WASHINGTON, D.C. — The final debate in the 2020 presidential race ended with topics important to the church in the U.S. and around the world: immigration and families, climate change, racism and health care.
The Oct. 22 event, the final time Republican President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden, a Catholic, met before the Nov. 3 election, also focused on the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which quickly defined the chasm of world views between the two.
“We’re about to go into a dark winter, a dark winter, and he has no clear plan,” former Vice President Biden said, speaking about the rising number of coronavirus cases in the country and about Trump, who responded with “I don’t think we’re going to have a dark winter at all — we’re opening up our country.”
While Trump said the country is “learning to live with it,” referring to the virus, Biden responded, “We’re learning to die with it,” citing the more than 220,000 lives lost to date in the U.S. because of COVID-19.
The two men also sparred over climate change, a topic that the Catholic Church, particularly under the pontificate of Pope Francis, has paid special attention to after the release of his 2015 encyclical “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home,” a document about humanity’s responsibility to care for the planet and its most vulnerable.
The pope in mid-September, with urgency, called on nations to continue fighting global warming by following environmental guidelines on emissions and energy sources set by the 2015 Paris climate accord, which the United States, under the Trump administration, withdrew from in 2017.
“I took us out because we were going to have to spend trillions of dollars … they were going to take away our businesses,” Trump said during the debate. “I will not sacrifice tens of millions of jobs, thousands and thousands of companies because of the Paris accord.”
Biden called climate change an “existential threat to humanity” and urged moving the country toward renewable energy, which Trump attacked by saying that it would cost thousands their jobs and by doing so Biden would “destroy the oil industry.”
“We’re told by all the leading scientists in the world we don’t have much time. We’re going to pass the point of no return within the next eight to 10 years,” Biden said, echoing a message that the pope, too, has warned about. “Four more years of this man eliminating all the regulations that were put in by us to clean up the climate, to clean up, to limit the emissions will put us in a position where we’re going to be in real trouble.”
On immigration, which Trump largely campaigned on in his successful 2016 bid for the White House by touting and delivering on setting limits for certain groups entering the country legally and illegally, the president remained unapologetic over large-scale family separations carried out by his administration.
When asked during the debate about the more than 500 children separated by his immigration policies from their parents who remain without contact or knowledge of their families, he said the children were “well taken care of.”
He blamed Biden and former President Barack Obama for initially “putting them in cages.” But he also seemed to blame the children’s parents, saying that they “used to use (children) to get into our country.”
In July 2018, a group of U.S. bishops traveled to the “ground zero” of the family separation zone, in and around McAllen, Texas, after several Catholic prelates, prominent church members and organizations publicly expressed outrage and condemned the administration’s practice of separating children from their parent or a family member if they were caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border without legal documentation.
It was part of a 2017 Trump administration immigration policy meant to deter illegal border crossings.
Recently, in a documentary about Pope Francis called “Francesco,” the pope is said to have called the policy “cruelty of the highest form.”
“It’s cruelty, and separating kids from parents goes against natural rights,” the pope said in the film. “It’s something a Christian cannot do. It’s cruelty of the highest form.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services, along with Catholic Charities USA, joined a network of other faith and secular agencies from around the country in reuniting some of the almost 3,000 families separated because of the policy.
During the debate, Trump said the Obama-Biden administration had been responsible for a record number of deportations. And of Biden’s promises to help find a path toward citizenship for young migrants brought into the country illegally as children, the president said that when opportunities to reform the immigration system had appeared, Biden and the Democrats had done nothing.
“He had eight years to do what he said he would do,” Trump said, referring to Biden’s two terms as vice president.
The debate provided a steady stream of jabs. Trump painted Biden as a lifelong politician who despite a long career in Washington had little to show for it. He insinuated Biden had become rich taking money from foreign entities or by getting a cut from his son and a brother involved in nefarious deals with foreign powers.
Biden pointed to news reports that said Trump had a secret bank account in China and claimed he had paid more in taxes to the Communist nation than to the U.S. Biden said Trump was “one of the most racist presidents we’ve had in modern history,” saying the president poured “fuel on every single racist fire. … This guy has a dog whistle about as big as a foghorn.”
Trump said he was “the least racist person in the room,” meaning the debate hall.
Yet the debate was unusual for the absence of loud drama and fireworks that erupted the last time the two men shared the debate stage in late September when Biden told Trump to “shut up, man” as the president kept interrupting. The second debate, scheduled for Oct. 15, was canceled because the president contracted COVID-19, debate organizers said his health was questionable and he refused to do the virtual debate decide on by the nonpartisan debate commission.
Recent polls show Biden ahead of Trump among Catholic voters, who sided with Trump over his opponent Hillary Clinton in 2016, even as many disagree with Biden and his running mate’s support for legalized abortion. Some polls of all voters in battleground states, like Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania, show one or two points between the two men.
“You know who I am. You know who he is. You know my character. You know his character,” said Biden, looking into the camera, adding that “the character of the country is on the ballot.”
President Trump touted the country’s economic stability prior to the coronavirus and tried to make an appeal for what his presence means for economic institutions, saying if Biden becomes president, the country would go into a depression “the likes which you’ve never seen and your 401Ks will go to hell.”
“They say the stock market will boom if I’m elected. If he’s elected, the stock market will crash,” he said.