the faithful should keep all the church positions in mind.
SCHLUMPF: Church teaching says that we need to have a consistent ethic of life, where we look at all human life as valuable. That's why we see this cozying up with one party over a specific issue - and again, admittedly an important issue for many Catholics - as problematic.
GJELTEN: Surveys suggest that most Catholics voted for Trump in the last election. But this year, Joe Biden is his likely opponent, and Latinos who did not support Trump last time around are now a growing share of Catholic voters. So the competition to win their support is likely to be fierce.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.