Playing the ‘Catholic’ Card: Democratic Politicians Employ Faith References Without Prompting
Unprompted references to Catholicism make their way into political talk and ads.
BOSTON — Her opponent had just claimed that Massachusetts law allows for infanticide when Maura Healey signaled she wanted a rebuttal.
The moderator asked her to speak.
“You know, my mom goes to Mass every morning,” Healey said.
Healey, the current state attorney general and Democratic nominee for governor, went on to describe her mother as “a school nurse and a health educator,” before calling the abortion claims of her Republican opponent, Geoff Diehl, “insulting” and “from the playbook of the anti-choice movement.”
Healey offered no connection between her mother’s churchgoing habits and her own support for abortion during the debate, which took place Oct. 12. And she never mentioned them again.
But she’s not alone among politicians in making an unprompted reference to Catholicism.
Nearly two decades ago, when John Kerry was running for president in 2004, he answered a question about abortion in part by saying: “I’m a Catholic. Raised a Catholic. I was an altar boy. Religion has been a huge part of my life. It helped lead me through a war. Leads me today.”
More recently, President Joe Biden stopped himself mid-sentence earlier this month to say, “I happen to be a practicing Catholic.”
According to the White House website, Biden has made personal references to Catholicism at public events 16 times so far this year.
In Nevada, U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto released a campaign ad in mid-October that begins with her sitting at a dining room table, in front of a large image of Our Lady of Guadalupe hanging on the wall over her left shoulder and a statue depicting Jesus and his Sacred Heart over her right shoulder.
In the audio narration, Cortez Masto implies that the scene is “at my grandmother’s.”
“I’m Catherine Cortez Masto, and I’ll never forget where I come from,” she says.
Why Do They Do It?
The Register contacted the Healey and Cortez Masto campaigns, but didn’t hear back from either by deadline.
Political experts told the Register that a subtle nod to Catholicism can help a candidate connect with some voters on a level beyond political positions.
“These politicians want voters in general to regard them as pious and respectful of family values. They also hope that fellow Catholics personally identify with them and view them as sharing their own faith and culture,” Dave Hopkins, an associate professor of political science at Boston College, told the Register by email. “As the Catholic vote in America becomes less reliably Democratic than it used to be, Democratic politicians are especially likely to strategically emphasize their Catholicism.”
All four politicians mentioned above are Democrats, identify as Catholic, and support legal and publicly funded abortion. That puts them squarely against Catholic teaching, which states that abortion is gravely evil and should always be opposed. So it can be tricky navigating a Catholic identity with support for a core position of the Democratic Party.
“Many of these people are conflicted by their Catholic beliefs and Catholic background and the fact that they are political leaders who have to respect, in their view, that the public is generally pro-choice,” said Michael Kryzanek, professor emeritus of political science at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. “A Catholic politician is really conflicted, but uses these kinds of symbols or quotes that are made to show that they believe in Catholic traditions, let’s say, rather than the positions of the Catholic Church or the Catholic hierarchy.”
Pro-lifers have expressed outrage at the religious imagery in Cortez Masto’s ad in Nevada, since Our Lady of Guadalupe is the patroness of the unborn and the image of her depicts Mary as pregnant with Jesus, while Cortez Masto supports codifying Roe v. Wade, wants to crack down on crisis pregnancy centers, made a speech this past spring at an event of pro-abortion political action committee EMILY’s List, and has made support for abortion the centerpiece of her reelection campaign.
But Our Lady of Guadalupe is also the patroness of Mexico. Cortez Masto, whose grandfather was born in Mexico, is part Latina — and she needs Mexican-Americans to vote for her in large numbers. She’s in a race for reelection that’s razor-thin and lately trending toward her Republican challenger, Adam Laxalt.
“The setting and the image that are in the Cortez Masto ad are things a lot of the voters she’s trying to reach will be familiar and comfortable with. It again says, ‘I am like you, I am interested in you, and I understand the issues facing you,’” said Kenneth Cosgrove, a political science professor at Suffolk University in Boston, by email. “In the Cortez Masto case, it’s a way to try to shore up support with a voting bloc one thought one should be winning by more or at all, by reminding them that the candidate is more like they are than like an inside-the-Beltway progressive.”
But recent polling data suggests that Hispanic Catholics are more available to Republicans this year than they have been in the past.
The president is a problem for Democrats in Nevada, particularly among Catholics, a poll released this past week found.
Among likely Catholic voters in Nevada, the poll found, 63% disapprove of Biden’s job performance, while 33% approve. Among Hispanic Catholics, the disparity is even sharper — about 73% disapprove of Biden’s performance, as opposed to 27% approving. The poll also found that Cortez Masto trails Laxalt among Catholics by more than 20 percentage points.
(The poll, performed by the Trafalgar Group, was sponsored by RealClear Opinion Research and by EWTN, which owns the Register.)
Another pollster, Emerson College Polling, has been studying political trends among Hispanics for the past five months and has picked up unusual levels of dissatisfaction among Hispanics in Nevada over high gas prices and inflation, which suggests trouble for Cortez Masto.
“You’ve got a lot of immigrants from Mexico who are service workers living in Nevada. She’s got to keep them very tight in her corner. But a lot of them are hurting,” said Gregory Payne, professor and chairman of Emerson College’s Department of Communications Studies. “I think they’re very loyal to the Democratic Party. They were essential to Joe Biden’s victory in 2020. But there has been a bit of a shift.”
Democrats and Catholic Voters
In 2020, Gallup found that 25% of Americans identify as Catholic, which makes Catholics an extraordinarily important subgroup in elections.
On the whole, Catholics tend to follow national trends, including on issues such as abortion, homosexuality and gender identity. But churchgoing Catholics, as the EWTN poll found, tend to follow Church teaching in these areas and are more likely to value it when it comes to voting.
Politicians want a healthy slice of both subgroups. The question for Democrats is how to do that without also offending progressives.
“The Catholic vote is very, very important, especially with President Biden and some other politicians — sometimes their behavior or their positions have not been consistent with Catholic dogma or Catholic teachings. You still try to remind them that he is a Catholic,” Payne said.
The case of Healey, who in Massachusetts generally presents herself as a secular progressive, and who is trying to become the first lesbian governor in America, is different. The unexpected contrasting image she suggested during the Oct. 12 debate of a pious, service-oriented mother might be powerful for some voters, particularly women of faith — and seeks to establish what Payne calls “a party brand identifier.”
“What you’re suggesting is she comes from a devout family. And you might say, ‘Well, as long as she has a good Catholic upbringing, she might be more in line with me,’” Payne said. “Her polling and her strategy and tactic say that that is going to help. I think that’s why she did what she did.”
In a Nutshell
Some politicians bring up Catholicism without a clear connection to what they are addressing.
Recent examples include a candidate for governor of Massachusetts and a U.S. senator in Nevada.
Joe Biden has mentioned his Catholicism in public 16 times so far this year.
Dropping hints of a Catholic identity can help shield a pro-abortion Catholic politician.
But it may not work this year, because Catholics unhappy with the economy are more anti-Biden than American voters as a whole, which is especially true of Hispanic Catholics in some places.