By Christopher White, National Correspondent
DES MOINES, Iowa — Sisters Elaine and Jeanie Hagerdorn, CHM, are real life “sister sisters,” — members of the Congregation of the Humility of Mary — who have been actively involved in every presidential election since 1960, when John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic in the country to be elected president.
The sisters, both in their eighties, are accustomed to their home state becoming the center of the country — and arguably the world — during presidential election cycles. They have met almost every candidate who has come to Iowa over the years to make a case for being president.
This year, however, the Hagerdorn sisters are not only undecided voters — which is a first for them — as they head into Iowa’s Democratic caucuses on Feb. 3, but also they may end up supporting different candidates for the first time ever.
Despite blizzard conditions in central Iowa this past weekend, four of the major candidates — former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Minnessota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren — crisscrossed the state, touting their plans for education, health care, foreign policy and more.
Yet unlike the rest of the country, where voters head to the polls to cast their ballots privately, voters in Iowa participate in a local caucus where they publicly discuss and declare who they are voting for in the election.
For some, the process is invasive, requiring a deeply personal act to be made public. Others, however, defend it, saying it’s a process that involves getting to know your neighbors and trying to understand how they view the world, building what Pope Francis has called a “culture of encounter.”
Regardless of how one views the merits of the system, whoever emerges on top in two weeks will likely get a major boost in the Democratic primaries. As the process gets underway, Catholic Democrats find themselves in a similar position to that of the Hagerdorn sisters — motivated first and foremost by a desire to oust President Donald Trump from office. They will cast their caucus support to whomever they believe will be the most likely candidate to defeat Trump.
When it comes to his involvement in politics, Toby Paone doesn’t mince words: He’s a union member because he’s a Catholic. Paone, 58, is a former Davenport schoolteacher, who now works for the state’s largest union, the Iowa State Education Association (ISEA). He readily cites Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical, “Rerum Novarum,” on the rights of workers.
“I would say that my faith as a Catholic is a prime motivation as to why I belong to a union,” he said. But although he works in education, his No. 1 issue heading into the caucuses is foreign policy, and for that reason, he’s supporting Biden, a fellow Catholic.
“Biden, more than any of the other candidates, can rebuild relationships with our allies,” Paone said, citing Biden’s “experience of dealing with the crisis in the Middle East and other places in the world.”
And yet while Biden has his support, Paone said he’s happy with his other options. He, too, is motivated by making sure Trump is not reelected. In particular, he’s incensed that many religious leaders, especially evangelicals, support the president.
“It boils my blood that you see these money changers in the temple standing behind Trump, putting their arms on him and blessing our president,” Paone said. “It irks me as a person of faith to see that.”
Ardie Miller of nearby Bettendorf concurs, telling The Tablet that for him, this election is about national values.
“The U.S. has lost its character. I really believe, and I’m hopeful that we’re going to turn it around, and I’m hoping by a landslide, and that we want to get back in touch with our values that reflect our faith,” Miller said.
Miller, 67, who is a social worker and a volunteer cantor at his local parish, St. John Vianney, said the Gospel’s call to social justice is a big factor. This year, he will support Buttigieg, 38, whom he said is “a breath of fresh air.”
Miller, who had just listened to Buttigieg speak, recalled the politician citing Scripture about clothing the naked and feeding the hungry. “He just laid it out in terms of who we are,” Miller said. He also likes that Buttigieg is “not part of Washington.”
Schoolteacher Katie McDonald, 38, agrees with Miller, saying that she “really likes Pete” but that she supports Warren because of the senator’s health-care proposals. “I want a single-payer system,” McDonald told The Tablet. Health care “should not be a privilege. It’s something that everyone should have.”
McDonald, a parishioner at St. Anthony’s in Davenport, said that for the most part her fellow parishioners aren’t vocal about which candidate they favor but that they want someone who can defeat Trump.
“My Catholic experience in Davenport,” Paone said, is “I would say it’s anyone but Trump.”
“People are respectful of one another. They’re respectful of the differences between the candidates, but more than 2016, there is a very strong sense of unity that whoever is the nominee, that’s who we go with,” Paone said.
Tom Chapman, executive director of the Iowa Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the state’s bishops, said there are “two big things” about being Catholic: “love God and love of our neighbor.”
“That requires us getting involved in the political arena,” Chapman said, noting that in Iowa, Catholics, who make up about 30 percent of the state’s population of three million, have traditionally been active in the caucus process.
“Our process is really about getting the activists fired up,” Chapman said. “It’s different than a primary system. You’re really trying to get bodies to show up on a particular night in January or February in Iowa, which isn’t always easy.
“You’re going to find that the people that are interested in that are really people who are most active on issues, and I think for a lot of people they bring their Catholic faith with them,” he said. “They may emphasize different parts of it, but it’s who we are as Catholics to go out and be Eucharist in the world, and I think a lot of people take that seriously.”
Chapman said he’s working on a range of issues — from abortion to food stamps to immigration — but believes concern for immigrants and refugees has been a priority for the state’s bishops, who are concerned that immigrants have been largely absent from participating in the political process.
One example: The state doesn’t have any Hispanics in its legislature.
“Going forward, we’re going to see more and more attention” to it, Chapman said.
Father Rudy Juárez has served as pastor of St. Patrick’s Church in Iowa City for the last 15 years. He told The Tablet that the Hispanic community, with a population that is expected to swell to 450,000 in the state by 2050, is “young and vibrant” and is responsible for saving many of Iowa’s small towns.
Yet there is a challenge, he said, of translating that influence into politics and that as a priest, he has to walk a fine line. “I never ask my parishioners about their political preferences or if they’re registered to vote,” he said. Instead, he cites a Spanish slogan that “if you can, you should,” to describe his view.
“We as priests are not to be partisan,” Father Juárez said. “We can be political as long as its nonpartisan,” saying that he sticks to talking about issues and encouraging people to vote.
Recently, he allowed parishioners to get up at Mass to encourage people to caucus, but he warned them that they couldn’t discuss candidates. Two of his parishioners, Angel and Maria Hernandez, said they have taken Father Juárez’s words to heart, registering to vote as soon as they were eligible.
Maria, a hairdresser who has voted in every election since she turned 18, said she votes in hopes of helping to create a “better lifestyle for the community.”
Born in Mexico, but an Iowa resident since she was 4 years old, Maria said “health care, immigration and the economy” are her priorities when assessing a candidate. Angel, her husband, agrees, but he is quick to remind people that if they really want to support the community, they should care about local issues, not just national ones.
He said that his views are anchored by Catholic social teaching, but that means there’s rarely an obvious candidate, noting that he cares about immigration and pro-life issues.
“It’s very hard to vote as a Catholic because you want to follow the Gospel and there’s such a split sometimes,” Hernandez told The Tablet.
When Kennedy won the White House, the Hagerdorn sisters were allowed to stay up past their 9 p.m. prayers until 3 a.m. to watch the election results. Sixty years later, they are still closely monitoring politics from early in the mornings to late into the evenings while in retirement.
“It’s the Gospel call to be concerned about what happens with your brothers and sisters,” said Sister Jeanie, who worked most of her life in religious education.
“Our Catholic roots really moved us in that direction,” she said of her and her sister’s involvement in politics, where they have tried to attend every single candidate event imaginable, canvassing for their preferred choice and making phone calls from sunrise to sunset.
In 2016, they supported Bernie Sanders, whom they still remain fond of. They applaud him for starting a national conversation about inequality and health care, but fear that perhaps his moment has passed.
They are also enthusiastic about Biden. They shared lunch with him during a “Nuns on the Bus” tour in 2014, and their shared apartment is adorned with photos of the Catholic candidate with the sisters — next to their Pope Francis calendar.
But they wonder if Sanders or Biden can manage to get young people into the voting booth, noting that the energy of young voters will be necessary to defeat Trump, which is something that they insist is non-negotiable.
It’s impossible, the Hagerdorn sisters said, to separate their political involvement from their religious vocation — “making people aware that they have a voice and that they can raise that voice for their own needs, and that they have dignity,” Sister Jeanie said.
Sister Elaine told The Tablet that when she’s weighing whom to support, she’s concerned with “your integrity, your honesty, your willingness to help the poor and your willingness to work for the climate.”
For her, this time around, all of the candidates check those boxes, and so she will head into the caucus willing to be persuaded by her neighbors.
“This has been a hard choice this time around; most of the time it’s pretty definite,” Sister Jeanie said.
“I’ve gone all the way around the circle,” Sister Elaine said. “And I don’t know where I am right now.”