The same day, Catholic Vote—a right-wing PAC with no formal ties to the Church—announced a $9.7 million ad buy opposing Biden in swing states.
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The wrangling over Biden’s religious bona fides is aimed at the thick strands of Catholic population that run through the most contested states on the electoral map. American Catholics have basically been split down the middle in terms of party loyalty since the 1970s, but Barack Obama edged out his Republican opponents in 2008 and 2012, winning 54 percent and then 51 percent of the Catholic vote. Hillary Clinton failed to match these results—most devastatingly, in heavily white swing-state counties—which explains the two parties’ fixation on reaching Catholics in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
Of course, every presidential race since Roe v. Wade has featured tension between single-issue anti-abortion-rights Catholic voters and the more liberal, “social justice” Catholics who consider abortion just one issue of many. This time, though, the Catholic wars have greatly expanded. Trump’s amorality, and actions such as Attorney General Bill Barr’s resumption of the death penalty after a 20-year hiatus, have something to do with that: Liberal Catholics are now united in a kind of concentrated fury that conservatives have always directed at abortion. But another factor is the war within the Catholic Church in America—which has become more vicious and is fueled by the same forces that have wrought polarization and conspiracism in U.S. politics. While Joe Biden says he is fighting for the soul of the country, U.S. Catholics are fighting for the soul of their Church.
The president has aligned his reelection campaign with a proudly revanchist corner of the Church, one unfamiliar to many American Catholics, even those adamantly opposed to abortion. This faction’s positions on women, gay people, Muslims, immigration, socialism, and climate change are much closer to those of pro-Trump white evangelicals than to those of liberal Catholics, whom they consider not to be Catholics at all. Far from being bothered by Trump’s scuffles with the pope—Francis has called the president’s immigration policies “not Christian,” Trump has called him “disgraceful” for saying such a thing, and so on—these ultraconservatives applaud the attacks on the leader of their Church. To them, Francis is the embodiment of abhorrent modernist, globalist, even secularist values.
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The effective leader of this part of the Church, which is both superglued to certainty and whirring with conspiracy, is Carlo Maria Viganò. “So honored by Archbishop Viganò’s incredible letter to me,” Trump tweeted in early June, to little general notice. “I hope everyone, religious or not, reads it!” Later, during one of the several White House interviews he has granted to EWTN, the conservative Catholic television network, the president lauded Viganò as a “great gentleman,” who’d written “a tremendous letter of support from the Catholic Church.”