SOUTH BEND, Indiana— The name, the cause, and the presence of the two major presidential candidates. That’s about all that remained the same at this year’s Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner.
President Donald Trump and his opponent Joe Biden aimed to attract Catholic voters in brief, previously-recorded speeches at the virtual event Thursday evening. Both candidates declined to poke fun at themselves or each other, a trademark of the traditionally light-hearted occasion that raises funds for education and social services in the Archdiocese of New York.
Trump garnered controversy when he last appeared at the dinner in 2016. During his speech, the New York native called his opponent Hillary Clinton corrupt, and said she was “pretending not to hate Catholics.”
Trump echoed his allegations of anti-Catholicism by Democrats on Thursday as he listed off a series of accomplishments in an attempt to galvanize Catholic voters.
Among the accomplishments, Trump included his nomination this week of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court. The University of Notre Dame Law School professor and judge on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has been applauded and criticized for her traditional Catholic views, as well as her connection with People of Praise, a charismatic Christian group.
Trump suggested that opposition to Barrett’s nomination stemmed from anti-Catholic discrimination.
“Anti-Catholic bigotry has absolutely no place in the United States of America. It predominates in the Democrat party, and we must do something immediately about it, like a Republican win, and let’s make it a really big one” he said.
In addition to Barrett’s nomination, Trump touted his record on Catholic schools. The president restated his support for school choice and took credit for aid allocated to Catholic institutions in the coronavirus relief package.
“It was my great honor to help the Catholic Church with its schools. They needed hundreds of millions of dollars nationwide, and I got it for them,” Trump said. “Nobody else, I got it for them.”
“I hope you remember that on Nov. 3,” he added, in a reference to Election Day.
In his speech, Trump repeated unsubstantiated claims about the longevity of the pandemic, saying that the “end of the pandemic is in sight” and that a vaccine could be ready “substantially before” the end of the year.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has estimated that a vaccine for COVID-19 will not be widely available until mid-2021, and that health protocols such as mask wearing and social distancing will be necessary even beyond that point.
The pandemic was the focus of Joe Biden’s remarks, a topic for which the Democratic nominee reserved a somber tone. Reusing a line from his performance at the presidential debate on Tuesday night, Biden talked about people who “woke up this morning and went to the kitchen table” to find a chair now unoccupied by someone who died from COVID-19.
Noting his own history of personal tragedy, Biden expressed empathy for those grieving the loss of loved ones to COVID-19, and credited his Catholic faith for sustaining him in crisis.
“My Catholic faith has helped me through the darkness as I’ve had to bury pieces of my soul deep in the earth, and eventually found purpose to live a life worthy of those I lost,” he said.
Biden also referenced his appreciation for Catholic social teaching, a set of values which he said has guided him throughout his political career. The former vice president praised Gov. Al Smith, a former Democratic leader of New York and presidential candidate, for living by the same doctrine, calling him “a man who believed faith without works is dead.”
Trump also praised Smith, who was a pioneer in bringing Catholics to the national political stage, and referred to Smith by the nickname President Franklin Roosevelt gave him: “the happy warrior.”
In his closing remarks, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York and host of the dinner, reiterated Trump’s use of the title, but added a twist directed at the candidates.
“I dare remind them that Al Smith was a happy warrior, but he was never a sore loser,” Dolan said, in a possible reference to Trump’s refusal to commit to stepping down if Biden wins the election.
The two candidates will meet again on Oct. 15 for a town-hall-style debate in Miami.