(CN) — In an effort to pull Christian voters away from President Trump, Joe Biden launched a new ad campaign Thursday tailored around the former vice president’s Catholic faith and values.
“In a stark contrast to Donald Trump, who tear gassed protesters to pose for a photo op with a Bible in front of a church, the ads depict how Biden’s faith is deeply connected to his life story and commitment to public service and illustrates why Biden is the clear moral choice in this election,” the Biden team said of the rollout, making reference to the president’s controversial June appearance at St. John’s Church near the White House.
The ads draw a contrast between Trump and the Democratic presidential nominee by emphasizing that the “common good values of the Biden-Harris agenda” deeply align with “the values of people of faith,” Biden’s campaign added.
While the ads take aim at religious voters, Nancy Ammerman, professor emerita of sociology of religion at Boston University, said Thursday that to get these voters, it’s rarely a matter of lining up religious beliefs and political views.
“Rather, people tend to see clues that make them think a person is like them or not,” Ammerman said in an email. “Religious identity is sometimes one of those clues.”
Biden seems to be doing better with religious voters than 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. A poll published last month by Vote Common Good, a nonprofit attempting to persuade evangelicals not to vote for Trump, found that Biden is doing well with Christian voters in swing states like Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
“The 2020 election is currently on track to produce an 11% swing towards Biden compared with 2016 among evangelicals and Catholics, averaging across both Christian denominations and all 5 swing states surveyed,” the survey said, finding that Biden had slightly more pull with Catholics than evangelicals.
Speaking on how Christian faith can play into politics, Ammerman noted that in recent years white evangelical identification, Republican party identification, and perceived opposition to abortion have all gotten more confusing – seemingly rolled into one cultural package.
“Once a person signals that they belong to one of those camps, the others are assumed to come along with it. For conservative Catholics, as for white evangelicals, if one is not anti-abortion, one cannot be a ‘true’ member of the faith. Both have elevated that stance above any other ‘pro-life’ position,” she said, giving the death penalty or care for the poor or refugees as other pro-life examples.
Biden’s new ads will air on Christian and Catholic television radio stations across 14 states – Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
The campaign is comprised of three videos. Cristina Traina, a professor of theology at Fordham University, surmised in a call Thursday the audience each of these videos is intended to target.
The first of the three ads discusses how Biden’s Catholic faith has shaped his principles. According to Traina, this ad could appeal to liberal Catholics and nonreligious voters alike. It gives the message, she said, that voters “shouldn’t be scared that Biden will be too doctrinaire or too heavily guided by conservative Catholic principles.”
The second video focuses on how Biden’s faith has carried him through dark times, like the death of his wife and daughter in 1972 and the death of his eldest son Beau in 2015. This ad is meant to appeal more to evangelicals, Traina said, because it paints Biden as having a “more individualistic and more devotional view of religion.”
The third and final ad features a testimonial from one of Biden’s fellow Catholic parishioners about how the vice president has been a steady member of her church and regularly attends Mass.
“This is someone who’s known Biden nearly all his life, or for most of his life, giving testimony that he is the real thing. He is a true person of faith, he comes to church every Sunday. What he believes and how he behaves are informed by these values—and he doesn’t just put them on for pictures,” Traina said, indicating that in this way the ad could be perceived as “a veiled critique of Trump.”
According to Traina, the way voters’ religion plays into politics is not always predictable.
“Some people will argue that political values shape [religion], and others argue that it shapes political values,” she said. “I think it’s complicated, but I do see very clear evidence that there’s a subset of people in all religious communities, whose political values are strongly shaped by their faith.”
She went on to say that this does not necessarily mean that faith always dictates those communities’ values. For example, Traina noted, there are lots of Roman Catholics for whom opposition to abortion is their central political value while others don’t feel as strongly about the issue.
“There are many Catholics for whom abortion is not at the top of their list,” she said. “They might put poverty at the top for religious reasons. So the fact that someone’s religion strongly shapes their approach to politics does not tell you how their religion will shape their approach to politics.”