NEW YORK — During the Democratic presidential primary debates, most religion reporters tuned in to hear how candidates might discuss religion in an effort to win over people of faith.

Religion News Service reporter Jack Jenkins not only did that — but he’d also take to social media to post interviews he’d already done with the candidates about how their own faith lives influenced their approaches to public policy. 

Few reporters have covered the religious left as extensively as Jenkins and in his new book, American Prophets: The Religious Roots of Progressive Politics and the Ongoing Fight for the Soul of the Country, he chronicles the efforts of a number of individuals and organizations working on issues ranging from the environment, to labor reform, to the economy all motivated by their religious faith. 

In an interview with Crux, Jenkins discussed the Catholic influence on progressive politics both past and present, and how regardless of one’s own personal inclinations, why it can’t be ignored. 

Crux: You begin the book by saying that without the religious left, the Affordable Care Act wouldn’t have happened and then you later cite President Barack Obama telling Sister Carol Keehan, the then head of Catholic Health Association, that it wouldn’t have happened without her. How essential was Catholic support in getting the ACA through Congress?  

Jenkins: If you ask people who were involved with the Affordable Care Act fight, Catholics didn’t just impact the public debate over the bill. They were a key reason it became law, full stop.

At the time, the main complicating factor was that even though Democrats enjoyed majorities in both the House and Senate, lawmakers in their ranks exhibited a surprising diversity of thought when it came to abortion. According to former White House staff and party insiders, this became a sticking point for Catholic Democrats in Congress: many were eager to support the ACA but wary of stoking the ire of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which had expressed concerns that the bill supposedly would allow for taxpayer-funded abortions. Democrats in both chambers of Congress scrambled to draft provisions that would appease Catholic hierarchs, but the USCCB ultimately came out against the ACA. 

Enter Catholic nuns. Several prominent women religious — including Sister Carol Keehan and Sister Simone Campbell — publicly supported of the bill in defiance of the USCCB, arguing that the ACA didn’t fund abortion and that the clerics were being given “very bad advice.”

I’ll leave the rest of the story (and there is a lot of it!) for readers to discover in the book, but suffice it to say that when it came to the ACA, Catholic voices ended up being some of the most important political voices in the country.

As you note, the battle over the ACA resulted in some serious ruptures between many of the women religious in this country and the U.S. bishops, at least collectively. How do you assess the level of comfort among most U.S. bishops in partnering with the religious left since then?  

The fallout from the ACA fight created major rifts between many nuns and the USCCB, not to mention U.S. nuns and the Vatican under Pope Benedict XVI. While many women religious continue to partner with religious left organizations — heck, Campbell’s NETWORK arguably is one of the most powerful religious left groups in the country — bishops have been less eager to team up with progressive faith groups.

But there are moments when causes align. Back in September, Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark spoke at a demonstration outside an Immigration and Customs Enforcement building to protest the detention of immigrant children and families. That demonstration was part of an activist campaign organized by a broad coalition of Catholic groups that included liberal-leaning organizations such as NETWORK, Faith in Public Life, and the Franciscan Action Network.

Pope Francis also appears to have warmed to some progressive faith groups: when he distributed a letter in mid-April to “World Popular Movements” regarding the religious response to the pandemic, included in the list of recipients was Faith in Action — a liberal-leaning religious advocacy group in the United States that also played a role in the ACA fight.

You write that Pope Francis has been a game changer when it comes to environmental action. You also cite some important data that shows there’s never been a real divide between belief in environmental science and religion, except among white Christian Americans who are the least likely to be concerned about climate change. How is Pope Francis doing, in your view, in winning over this demographic and is his message on the need for environmental action actually trickling down to the pews?

Pope Francis’ Laudato si’ lit a fire under many activist groups, and it is often cited by climate activists — religious or otherwise — when engaging with Catholic lawmakers who express skepticism about climate science.

Whether or not Francis is changing the hearts and minds of Catholics in the pews on this issue is a different question. There was initial evidence that the encyclical influenced the views of some U.S. Catholics regarding climate change, but many argue that Laudato si’ in and of itself wasn’t enough to trigger a tectonic shift in Catholic opinion. (For the record, majorities of both Hispanic Catholics and white Catholics agree that climate change exists and is caused mostly by human activity such as burning fossil fuels.)

But if there is one thing I learned while writing American Prophets, it’s that activists rarely expect their own demonstrations — much less statements made by prominent leaders, be it a pope or a president — to shift opinions overnight. The impact of Francis’ environmental rhetoric will likely be measured over the course of decades, not election cycles.

You offer a postmortem of John Kerry’s failed 2004 campaign, offering a stark contrast with that of Obama’s successful 2008 campaign, which relied heavily on faith outreach. You also explore Clinton’s mixed efforts in 2016. Joe Biden isn’t shy about his Catholic faith so what do you think can be expected over the next 6 months in terms of Catholic outreach?  

Joe Biden’s Catholicism has been such a visible component of his political persona that analysts sometimes describe Democratic voters who also claim the faith as “Joe Biden Catholics.” I fully expect that association to continue through November — at the very least, I think we’ll hear Biden repeat his favorite Kierkegaard quote (“Faith sees best in the dark”) more than a few times.

Targeted faith outreach has already played a role in Biden’s campaign, much of which echoes the efforts Obama mustered in 2008 that I chronicle in the book. Just as Obama aggressively courted black pastors in South Carolina, Biden was one of the first Democratic candidates to hire a faith outreach director for the Palmetto State back in August 2019. Four months later, he was already boasting endorsements from more than 100 faith leaders in the state.

As for Catholics, Biden has long had the support of Catholic nuns such as Sister Simone Campbell, and while Biden does not yet have a national faith outreach director, he does have experienced faith outreach operatives on staff: One of his political directors is John McCarthy, an avowed Catholic who ran faith outreach for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and who I interviewed for American Prophets

The former Vice President knows he needs to win back some white Catholics in the Midwest, which is likely why he has experimented with targeted Catholic outreach: his campaign enlisted the help of nuns help get out the vote in Dubuque, Iowa through a letter-writing campaign targeting Catholics ahead of the caucus. 

Abortion is often the third rail in our nation’s politics, especially when it comes to the Catholic vote. We’ve seen Biden shift his own views on this already in the campaign. Putting your pundit hat on again, how much of an issue do you expect this will be during the campaign and what will it mean for his Catholic outreach?  

Abortion is one of those paradoxical issues whose influence is so intractable, so far-reaching in American politics that it often can be difficult to see. The Religious Right’s decades-long campaign to bifurcate voters into different partisan camps over the issue was so effective that we sometimes act like it was always this way; at this point, if the American electorate is the proverbial fish, then divisions over abortion have simply deliquesced into the political waters in which we all swim.

To wit, the issue has already impacted Biden’s campaign. Unlike John Kerry, whose 2004 presidential bid was marred by the mere threat of Catholic leaders denying him communion because of his abortion stance, the former Vice President was literally denied communion last fall for that same reason by a priest in South Carolina.

But the reaction to that incident suggests that times may have changed. The Kerry Campaign faith outreach veteran I interviewed for American Prophets described communion denial as a major story at the time, resulting in a minor media frenzy known “wafer watch.” By comparison, Biden’s recent communion denial barely made a blip.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Biden, who recently reversed his longstanding support for restricting federal funding of abortions, ended up articulating a position that many progressive Catholics have taken in the past, including nuns who helped pass the Affordable Care Act: “Pro-life” is not just about abortion, but also taking seriously other issues such as healthcare access, immigrant rights, and climate change.

Follow Christopher White on Twitter: @cwwhite212