Contrasting Beliefs: How Trump and Clinton Are Wooing Religious Voters

While the GOP nominee seeks to gain support from white Catholics and black evangelical Protestants by emphasizing traditional values and religious liberty, his Democratic rival favors a ‘social justice’ approach.

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WASHINGTON — With Election Day a little less than two months away and polls showing a tightening race, presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are both looking for new voters to bring into their camps — including citizens who vote on religious and moral grounds.

Clinton, a Democrat who rarely discusses religion on the campaign trail, has made some recent overtures to the faith community. Clinton spoke fondly of St. Teresa of Calcutta when she was canonized on Sept. 4 and addressed the National Baptist Convention in Kansas City, Missouri, telling her audience that her Methodist faith informs her lifelong pursuit of social justice.

But if this overture was intended partly to win over faith-influenced voters who also prioritize other issues, such as the defense of marriage, Clinton may have badly misfired with her Sept. 9 assertion at an fundraiser sponsored by “LGBT for Hillary” in New York City that half of American voters who support Trump are included in “the basket of deplorables,” elaborating that such people are “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it.”

Moreover, she specifically attacked Trump for pledging to appoint Supreme Court judges who will vote to overturn the court’s 2015 Obergefell decision legalizing same-sex “marriage,” citing that commitment as one of the specific things that “I find deplorable in his campaign.”

Meanwhile, Trump, the real estate tycoon who secured the Republican nomination after a scorched-earth approach during the primaries, has made more of a concerted approach to appeal to religious voters since recalibrating his campaign. He praised St. Teresa in an official campaign video, visited a black church congregation in Detroit, where he spoke in overt Christian terms, and he later accused the media of mocking Christians while speaking at the Values Voter Summit in Washington.

And his vice-presidential running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, responded directly to Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” claim in his own Sept. 10 remarks at the Values Voter Summit. “Hillary, they are not a basket of anything,” Pence said. “They are Americans, and they deserve your respect.”

Both presidential candidates have notably high unfavorability ratings with large segments of the electorate; Trump, for his brazen, outspoken style; and Clinton, the former first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state, for questions surrounding her honesty and ethics, as well as for her liberal stances on social issues, such as abortion, religious liberty and family life that alienate pro-life Catholics and socially conservative voters.

“There are all kinds of reasons why practicing, devout Catholics and Christians would oppose [Clinton]. The problem is that if the Republican nominee was anyone else other than Donald Trump, that person would be mopping up Catholic and Christian votes,” said Ryan Barilleaux, a political science professor at Miami University in Ohio.

Barilleaux told the Register that while Clinton has gone “out of her way to alienate” religious believers — given her longtime advocacy of legal abortion, including repeated campaign-trail pledges of support for Planned Parenthood, her promise when accepting Planned Parenthood’s endorsement in January that she would repeal the Hyde Amendment that bans federal funding of abortions, her support of the federal government’s contraceptive mandate and her decision as secretary of state to support freedom of worship over freedom of religion — many faithful Christians, Catholic and Protestant, remain uneasy about Trump.


Catholic-Evangelical Divide

The major exception to this overall unease is Trump’s strong support among white evangelicals.

Said Barilleaux, “I’m surprised Donald Trump is doing as well with evangelicals because the style he has is so hostile to the way people who are active Christians tend to look at the world: attacking people, belittling people, showing a triumphalism where he’s a winner and everyone else is a loser.”

In fact, a July Pew Research Forum poll showed 78% of white evangelicals would vote for Trump, but recent polling by the Public Religion Research Institute and The Washington Post shows the GOP nominee is not doing as well with Catholics. Both polls indicate Trump is behind by more than 20 percentage points among Catholics voters, which is a remarkable shift from the 2012 presidential election, when Mitt Romney, the GOP nominee that year, lost the Catholic vote by just two points. The polls even show Trump is losing to Clinton among white Catholics, who overwhelmingly voted for Romney.

“This is, by far, what everyone is focused on behind the scenes in the political world. For the Trump campaign, there have to be alarm bells going off because if they want any chance of winning the White House, they have to win over white Catholics,” said Joshua Mercer, the political director of

Mercer told the Register that Trump needs to win Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania, states with significant numbers of white Catholics, in order to secure the 270 electoral votes to defeat Clinton. Mercer said Trump also needs to give Catholics a reason to vote for him and not just against Clinton.


Catholic Outreach

A sign of that Catholic outreach was the 38-second video his campaign released on Sept. 3, where Trump praises St. Teresa of Calcutta’s “amazing life of charity and holiness” and reminds viewers that she fed the hungry, sheltered the homeless and educated the poor.

“I’m truly happy to see Catholics across the world join together and celebrate Mother Teresa’s uniquely humble, generous and pious life. There was nobody like her,” said Trump, who added that St. Teresa “represented the best in each of us.”

Trump’s campaign plans to follow up the Mother Teresa video with more messaging specifically targeted to Catholic voters, said Deal Hudson, editor and publisher of the Christian Review, who told the Register that he is “in touch” with people who are knowledgeable of the Trump campaign’s operations.

Hudson, the director of Catholic outreach for President George W. Bush’s campaigns in 2000 and 2004, said he believes Trump’s new focus on Catholics will convince many of them to take a fresh look at the controversial GOP nominee.

“I think Catholic voters have found it difficult to relate to Trump because of his outspokenness, and I believe they will get over their dissatisfaction because Trump will be speaking to them and about Catholic issues,” said Hudson, who argued that Clinton and her running mate, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, cannot effectively counter Trump’s messaging because of their liberal stances on social issues.

Kaine, who is Catholic, supports legal abortion and told the Human Rights Campaign, a homosexual-rights group, that he believes the Catholic Church will one day change its teachings to embrace same-sex “marriage.” Rebutting this assertion, Bishop Francis DiLorenzo of Richmond, Virginia, where Kaine is a parishioner of St. Elizabeth parish, made clear in a Sept. 13 statement that the Catholic Church’s teaching about “marriage remains unchanged and resolute.”

Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America, told the Register that Trump’s campaign still has a chance to win back some Republican and independent Catholics who voted for Romney in 2012.

“Ultimately, if he does the right outreach and softens his rhetoric on issues like immigration and torture, he could win as much as 48% to 49% of the overall Catholic vote,” said Schneck, who co-chaired Catholics for Obama in 2012 and added that Trump’s religious outreach still “seems a little awkward.”


Trump’s Appeal to Black Christians

Along with seeking to improve his standing with Catholic voters, Trump is clearly targeting black Christian voters in hopes of reducing Clinton’s massive lead among African-Americans, who traditionally have been overwhelmingly supportive of Democratic presidential nominees.

At the Detroit religious service, the business mogul sought to soften his image among black voters by praising the “African-American faith community” as “one of God’s greatest gifts to America and to its people.” Trump also quoted Scripture and declared that the Christian faith “is not the past but the present and the future.”

Trump conveyed a similar message at the Values Voter Summit, where, along with highlighting his appearance at the Detroit service, he demonstrated an increased awareness of the language and issues important to many Christian voters, such as school choice, religious liberty and the importance of the next president appointing U.S. Supreme Court justices.

Trump even vowed to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits churches and other tax-exempt organizations from endorsing political candidates.

“Trump needs to provide more concrete evidence that he’s going to support Catholic hospitals and schools that are under threat of federal government action on religious-liberty grounds,” said Mercer, who complimented Trump for emphasizing the Supreme Court.

Said Mercer, “That’s huge. Every time he mentions that, that’s a great way to show the contrast between him and Hillary Clinton.”


Clinton’s Religious Tightrope

So far in the campaign, Clinton has tried to walk a fine line on appealing to some religiously informed voters while not alienating her secular-progressive base. She grew up in the United Methodist Church and has demonstrated a familiarity with the Bible. Her campaign has even used Methodist founder John Wesley’s statement of “Do all the good you can” as a slogan.

While the Trump campaign produced the video to honor Mother Teresa, Clinton offered a few kind words about the new saint while speaking at the annual Salute to Labor Picnic in Illinois. But Clinton also acknowledged that she and Mother Teresa didn’t always agree — in an apparent reference to the saint’s emphatic defense of unborn life delivered passionately in the presence of both Hillary and her president-husband Bill at the 1994 National Prayer Breakfast — while adding that they nonetheless “found common ground.” St. Teresa asked Clinton when she was first lady to open a home for pregnant women who were at risk for having abortions.

“And when Mother Teresa asks you to do something, the only answer was, ‘Yes, ma’am,’” said Clinton, who accompanied St. Teresa when the home opened its doors in 1995. The home was later closed in 2002.

Clinton returned to a religious theme on Sept. 8, when she addressed the National Baptist Convention and told the audience that they needed a president who was a “praying person,” who would “pray with you” and “walk humbly with our God.”

“I had the great blessing to be raised by a family in a church that instilled in me a deep and observant Christian faith and practice,” said Clinton, who described her father as a man of prayer and said her mother had been sustained by God during a “painful childhood.”


A Political Interpretation of Faith

Barilleaux, of Miami University, said Clinton approaches religious faith in the manner that she was taught from childhood, which emphasizes the “social gospel” and not so much on personal piety or doctrine.

“She thinks basically pursuing the political agenda she’s pursuing is doing religion’s work,” said Barrileaux, who added that Clinton still essentially espouses her base’s belief that religion should be removed from public life and confined to private worship.

Said Barrileaux, “Every candidate has to walk the line on something, and for Hillary Clinton, I think religion is one of those things.”

Others are harsher in their assessment of how the Democratic nominee addresses religion. After the publication last month of an op-ed in which Clinton claimed, “I’ve been fighting to defend religious freedom for years,” Georgetown professor Thomas Farr countered that Clinton’s record with respect to issues such as abortion and same-sex “marriage” proves otherwise.

Farr, who directs the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown’s Berkley Center, told Catholic News Agency that Clinton’s focus on the “right to worship” relegates religion to the private sphere “with no capacity to influence public matters.”

“Anyone who believes that a President Hillary Clinton will support the religious freedom of Catholic elementary and high schools, colleges, refugee services, adoption agencies, homes for the aged poor, or any other private organization, is making a mistake,” Farr told CNA. “Her own words suggest that even churches will not evade her understanding of the kind of ‘compelling government interest’ that she considers abortion and same-sex marriage to be.”

Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.

Catholic News Agency and Register staff contributed to this report.