“He’s more serious about his Catholicism than a lot of Catholics are, but he still found his way to the pro-choice position on abortion,” Hankins said. “A lot of Catholic Democrats seem to be in this tension. The autonomy of the individual is kind of central to what their politics are all about and that’s in tension with the social teachings of the Catholic Church.”
Hankins added, though, that a major-party politician doesn’t need to resolve the difference between the ideals of American freedom and Christian freedom to win the election in November. He said that while Biden’s liberal Catholicism may not win many evangelical votes, even a few percentage points could matter in a close election.
White evangelicals may also choose not to vote, said Shaun Casey, former director of the US State Department’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs under Secretary John Kerry, and the author of a book about how John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic president despite Protestant opposition.
“There is a growing dissatisfaction among evangelicals with Trump,” Casey said. “They know Trump’s weaknesses: His immorality, his incoherence, his rage and incompetence. But I don’t see it leading them into the Democratic Party.”
Casey said Biden is smart to talk about his Catholicism in the campaign, regardless. It’s a point of personal connection with many voters. And when Biden talks about how his faith formed his character, sustained him in hard times, and taught him kindness and empathy, many will see a stark contrast with Trump.
Biden has learned from previous Catholic candidates, Casey said. He knows to avoid the open conflict with conservative Catholic bishops that got Kerry into trouble in 2004 and, simultaneously, not to cede the subject of religion to the Republicans.
Biden will also use his faith to emphasize his inclusive vision of America, as Kennedy did when Protestant leaders—including evangelist Billy Graham, Christianity Today editor L. Nelson Bell, and Trump’s childhood pastor Norman Vincent Peale—questioned whether a Catholic could faithfully uphold the Constitution. The Kennedy campaign found that many Americans were offended by the narrow view of who was really an American, and would vote for inclusivity and pluralism.
“We don’t write anybody off in this campaign,” said Joshua Dickson, Biden’s national faith engagement director. “I know how diverse evangelicals are in terms of their backgrounds, in terms of how they look at their faith and how they practice, and in terms of the issues they care about.”
Dickson has been inviting evangelicals, along with other groups of religious leaders, to listening sessions, where they’re asked their opinions about the big issues in the campaign and the stakes of the upcoming election. Though there are differences, the campaign sees common commitments too.
Richard Mouw has been invited to two sessions and spoken to multiple evangelical leaders who have met with the Democrats. He will join a listening session later this week. Mouw plans to bring up the party’s positions on abortion and religious liberty.