NEW YORK – Former Vice President and democratic nominee Joe Biden could become the first Catholic president since President John F. Kennedy was elected 60 years ago if voters choose him to occupy the Oval Office on Tuesday.
Biden’s faith, however, hasn’t garnered the same attention Kennedy’s did in 1960. After Kennedy was elected he assured the nation that he would lead independent of his faith. There haven’t been calls for Biden to do the same.
“I think that just demonstrates how far Catholics have come,” St. John’s University political science professor Brian Browne said. “How we are a diverse country and diverse in many ways. You don’t need to have someone emphasizing it as much as Kennedy had to.”
Biden has regularly referenced his faith on the campaign trail. From the start, he’s dubbed this election a “battle for the soul of the nation.”
In June, he spoke about his Catholic upbringing as a foundation of the country working towards equality in a eulogy at George Floyd’s funeral. Floyd was a Black man that died after a Minneapolis, Minn. police officer knelt on his neck for over seven minutes. The death led to civil unrest and calls for police reform across the country.
“He is someone who is very open on the campaign trail. His Catholic faith has long been a part of his political persona and personal life,” he said. “These are not talking points it’s who he is.”
On the flip side, Browne said Biden’s sort of a paradox because “the Democratic party platform has ideas that are a grave concern to the Catholic church that he aligns himself with.”
Chief among these platforms is abortion. Biden is pro-choice, and although the church doesn’t endorse a specific candidate, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops makes its stance on abortion clear in part one of its Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship document that outlines where it stands on key political issues.
“It is a mistake with grave moral consequences to treat the destruction of innocent human life merely as a matter of individual choice,” the document reads. “A legal system that violates the basic right to life on the grounds of choice is fundamentally flawed.”
Trump on the other hand isn’t Catholic but is pro-life, and many believe his recent Supreme Court appointment, Amy Coney Barrett, could help overturn Roe v. Wade – the Supreme Court case that made abortion legal in 1973.
Each candidate’s stance on abortion is an example that Biden’s faith may not have a significant influence on Catholic voters, Browne said. Instead, he said Catholic voters are more likely to vote for the candidate with favorable stances on the issues most important to them. It’s also an example that neither candidate aligns perfectly with Catholic church beliefs, he added.
“I think a good rule of thumb for Catholics or people trying to figure out the Catholic vote is not one party or one candidate gets every issue right,” Browne said.
For example, Trump doesn’t align with the church on issues like capital punishment and immigration.
When it comes to the election Browne didn’t forget the impact of COVID-19, either. There have been more than 230,000 deaths and almost 9.5 million cases in the United States since the global pandemic began.
He calls it “the cloud that hangs over everything” because of the effect it’s had on the entire world. There’s also the economy and the financial situation of voters, he said.
A Pew Research Center poll of 10,543 registered voters from Sept. 30 to Oct. 5 shows 51 percent of Catholics that would vote for or lean towards voting for Biden and 44 percent would vote for or lean towards voting for Trump. A deeper dive into the poll shows 52 percent of white Catholics support Trump, while 67 percent of Hispanic Catholics support Biden.
Something similar happened in 2016. Trump had more support from white Catholics than Hispanic Catholics, according to Pew data. Except when the numbers were combined Trump had a higher percentage of the total Catholic vote – 52 percent – than former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Including 2016, the candidate with the higher percentage of the total Catholic vote has won the last five presidential elections, according to Pew data.
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg