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Pennsylvania’s candidates for governor deploy religion in contrasting ways

The two candidates are appealing to the contrasting religious and ethnic demographics that have supported each side in recent campaigns.

  • By Peter Smith/The Associated Press
Attorney General Josh Shapiro, left, and Sen. Doug Mastriano, right.

 AP Photos

Attorney General Josh Shapiro, left, and Sen. Doug Mastriano, right.

At the start of a campaign event in Pennsylvania’s rural southwestern corner, Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano stood at the front of a church, to the backdrop of an oversized campaign sign and a towering cross.

A pastor laid hands on him in a common Pentecostal custom and asked God for protection.

“We pray that you give him this courage and strength for what he’s about to face,” the pastor said at the gathering at Crosspoint Assembly of God. “We pray against the darkness and the enemies that come against him in the spiritual realm.”

There’s also religious talk in Democratic candidate Josh Shapiro’s appearances. In speeches and ads, he describes his faith as a motivator. A member of a congregation in the middle-of-the-road denomination of Conservative Judaism, Shapiro talks about Friday night Sabbath dinners at home and taking inspiration from an ancient Jewish maxim: “No one is required to complete the task, but neither are we free to refrain from it.”

He’s done his share of campaign stops at churches — including at historic Mother Bethel African Methodist Church in Philadelphia.

But in contrast to the strong conservative Christian focus of Mastriano’s campaign, Shapiro has built a classic Democratic coalition of Black clergy and other progressive religious groups, including Christians and Jews, and the non-religious.

“My faith grounds me and calls me to do public service. I don’t use my faith to make policy decisions or to exclude others the way my opponent does,” Shapiro, Pennsylvania’s current attorney general, said in an interview.

Pennsylvania candidate for governor, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, meets with attendees at an SEIU union event in Philadelphia, Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022.

Ryan Collerd / AP Photo

Pennsylvania candidate for governor, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, meets with attendees at an SEIU union event in Philadelphia, Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022.

In one of the most closely watched races in one of the most contested of battleground states, both gubernatorial candidates bring up religion. But in starkly different ways.

Mastriano’s campaign has several hallmarks of Christian nationalism, which fuses Christian and political imagery, words and rituals and promotes a belief that America has been and should be a Christian nation.

Mastriano, a state senator, has rejected the “Christian nationalist” label, though his political events often carry the feel of a worship service. He was introduced at a church-hosted event near Pittsburgh by a pastor who mixed Christian and political imagery: “Get ready for a great ‘blood of Jesus’ red wave!”

Mastriano’s campaign did not respond to emailed requests for an interview. He has consistently ignored requests for comment from The Associated Press and many other media outlets.

At the Carmichaels church event, a campaign staffer told a reporter Mastriano would not be taking questions. Mastriano contended that he “watched various media outlets mock our faith” in their coverage of his primary victory rally, which was infused with worship music and Bible quotes. “My campaign has no place for intolerance and bigotry,” he said.

That’s been challenged by Shapiro and others because Mastriano’s campaign paid $5,000 for what it described in a financial disclosure form as “consulting” services to Gab— a social media site popular with white supremacists and antisemites. It was on Gab, authorities say, that a suspect signaled his plans for the 2018 massacre of 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue building in Pittsburgh. It was the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history.

Mastriano led efforts to overturn Pennsylvania’s vote for Joe Biden in 2020. He chartered buses to bring Pennsylvanians to the outdoor rally preceding the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection. According to a Senate Judiciary Committee report, he passed through “breached barricades and police lines.”

State Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, a Republican candidate for Governor of Pennsylvania, stands on stage with Sean Feucht, left, his wife Rebbeca and Jenna Ellis, right, take part in a primary night election gathering in Chambersburg, Pa., Tuesday, May 17, 2022.

Carolyn Kaster / AP Photo

State Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, a Republican candidate for Governor of Pennsylvania, stands on stage with Sean Feucht, left, his wife Rebbeca and Jenna Ellis, right, take part in a primary night election gathering in Chambersburg, Pa., Tuesday, May 17, 2022.

The two candidates are appealing to the contrasting religious and ethnic demographics that have supported each side in recent campaigns such as the 2020 presidential election, when a majority of white Catholics and a large majority of white evangelical Christians voted Republican while Democrats drew on strong support from Black Christians, Latino Catholics, Jews, Muslims and people of no religion.

Several recent polls have shown Shapiro with a lead over Mastriano.

A September survey by the Franklin & Marshall College suggests Shapiro and Mastriano are running about even among Protestants and Catholics overall, while Shapiro leads among followers of no religion. The poll shows Mastriano leading among self-identified born-again or evangelical Christians.

Mastriano has “made no effort to soften” his hardline stances to a general election electorate, said John Fea, a history professor at Messiah University in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, and author of “Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.”

Mastriano takes a “black-and-white, spiritual-warfare view of the world,” Fea said. “Anyone who criticizes him is the devil. I’m not meaning this metaphorically. He really believes they are working for the cause of evil. … That’s what makes him so dangerous.”

Still, some evangelicals “may be disgusted by his (Mastriano’s) Christian nationalism but cannot imagine themselves voting for a prochoice candidate like Shapiro,” Fea said.

He said Shapiro appears to be contrasting his broader view of religious freedom in a diverse population with Mastriano’s narrower one. Shapiro has criticized Mastriano’s statement that “all religions are not equal.”

Mastriano spends much of his stump speeches denouncing a rise in crime, the incumbent Democratic administration’s COVID-19 restrictions and the participation of transgender athletes in girls’ sports. He has called banning abortion without exception a top priority.

Shapiro has said “my office is dedicated to protecting legal access to abortion in our Commonwealth,” where it is permitted through the 23rd week of pregnancy.

Each candidate draws supporters with a shared understanding of religion’s role.

People sing before State Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, a Republican gubernatorial candidate, speaks at a primary night election gathering in Chambersburg, Pa., Tuesday, May 17, 2022.

Carolyn Kaster / AP Photo

People sing before State Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, a Republican gubernatorial candidate, speaks at a primary night election gathering in Chambersburg, Pa., Tuesday, May 17, 2022.

At the Carmichaels church, Mastriano addressed a small but enthusiastic crowd on a September morning.

“I like the fact that he’s emboldened to (express) our religious values and our freedoms in the Bill of Rights,” said Steven Grugin of Dunkard Township. Speaking in a church “tells people that he’s very much for freedom of speech, freedom of religion,” he said.

The Rev. Marshall Mitchell, senior pastor of Salem Baptist Church of Abington, Pa., who has known Shapiro for years, said Shapiro “is as comfortable in a Black Baptist church as he is in a Conservative shul or a temple or a mosque,” Mitchell said. “He sees the common humanity, which he believes originates in God.”

Beth Kissileff, the wife of a survivor of the Tree of Life shooting, sees Shapiro as knowing “how to carry Jewish values out into the world and relate to all kinds of people.”

Kissileff said she’s “horrified” that someone who paid Gab for consulting services is a serious contender for governor.

In a video interview with Gab founder Andrew Torba, Mastriano praised Torba for providing what he described as a free-speech forum, adding: “Thank God for what you’ve done.”

Mastriano also has assailed Shapiro for sending his children to “one of the most elite, privileged schools in the nation,” while “the rest of us, we’re like peasants.” Mastriano said if he sent his children to an expensive school, it would be major headline news.

Mastriano didn’t specify that the school was a Jewish academy. But terms like “elite” have been used as antisemitic tropes indicating wealth and insularity, Jewish advocates say.

“That’s not a dog whistle, that’s an alarm bell,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League. Given Mastriano’s affiliation with Gab, “it does appear to be part of a troubling pattern.”

Another religion theme has emerged in Shapiro ads featuring survivors of clergy sexual abuse who praised his role as attorney general in overseeing a 2018 grand jury report on abuse in Pennsylvania Catholic dioceses.

While Catholic response to the report was mixed, Mastriano has not made it a campaign issue.

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