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Catholics In Las Vegas On Faith And Politics


Catholic voters have long been seen as key to victory in presidential elections. They comprise just over 20% of the electorate - 1 in 5 voters - which makes them a focus for politicians of both parties. The difficulty, of course, is that there isn't one Catholic vote. Their demographics and their political views reflect the class, race and generational divides of the electorate as a whole.


In Las Vegas, Catholicism has surged over the years in large part due to the influx of people from Spanish-speaking countries. We invited a group of Catholic voters to the studios of member station KNPR to talk about the role of faith in their politics.

CORNISH: Especially with the Democratic caucuses tomorrow.

FRANCISCO AGUILAR: I have a very good friend who's running the Biden campaign. So I hear a lot about why Biden should be our next president.

CORNISH: This is 43-year-old Francisco Aguilar (ph). He's an attorney and a Democrat. And his first two choices - Senator Kamala Harris and entrepreneur Andrew Yang have dropped out. So this whole Biden thing?

AGUILAR: I got to get to the point where I'm comfortable.

CORNISH: So what does this mean for you this weekend? Is your Biden friend on you?

AGUILAR: Oh, every day.

CORNISH: And he's not the only one feeling the pressure. Thirty-year-old Abriana Tuller (ph) says she's overwhelmed.

ABRIANA TULLER: This is the first time where I've kind of wanted to step away, look at everyone and then come back into it.

CORNISH: Do you plan on caucusing this weekend?

TULLER: Absolutely not.

CORNISH: So you're going to sit out the primary race in general and hop back in in the general election.


CORNISH: We wanted to know how the political landscape has changed for these voters under President Trump, how they see his term through the lens of faith. And it doesn't take long in our discussion for things to swing around to the question of abortion. For decades, the church's anti-abortion stance has loomed large for American Catholics. In our group, this is reflected by 54-year-old Steven Melancon (ph). He says he feels driven away by Democrat support for abortion rights, and he has high praise for President Trump's actions on the issue.

STEVEN MELANCON: This is what's so hard because even if someone didn't support the man in the White House, there have been real, concrete changes that have protected more of the unborn. And whether it's reducing the funding to Planned Parenthood, the Title 10 funds, the Supreme Court placements that are going to be pivotal - yeah, it's been amazing. Because I'm conflicted because there are things that I can't abide and can't tolerate about leadership, but then to watch somebody make a promise, like has been done for decades and yet, in this time, carry through.

CORNISH: Abriana Tuller doesn't see it the same way. She's a Democrat, works in a public school. She's African American and has more moderate views.

TULLER: As someone who's had two miscarriages, the common talking point is that women go into these clinics and they have abortions, but what's not talked about is when these women go into these clinics and find out that there's a chance that their baby is not going to make it. I've experienced this myself. And so in those times, you have to do, unfortunately, what you have to do.

And that's where I'm conflicted because, yes, my faith says that abortion is murder. But in those circumstances, where am I supposed to be? Am I supposed to lose my life because of what science is saying, what God has dictated in my situation? What is my choice? And I think that's where the younger Catholic voters like me feel. We're kind of stuck in the middle. Our voice is not really being heard on this.

CORNISH: And in this part of the country, abortion isn't the only divisive issue when it comes to Trump, says Francisco Aguilar.

AGUILAR: As somebody who's grown up in a Mexican family in a border town and feel the way we feel in this community, even though we're fighting every day to make it better, this president hasn't done that for us.

CORNISH: It sounds like you're alluding to the issue of immigration...

AGUILAR: Absolutely.

CORNISH: ...And President Trump's policies there. How do you see them? How has he handled this?

AGUILAR: I think without truly understanding the issue, truly misreading what it means to live in the Southwest. And what are the priorities for us? If you look at Las Vegas Strip, there are billions and billions of dollars made on that strip every day. Those billions of dollars would not be made if it weren't for the amount of immigrant labor that makes those operations run.

CORNISH: How else are you guys hearing this? How do you feel like these policies have affected your community in the last few years?

TULLER: This is Abriana. Working in an education community, I see a lot of hostility between different races of students. One thing that's really heartbreaking to me is that, the past couple of years, we have had to make children feel like they're valued, to make them understand that their culture is not less than because of what they're seeing in the media, because of what they're hearing. The president is not showing these things. He's running on a Christian platform, but the way he's expressing his ideas are not Christianlike.

CORNISH: Does this mean that you are experiencing kids bullying each other using language from the president?

TULLER: Some of it, yes. Sometimes they use terms that he uses because that's how kids are; they model what they see.

CORNISH: The nation's political polarization - its hard lean into partisanship - it's reflected in the election data when it comes to Catholic voters and even in conversations within the community, says 58-year-old Julia Occhiogrosso (ph). She's a longtime member of the progressive Catholic Worker Movement.

JULIA OCCHIOGROSSO: You know, at the Catholic Worker, we have a soup kitchen, and we have Catholic volunteers coming to the soup kitchen, and they are my extended family. But there is a diverse group of perspectives in terms of politics. For me, it has been stretching in terms of trying to have discourse with them.

CORNISH: You've said that so carefully - stretching...


CORNISH: ...Beyond the discourse. What does that really mean?

OCCHIOGROSSO: What I feel like it means is that I have to listen more intently. I have to try to find other ways to connect with someone that I feel differently about things. And I have to try to see their truth because they're all, like, really beautiful, good people that come and want to do good things. And so we have an opportunity to see that and not demonize them because they don't agree with me.

CORNISH: How hard has that been?

OCCHIOGROSSO: It's been difficult, but it has also been enriching.

MELANCON: This is Steven Melancon. What Julia's saying is an experience for a lot of us Catholics. And I know - for example, I'm part of a large Catholic fraternal charitable organization, and many of them are going to fall in that conservative side. For a lot of us, it feels like we've been pushed that way. Many Catholics - of course, we're historically Democrats. And it was a party of labor and the worker, and it just feels, for me, the party left me.

TULLER: This is Abriana. I am actually a registered Democrat. I can understand where he's coming from because there's times when I have felt that the Democratic Party has not only left me behind as a Catholic voter but also as a minority voter as well. But me being more of a moderate, I feel like, traditionally, both parties have left the people behind because people are so focused on their own personal agendas that they've forgotten how to be kind, which is definitely a Catholic virtue.

CORNISH: Before we let the group go, Steven Melancon looks beyond the caucus, beyond the general election even, to a truth that for Catholics, he says, remains constant, no matter how the presidential race goes.

MELANCON: We're compelled by our faith to defend the defenseless and the marginalized. We still get to do all those things regardless of who's in office. We still get to feed the poor. We still get to shelter the homeless. We still get to welcome the immigrant. And yeah, there's going to be some policies that we need to make real decisions about and who makes those decisions. I want people elected who let me do those things that I'm called to do by my faith.

CORNISH: Four Catholic voters in Las Vegas - Steven Melancon, Julia Occhiogrosso Francisco Aguilar and Abriana Tuller talking about faith in politics. And tomorrow, Nevada Democrats hold their presidential caucus.

(SOUNDBITE OF WILD NOTHING'S "PARADISE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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