Two days after the first — and possibly only — presidential debate, Donald Trump and Joe Biden appeared together again. This time both made virtual speeches to the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner, an annual charity event held by the Catholic Archdiocese of New York.
The Al Smith Dinner is hugely significant. It is one of the last events in which both presidential candidates appear during election years — and even made it into The West Wing. Traditionally it is marked by the two candidates making good-natured speeches mocking each other, all watched by a merry Archbishop of New York.
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This year, though, as Trump boasted of the nomination of conservative Catholic Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, and Biden spoke of how his own Catholic faith has guided his politics and given him strength through personal tragedy, the stakes of appealing to this — traditionally Democrat — audience were especially high.
It’s easy to overlook the impact of the Catholic Church on US politics. Catholicism has often been marginalised and even despised for much of American history, its adherents the victims of often vicious prejudice. A friend of mine from graduate school who grew up in the Midwest once explained to me that his hometown was historically a hotbed for the Ku Klux Klan, despite having virtually no black population.
That is because there, and in many parts of early-20th century America, the KKK was more an anti-Catholic hate group than an anti-black one. Throughout the 19th century, fear of Irish and other Catholic immigrants was a major feature of American politics; it inspired the only successful nativist movement, the American Party (nicknamed “the Know Nothings”).
On top of general hostility to immigrants from Ireland, as well as southern and eastern Europe, there was a fear that the Catholic Church, as a foreign state, would interfere in American political life. On an official level, the US cut ties with the Papal States in 1867, and didn’t restore full relations with the Vatican until 1984.
Al Smith, after whom the dinner was named, was the first Catholic to be nominated for the presidency, in 1928, but lost due to a combination of “Prohibition, Prejudice and Prosperity”; like the vast majority of Catholics, he opposed the ban on selling alcohol, a movement which had a strong sectarian undercurrent. It was not until 1960 that America’s one and only successful Catholic candidate for president, John F. Kennedy, was elected, and only after reassuring the American public that he would put American interests ahead of the Pope’s influence.
Catholics tended to vote for Democrats, partly because the Republicans were associated with the Protestant northern elite. But in recent years, the huge reduction in anti-Catholic prejudice among voters — which has all but disappeared since Kennedy’s time — has changed that dynamic, and Catholic voters are no longer defined by external prejudice.
Instead, internal divisions within the Church itself have limited its political influence. Today, American Catholics tend to vote along ethnic and party lines rather than as a united bloc. Even Catholic candidates are not enough to win a party the Catholic vote — and often get more scrutiny from some Catholic circles. Last year, a priest denied Communion to Joe Biden over his pro-choice stance on abortion. Similar threats were made against other Democratic Catholics, including 2004 Democratic candidate John Kerry and Hillary Clinton‘s 2016 running mate, Tim Kaine.
In contrast, Evangelical Protestants have been one of the most potent political forces in the United States for the past 40 years. Yet with all the focus that’s been paid to Evangelicals in American politics (even by this author), it’s easy to forget that Catholicism remains the largest single religious denomination in the United States.
And unlike Evangelicals (at least white Evangelicals) who have firmly been in the Republican camp since switching from Jimmy Carter in 1976 to Ronald Reagan in 1980, Catholics remain one of America’s largest swing votes. Catholics narrowly broke for George W Bush over John Kerry in 2004. Barack Obama won the majority of the Catholic vote in 2008 and 2012, while Trump bested Hillary Clinton in 2016.
A few weeks ago polls put Biden 12 points ahead of Trump among likely Catholic voters, who make up to 20% of the population in key swing states such as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Then came the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which added a further twist to the election, placing Catholicism central stage with the drama over her replacement.
Now, in an unpredictable election year, both Trump and Biden hope Catholics will come out for their campaigns. As was fully evident at the Al Smith dinner, both camps are appealing to Catholics as Catholics, but with very different approaches.
After heavily courting the Evangelical vote, Trump is now attempting to make a similar appeal to this bloc: despite not being of the faith himself, his administration has promoted Catholic values and appointed members of the faith to high positions.
Biden, meanwhile, has built a career on personal connections and empathy, placing personal stories (his own and his constituents’) at the forefront of his political appeal. His Catholic faith, despite criticism from conservative circles, remains a key part of that story. As he has many times, Biden spoke in his Al Smith dinner video about his faith informing social justice, and he also reflected on the comfort his family received from meeting with Pope Francis shortly after the death of the then Vice-President’s son, Beau Biden, from cancer.
For both Trump and Biden, winning over Catholics also means overcoming criticisms about their relationship with the Church. For the President, these criticisms have come even from Pope Francis himself, who once questioned Trump’s Christianity over his border wall policy.
There remains no love lost between the current Pope and the Trump Administration; Francis recently refused to meet with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during the latter’s visit to Rome, with Francis’s deputy, Cardinal Piero Parolin, saying that they would not “receive politicians close to elections”. Francis’s hostility towards the Trump administration, interestingly enough, might actually gain Trump support among conservative Catholics who are not the biggest fans of the current Pope.
Meanwhile, Biden not only has to deal with criticisms of his political stances not matching his Church’s commands; Republicans are also trying to paint the Democratic Party as anti-religion and specifically anti-Catholic. Even Biden’s running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, has been accused of criticising judicial nominees based on their faith.
And the death of Justice Ginsberg has opened the way for the subject to blow up further, with the Republican nomination of Barrett to the Supreme Court, adding a potentially decisive vote against Roe v. Wade. (The Supreme Court is one area where Catholics are over-represented — Barrett’s confirmation would mean that six of the nine justices would be Catholics).
Barrett has faced numerous criticisms of her faith during previous confirmation hearings as a federal appeals judge; Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein remarked to Judge Barrett that “the dogma lives loudly within you”, a remark that has been resurrected by conservative pundits who are painting the Democrats as anti-religion.
Should Barrett’s nomination go ahead in the Senate, which Republican leaders have said will happen despite growing COVID-19 cases within their ranks, Democrats could be hurt if they appear hostile to the judge’s faith. Less than a month before election day, it remains to be seen which ticket will triumph in this wrestling match over Catholic voters, and both campaigns are poised to fight for this key demographic until the last moment.
The political impotence of the Catholic Church in the US, despite its sizable numbers, has been an historical anomaly. Elsewhere the Church has long leveraged its religious authority into considerable political power, and for centuries the Church even reserved the right to crown rulers in a number of monarchies, such as the Holy Roman Empire. Only in the United States, because of its historic separation of Church and state and the population’s suspicion of Catholicism, has it always remained relatively powerless.
Now, with the US presidential election less than a month away, American Catholics might emerge as the kingmakers between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.