Biden’s Christian ‘Persecution’? We Assess Trump’s Recent Claims.


Former President Donald J. Trump has repeatedly tried to appeal to Christian voters in recent weeks by accusing the Biden administration of criminalizing Americans for their faith.

On multiple occasions this month, Mr. Trump has claimed that President Biden has “persecuted” Catholics in particular. Mr. Biden himself is Catholic.

“I don’t know what it is with Catholics,” Mr. Trump said during a rally in Coralville, Iowa. “They are going violently and viciously after Catholics.”

Mr. Trump repeated similar comments days later at another rally, in Waterloo, and in a video posted before Christmas he said that “Americans of faith are being persecuted like nothing this nation has ever seen before.”

The message fits into a larger theme for Mr. Trump, who — facing criminal charges in relation to his bid to say in office after losing the 2020 election and criticism for praising strongmen — has tried to paint Mr. Biden and Democrats as being the real threat to democracy.

Here’s a closer look at his claims.

WHAT WAS SAID

“Under Crooked Joe Biden, Christians and Americans of faith are being persecuted like nothing this nation has ever seen before. Catholics in particular are being targeted and evangelicals are surely on the watchlist as well.”
— in a video on Truth Social this month

False. Experts say they are unaware of any data to support the idea that Catholics in the United States are being persecuted by the government for their faith — let alone at record levels.

“In terms of the evidence, I find it to be pretty hard to kind of support the idea that there’s a concerted, marked increase in a particular kind of Christian targeting,” said Jason Bruner, a religious studies professor at Arizona State University and historian who studies Christian persecution.

Instead, Mr. Bruner said, it’s most likely that Mr. Trump is extrapolating from cases — say, churches that faced penalties for congregating during the Covid pandemic or anti-abortion activists who have been charged with crimes — to suggest a systemic issue.

“There’s a long history of discrimination against Catholics in the United States, from the framing way through the 1970s,” said Frank Ravitch, a professor of law and religion at Michigan State University. “And if anything, it’s probably better now in terms of nondiscrimination than it ever, probably, ever has been.”

Mr. Trump’s claims, Mr. Ravitch said, show “such an incredible blindness to the history of anti-Catholicism in the U.S.”

Advocates who track Christians fleeing persecution around the world note that the Biden administration has been gradually increasing the number of refugees admitted into the United States after the number dropped precipitously during the Trump era. At the end of fiscal year 2023, the country recorded about 31,000 Christian refugee arrivals — about half of all refugees and the highest number recorded since fiscal year 2016. (Not all were necessarily fleeing persecution on religious grounds.)

“We’re encouraged by that trajectory,” said Matthew Soerens, vice president of advocacy and policy at World Relief, a Christian humanitarian organization that has pushed the Biden administration to establish policies welcoming those facing faith-based discrimination.

The Trump campaign did not respond to requests for the sources behind his claims.

WHAT WAS SAID

“Over the past three years, the Biden administration has sent SWAT teams to arrest pro-life activists.”
— in a video on Truth Social this month

This is misleading. The Justice Department has initiated an increasing number of criminal prosecutions under a law that makes it a violation to interfere with reproductive health care by blocking entrances, using threats or damaging property. In at least one case, a defendant’s family claimed he was arrested by a “SWAT” team, but the Federal Bureau of Investigation said that was not the case.

The law is called the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances, or FACE, Act and was enacted in 1994. Federal prosecutors have used it to initiate 24 criminal cases, involving 55 defendants, since January 2021, according to the Justice Department.

While a majority of those cases have involved acts at facilities that provided abortion services, prosecutors have also used it to charge several individuals who supported abortion access and targeted Florida centers that offered pregnancy counseling and abortion alternatives.

Moreover, Mr. Trump omits that such arrests are not for “pro-life” activism but for specific actions, including violence, that prosecutors argue were attempts at blocking access to or interfering with reproductive health care services.

In one case, federal attorneys charged a man for allegedly using a slingshot to fire metal ball bearings at a Chicago-area Planned Parenthood clinic. In another, prosecutors said that a New York man used locks and glue to prevent the opening of a clinic’s gate. And three men were accused of firebombing a clinic in California; one recently pleaded guilty.

Mr. Trump’s claims about the use of “SWAT teams” may be a reference to the 2022 arrest of a Catholic activist in Pennsylvania. The defendant, Mark Houck, was charged with shoving a volunteer at a Planned Parenthood center in Philadelphia in 2021. Mr. Houck’s defense maintained that he was responding to abusive comments made toward his 12-year-old son by the volunteer. He was acquitted earlier this year.

Republican lawmakers have criticized Mr. Houck’s arrest by armed agents, but the F.B.I. has rejected the claim that it used a SWAT team and said its tactics were consistent with standard practices.

“There are inaccurate claims being made regarding the arrest of Mark Houck,” the F.B.I. said in a statement. “No SWAT team or SWAT operators were involved. F.B.I. agents knocked on Mr. Houck’s front door, identified themselves as F.B.I. agents and asked him to exit the residence. He did so and was taken into custody without incident pursuant to an indictment.”

Christopher A. Wray, the F.B.I. director, when asked about the circumstances of Mr. Houck’s arrest, has said such decisions are made at the local level, “by the career agents on the ground, who have the closest visibility to the circumstances.”

WHAT WAS SAID

“The F.B.I. has been caught profiling devout Catholics as possible domestic terrorists and planning to send undercover spies into Catholic churches, just like in the old days of the Soviet Union.”
— in a video on Truth Social this month

This needs context. Mr. Trump was likely referring to a leaked January memo prepared by the F.B.I.’s field office in Richmond, Va., that warned of the potential for extremism for adherents of a “radical-traditionalist Catholic” ideology. Republicans have criticized the memo for months.

But the memo was withdrawn and the nation’s top law enforcement officials have repeatedly denounced it.

The memo warned of potential threats ahead of the 2024 election and suggested gathering information and developing sources within churches to help identify suspicious activity. It also distinguished between those radicalized and not radicalized, saying “radical-traditionalist Catholics” were a small minority.

Some researchers believe there is some merit to those concerns, even if the memo was flawed. Mr. Ravitch, the Michigan State University professor, said he believed agents erred in focusing on Catholicism. “What they’re really talking about is an extremely radical brand of Christian nationals,” he said, emphasizing that they are a small subset and not representative of the Roman Catholic Church or evangelicals.

Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said during a September congressional hearing that he was “appalled” by the memo and that “Catholics are not extremists.” He called suggestions that the government was targeting Americans based on their faith “outrageous,” referencing the fact that his own family fled Europe to escape antisemitism before the Holocaust.

And earlier this month during a Senate hearing, Mr. Wray said of the document: “That particular intelligence product is something that, as soon I saw it, I was aghast. I had it withdrawn.”

In a statement this week, the F.B.I. reiterated, “Any characterization that the F.B.I. is targeting Catholics is false.”

Curious about the accuracy of a claim? Email factcheck@nytimes.com.



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