Updated at 3:00 p.m. ET on October 21, 2020.
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.
Father James Altman of La Crosse, Wisconsin, weighed in with a video that hit YouTube on August 30 and has garnered more than 1 million views to date: “You cannot be Catholic and be a Democrat … Repent of your support of that party and its platform or face the fires of hell!”
“Still think [Trump] is pro-life?” Lexington, Kentucky, Bishop John Stowe taunted on Twitter two weeks later. Stowe was responding to whistleblower allegations about the horrendous conditions in immigrant-detention facilities, including the high number of hysterectomies allegedly performed on women being held.
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.
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.
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.”
So what was in Viganò’s “tremendous” letter? It praised Trump to the high heavens, and in exactly the same way Trump would praise himself: Just as COVID-19 was beginning to ravage the Sun Belt, Viganò characterized the pandemic as “fading” and the “social alarm” over it as “waning.” He opined that “the use of street protests is instrumental to the purposes of those who would like to see someone elected in the upcoming presidential elections who embodies the goals of the deep state.” He decried a “media narrative” that blasted Trump’s visit to the Saint John Paul II National Shrine, even though reporters were just quoting D.C. Archbishop Wilton Gregory’s harsh criticism of the president’s photo op.
As Pope Francis might be at pains to point out, Viganò doesn’t speak for the Church. Pope Benedict XVI appointed him as the papal nuncio, or representative, to Washington, D.C., in 2011, a post he occupied until 2016, when he entered an exceedingly active retirement, lobbing grenades at Benedict’s more liberal successor. The most sensational of these was Viganò’s 2018 call for Francis to resign on the grounds that he’d allowed Theodore McCarrick to continue in a public role, despite his awareness that the then-cardinal had been sanctioned by Benedict for sexual abuse. (Viganò offered no evidence for his claim of such prior knowledge.) But Viganò’s lovefest with Trump is telling.
In late July, Trump appointed Taylor Marshall to his campaign’s Catholic Advisory Board. A Texan and convert to Catholicism, Marshall has long used YouTube to propagate a version of the faith that combines hard-core traditionalism with cloak-and-dagger intrigue. “From the year A.D. 33 to 2020, Catholicism has not changed one iota,” he stated in a recent video, terming those who disagree “algae, bacteria, goo.” In his new book, Infiltration: The Plot to Destroy the Church From Within, Marshall alleges a centuries-old plot to groom recruits to rise in the Church hierarchy, pervert its teachings, and thus empower the forces of global Freemasonry. He quotes admiringly from admonitions, laid down in the early 19th century by Pope Gregory XVI, against such notions as liberty of conscience and the separation of Church and state. As for Francis, Marshall depicts him as the culmination of “organized efforts” of the “enemies of Christ” to place a “pope for Satan on the Roman Chair of Saint Peter.”
Lately, Marshall has turned his prolific video-production efforts to promoting Viganò’s case against Biden—entwining it with the case against Francis. “They all want Joe Biden, who is a fake Catholic … on the so-called throne in Washington, D.C.,” he says of the pope and his liberal confreres, “so they can continue their agenda, which is to create the East-West globalism.” Translation: Deep-state China and deep-state America will converge with their Vatican enablers to do the devil’s work on Earth.
Internet operations such as Church Militant, LifeSiteNews, and Complicit Clergy regularly churn out similar theories. “Anti-Catholic Kamala and Beijing Biden are not going to stop their assault on American Catholics so please scroll down below and donate any amount,” Michael Voris, the head of the Michigan-based Church Militant, recently enjoined on his home page. Like many of its companions in the genre, Church Militant makes for a problematic guardian of the faith. It was called Real Catholic TV until late 2011, when the Archdiocese of Detroit notified the website that it was violating Church canon law by using the word Catholic in its name.*
Voris has little regard for many of his fellow Catholics’ life choices. “They’re living in a state of sin,” he told me, referring to couples, married or not, who use contraception. He disputes the notion that such moral rigidity is driving people away from Catholicism, but then, he doesn’t really care if it is. Given a choice between growing the institution by expanding its definition of who qualifies as a good Catholic and inviting the not-so-good ones to leave, Voris said he’d opt for “a smaller, purer Church.”
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.
That is clearly what Team Trump is betting on, and it’s betting surprisingly big. One day in mid-September, I logged on to Church Militant. I had to blink twice to be sure, but there he was: Trey Trainor, the Trump-appointed chairman of the Federal Election Commission, being interviewed by Voris.
In the 25 minutes that followed, the two men made various points that would appall anyone not on the religious right, where it has become axiomatic that “religious liberty” entails taxpayer-funded religious activities, highly partisan behavior by the leaders of tax-exempt churches, and cries of bigotry when anyone dares to complain that such enmeshment might breach the separation of Church and state. In fact, the two men basically agreed that there is no such thing as separation of Church and state under the U.S. Constitution, and that believing otherwise is anti-Catholic. The concept, according to Trainor, is just a big misunderstanding that started when Thomas Jefferson, eager to “win political points,” scribbled the phrase in his famous 1802 letter to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut. And, notwithstanding the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and whatnot, there is not much more to the principle than that. “Jefferson,” Trainor observed portentously, “wasn’t in the country when the Constitution was written.”
To take an arguably more germane page from history, John F. Kennedy had to go on television in 1960 to reassure voters that he was not too Catholic to serve as president. Sixty years later, Biden is compelled to reassure voters that he’s Catholic enough. Rarely, in this melee, has anyone paused to ask why Biden’s religion—not his character or morality, but his religion—is an issue in a political system carefully constructed by the Founders to prevent such tests of avowed faith. But maybe someone should.
* This article previously misstated the date when Real Catholic TV changed its name to Church Militant. It also mischaracterized the circumstances under which the name was changed.