Right-wing activists fling mud at Joe Biden's Catholic credentials as the 2020 election splits American Catholic voters in an unprecedented way.
Attorney General William Barr received an award at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast this morning for Christian faithfulness, amid widespread condemnation by Catholic leaders and mounting tensions among American Catholic voters.
Barr received the award the day between two federal executions at his directive, the sixth and seventh federal executions enacted since July.
According to the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast's site, the Christifideles Laici award, established in 2019, is bestowed for "Honor and Gratitude for Fidelity to the Church, Exemplary Selfless and Steadfast Service in the Lord's Vineyard." Barr is its second recipient.
As of Tuesday morning, 20,000 Christians had signed a petition protesting Barr's award. Spearheaded by Faithful America, a Christian online community focusing on social justice issues, the petition reads in part: "Attorney General William Barr's work— which includes teargassing peaceful protesters in front of the White House, defending the president's lawless corruption and attacks on American elections, and reinstating federal executions — has nothing to do with service to the Lord, and cannot be described as fidelity to the Church."
In a recent statement, the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests decried Barr's award as "shocking, incomprehensible, and scandalous," and his recent actions — including reinstating federal executions — as "abhorrent in the context of Catholic faith."
Two chairmen of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a joint statement Tuesday morning with a message for Trump and Barr: "Enough. Stop these executions."
Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun and prominent death penalty abolitionist, tweeted Tuesday night that presenting the award to Barr was a "grievous scandal for the Church."
"A.G. Barr has ordered the executions of six men with at least one more on the calendar," she tweeted. "What is Christlike about using discretionary power to kill?"
Conflict is escalating among American Catholics in the 2020 election season, with Barr's award simply the latest in a long line of examples of political animus.
A controversial video featuring Father James Altman, a priest at the Roman Catholic Church of St. James the Less in La Crosse, Wisconsin, spouting right-wing talking points went viral Aug. 30 and has racked up close to 900,000 views on YouTube.
In the video, titled, "You cannot be Catholic & a Democrat. Period," and endorsed by a Texas bishop, Altman labels Democratic presidential nominee Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi "godless," calls any Catholic who voted for former President Barack Obama an "imposter," describes climate change as a hoax, depicts Black Lives Matter activists as Marxists, and claims Planned Parenthood was founded to "wipe out Black babies."
"(The Democratic) party platform absolutely is against everything the Catholic Church teaches," Altman says in the video. "So just quit pretending that you're Catholic and vote Democrat. Repent of your support of that party and its platform, or face the fires of hell."
While the bishop of the Diocese of La Crosse, William Patrick Callahan, called the video's tone "angry and judgmental," he said that he would correct and counsel Altman privately before considering any penalties against him.
But such attacks are nothing new; Biden's Catholic credentials have long been questioned by conservative Catholic leaders and pundits. At the Republican National Convention, former University of Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz called Biden "Catholic in name only." Last October, Biden was denied communion at a South Carolina Catholic church over his abortion-rights stance.
And Catholics are, politically, a house divided. Pew Research polls indicate that American Catholic registered voters are fairly evenly split between major parties (47% Democrat and 46% Republican), with white Catholics in 2016 tending to vote Republican and Latinx Catholics tending to support Democrats. Exit polls during the 2018 midterms indicated 50% of Catholics voted for Democrats and 49% for Republicans.
According to the Associated Press, more than 20% of adults in several battleground states such as Wisconsin, Florida, and Pennsylvania are Catholic, making Catholics a critical swing vote in this year's election.
But Barr's accolades may not sway the election outcome: An EWTN News/RealClear Opinion poll, taken before the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and released Monday, indicated that Biden holds a 12-point lead over Donald Trump among Catholic voters.
Trump leads among white Catholics and those who characterize themselves as devout, while Biden is backed strongly by Latinx Catholics as well as less frequent churchgoers.
John Gehring, a Catholic commentator and program director at Faith in Public Life, recently commented in Commonweal Magazine that attacks on Biden's faith amount to "religious slander," and that "conveniently ignoring or downplaying Church teachings on racism, the dignity of immigrants, and economic inequality" is "selective theology."
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.