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Biden's faith narrative appealed to American voters

The margin of white Catholics backing Trump was significantly less than four years ago

Kurt Jensen, Catholic News Service

Kurt Jensen, Catholic News Service

Published: November 13, 2020 04:54 AM GMT

Updated: November 13, 2020 05:00 AM GMT

Biden's faith narrative appealed to American voters

US President-elect Joe Biden delivers remarks at The Queen in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov. 10. (Photo: Angela Weiss/AFP)

As US election returns became more clear after Nov. 3, polling data indicated President Donald Trump ended up with about 50 percent of the Catholic vote, but the margin of white Catholics backing him was significantly less than four years ago.

This, according to Associated Press/Votecast data, cost Trump Wisconsin and Michigan, where he had eked out 1 percent margins in 2016.

Among white Catholics, Trump held a 15 percent margin over his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, but that was a sharp decline from 2016, when that margin was 33 percent over Hillary Clinton.

Did President-elect Biden manage to close the so-called "God gap" among voters who strongly identify with their religious faith?

Alana Schor, an AP reporter who covers faith issues, thinks that might be possible.

The former vice president "just wove this powerful narrative as a person of faith," she said as part of a Georgetown University online panel Nov. 10. She called that "a big step forward for Democrats, who historically have ceded that ground."

The discussion, "Faith and the Faithful in the 2020 Election," was sponsored by Georgetown's Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life.

On Nov. 7, the media declared Biden the winner of the election, but votes in some key states were still being counted and the Trump campaign has filed suit in several states challenging the method of counting ballots and claiming voter fraud.

Biden has garnered 290 electoral votes while Trump has 217 electoral votes. It takes 270 votes to win the presidency.

The presidential campaign was notable for its stark religious imagery, including photos and footage of the evening of June 1 when military troops and police cleared the way so Trump could stand in front of St. John's Episcopal Church across from the White House while holding a Bible.

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The church was boarded up after fires were set inside it during protests, which turned violent, over the May 25 death of George Floyd.

Trump followed that the next day with a visit to St. John Paul II National Shrine near The Catholic University of America to promote international religious freedom. TV ads airing in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin showed Trump speaking at the March for Life rally on the National Mall in January.

Biden released a half-dozen TV ads in which his Catholic faith was mentioned. He also invoked Pope Francis on the campaign trail, quoting from the pope's new encyclical, "Fratelli Tutti, on Fraternity and Social Friendship."

But commentator Mark Shields didn't think religion had been that big of a factor.

"Joe Biden was better liked than Donald Trump," he said, and "considered more temperamentally qualified for that office."

Still, he marveled at the ease at which Biden could mention his Catholic faith at campaign events. "He did it naturally. It wasn't with an affectation."

By contrast, John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic elected to the presidency, in 1960, was so carefully formal when mentioning his faith, "you would have thought he was 'high church' Anglican."

Elizabeth Dias, who covers faith and politics for The New York Times, called the election "a referendum on the soul of the country."

The AP/Votecast poll showed that about 76 percent of white evangelicals supported Trump this time. They'd had, Dias observed, "this feeling of grievance and fear" based on their belief "that their place ... was disappearing."

But Dias said she wasn't sure the election results were "a resounding defeat of their values. The country has a giant culture war going on, and we're going to have to reckon with that in the coming years."

Faith in America "is less tied to institutions," she said, and the Black Lives Matter organizers were "a huge mobilizing force across key states," particularly Georgia. "I'm interested in how it attracted a lot of moral organizing that we were seeing in completely new ways this cycle."

Abortion turned out not to have been a decisive issue for Catholics. It "remains almost a unique attitude in American politics," Shields observed. "Gay marriage, gays in the military, attitudes changed at great speed. But on abortion, attitudes have been frozen in place since Roe v. Wade."

Biden's approach, he said, represented the "do you seek converts, or do you seek heretics?" outlook.

"Joe Biden is not a demonizer. And we've had a lot of demonizing in American politics," Shields added.

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