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What Catholics In Pennsylvania Think About The Upcoming Election


President Trump is battling COVID even as his reelection campaign continues. One focus is the battleground state of Pennsylvania. Catholic voters in that state are seen by both sides as a key swing group. NPR's Tom Gjelten has been talking to some of those voters about the upcoming election and has this report.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Murrysville, 20 miles east of Pittsburgh, sure looks like Trump country. There's no missing the Trump Victory Center on Carson Avenue, a huge Trump banner above the door, a big American flag alongside. But Westmoreland County, where Murrysville is located, was for decades solidly Democratic.

MARY TERKA: I was a Democrat until 2004.

GJELTEN: Mary Terka (ph) switched parties for one reason - abortion. If you're not pro-life, she says, you don't make the cut. She says if it hadn't been for abortion, she would have stayed a Democrat.

TERKA: Because I do feel it is better to have both parties represented equally. It got to the point where there were no pro-life Democrats. I thought - you know what? - I'm done. I'm Republican at heart because of that one particular issue.

GJELTEN: And why did that issue stand out above all others?

TERKA: When it comes to matters of morals, my Catholic faith - I'm Catholic right down to my little toes. I really am.

GJELTEN: The official view of the U.S. Catholic bishops is that abortion offends God. And as Republicans and Democrats became entrenched on opposite sides of the issue, Catholics began trending Republican. In the battleground state of Pennsylvania, which Donald Trump won in 2016, about a quarter of the electorate is Catholic. Kevin Hayes co-founded a Catholics for Biden campaign here. He wants to improve on previous Democratic efforts.

KEVIN HAYES: The Clinton campaign did not do as much faith outreach, and they also made the abortion issue more of a divisive one.

GJELTEN: Hayes thinks this year could be different. Joe Biden is himself a Catholic, and his Biden volunteers are encouraging fellow Catholics to move beyond single-issue voting.

HAYES: I'm pro-life. I'm against abortion. But my pro-life beliefs are more than just anti-abortion. I really do believe in kind of conception to death pro-life, and there's a lot of issues that are involved there - a lot of life issues beyond just being born. That's what we're trying to get out to Catholics.

GJELTEN: U.S. bishops say abortion is the preeminent issue for Catholics. But in a document on faithful citizenship, they also highlight economic justice, health care, immigrant rights, racial discrimination and the environment. And they say Catholics should let their consciences dictate their voting in light of all church teachings. Here in Westmoreland County, that resonated with Donna Fisher (ph), especially after she saw some Catholic messages on Facebook.

DONNA FISHER: You are committing a mortal sin if you vote for a Democrat - and then I started seeing posts from the other side to say, no, no, you can form your own conscience. And I don't know that all Catholics know that.

GJELTEN: Fisher wants to hear that message in her own parish.

FISHER: Some people just go in line because they hear that abortion is the main issue so you've got to base your vote on that. So I would really prefer to see a lot more information that, no, you're allowed to look at all the issues and say, this candidate fits better than that candidate, even though that candidate might be closer on this one issue.

GJELTEN: But back at the Trump Victory Center in Murrysville, it's pretty simple.

MICHAEL KORNS: The life issue obviously is No. 1.

GJELTEN: Michael Korns is a former chair of the Republican Party here in Westmoreland County. He's a Catholic who attends Mass weekly.

KORNS: We are definitely trying to talk to Catholic voters who care deeply about issues of life and issues of culture. And there is such a clear distinction between Donald Trump and Joe Biden and the Democrats that it's, I think, difficult for somebody who's a conservative Catholic to ignore that.

GJELTEN: It may come down to how many conservative Catholics there are here. Westmoreland County is 95% white and overwhelmingly Catholic. Trump won the county last time by 31 points. But 2020 is a different year for Catholic voters like Cheryl Tachs (ph).

CHERYL TACHS: I just feel like we have become very toxic these last couple years. And I - I'm really worried about what the next four will bring depending on who is in in power, so to speak.

GJELTEN: Who is in power in America will depend partly on who wins in Pennsylvania, and who wins may depend on how Catholics here will vote.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.