Cornell University Press

Catholic Sparring Over Biden’s Bone Fides Recalls 1984 Election

Return to Home

Biden is Catholic. His selection as the Democratic Party nominee has prompted discussion of past Catholic candidates, especially JFK, the only Catholic president. But unlike JFK, Biden’s status as a Catholic does not seem to concern non-Catholics. It is Catholics who have a problem with him. The nasty, intra-Catholic fighting over Biden’s Catholic bona fides more accurately recalls the 1984, not the 1960, presidential race.

In his re-election campaign, Ronald Reagan deliberately courted Catholics. The move wasn’t surprising. Why not appeal to the largest US religious group? What was odd was that the non-Catholic Reagan portrayed himself as the more “Catholic” candidate in comparison to Walter Mondale, and by implication, vice-presidential nominee and Catholic, Geraldine Ferraro.

But unlike JFK, Biden’s status as a Catholic does not seem to concern non-Catholics. It is Catholics who have a problem with him.

At a July 1984 address in New Jersey, Reagan listed four “Catholic” concerns that distinguished his campaign from Mondale’s: abortion, tuition tax credits, school prayer, and Central America. He stressed his administration’s opposition to the Nicaraguan government. As he explained, “We’re rather more inclined to listen to the testimony of His Holiness the Pope than the claims of Communist Sandinistas.” Reagan knew his audience: many Catholics cared about Central America, a predominantly Catholic region.

Reagan continued this charge as the election neared. At campaign rallies in Oregon, Washington, Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, Reagan accused Mondale of not standing up for the pope. As he charged, the Sandinistas “abuse and deport church leaders, slander the Pope,” yet Mondale said nothing. The message was clear: The Gipper defended the church and “real” Catholics supported US Cold War policy.

At a July 1984 address in New Jersey, Reagan listed four “Catholic” concerns that distinguished his campaign from Mondale’s: abortion, tuition tax credits, school prayer, and Central America.

Reagan’s supporters–Catholic and non-Catholic–portrayed him in similar ways. They also claimed Ferraro was not a “real” Catholic because she personally opposed abortion but was against removing the option for others. As one traditionalist Catholic editorialist wrote, “Geraldine Ferraro personifies to a high degree the Modernist rot which infects large segments of the Catholic Church in America today. By that I mean she manifests, in a clear and living manner, those characteristics which comprise the Modernist heresy.” For Reagan’s Catholic crew, it was not just about politics. Reagan was furthering their brand of Catholicism. Nothing less than the future of the church was at stake, especially when it came to Central America.

Today, there is a similar kind of in-fighting as both candidates seek Catholic votes. Both parties’ conventions featured dueling nuns. Sister Simone Campbell, Executive Director of NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, delivered a prayer at the Democratic National Convention. Earlier in August, she proclaimed, “Catholics cannot support another presidential term for Donald Trump and be true to their faith.” Not to be outdone, the Republicans featured habited Sister Dede Byrne. The doctor, missionary, and former army officer called Trump “the most pro-life president this nation has ever had,” while Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were “the most anti-life presidential ticket ever.”

For Reagan’s Catholic crew, it was not just about politics. Reagan was furthering their brand of Catholicism.

This battle isn’t just about abortion, a priority for conservative Catholics. Just like 1984 was not about Reagan or Ferraro per se, 2020 is not about Trump or Biden. The charges hurled at Biden reveal Catholics’ overlapping religious-political views, and they underscore how many Catholic Trump supporters began as Reagan Democrats. Unlike Protestants with myriad denominations, the US Roman Catholic tent is struggling to contain a wide range of believers from Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi to Kellyanne Conway and Bill Barr. At its core, this conflict is over the church’s direction, as Sister Dede Byrne underscored in her closing words at the GOP convention: “You’ll find us here with our weapon of choice, the rosary.” In this fight, both sides look like they’re ready to go down swinging.

*Featured photo: Reagan-Bush campaign ad published in the National Catholic Register on November 4, 1984.


Theresa Keeley is an assistant professor of US and the World at the University of Louisville whose work focuses on US foreign relations, religion, human rights, and gender. Her experience as a human rights attorney and activist informs her scholarship and her teaching. She is a graduate of Colgate University, the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and Northwestern University. Follow her on Twitter @TkeeleyPhD.

Book Finder