ALBANY — Gov. Kathy Hochul has publicly invoked her Catholic faith — frequently and deeply — since taking office in August, at times quoting the Old Testament and occasionally letting loose with shouts of "Amen!"
In doing so, she has defied a rule held by many Democrats to avoid this double-edged political sword.
"The Bible tells us there’s a time for every purpose under heaven," Hochul said in her first public address as governor on Aug. 24 in the state Capitol. "I believe that with every fiber of my body, that this is our time, our time to escape the oppression of a deadly virus and make our schools and workplaces safe to return."
Two weeks earlier, three-term Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced he would resign effective Aug. 24 because of sexual harassment allegations which he denies.
"As I dropped to my knees when I found out if I would be governor," Hochul recalled, "I said, ‘God, please grant me wisdom and grant me strength.’"
The governor has proclaimed her faith even as she champions progressive causes such as gay and transgender rights, gun control and protecting abortion rights. The latter puts her in conflict with the teachings of the Catholic Church.
Hochul's references to the importance of religion in her life have surprised many political analysts. They say her faith message may make inroads with Black and Latino voters and in the suburbs, including Long Island, and she will need that support to be elected next year. But her proclamations are not without risk.
Public talk of God, the Bible and faith could alienate progressives leery of Democrats who mix religion and politics the way the national Republican Party has, the analysts said.
"It is surprising to hear someone really dig into it," said Mark Brockway, a professor and researcher in religion and political science at Syracuse University. "It’s definitely more intensive than I’ve heard lately … she’s leaning into it."
Hochul didn't respond to requests for comment on this story.
The stakes for Hochul are high. First, she must beat a potential field of progressive candidates in a Democratic primary next year. If she wins the nomination, Hochul will face a general election in which Republicans see their best chance of winning the governor’s office in two decades.
In addition, November’s "red wave" in the off-year election that crushed some Democrats and their statewide ballot proposals has energized the GOP against what they brand as the liberal and socialist agenda of Democrats.
Hochul, a 63-year-old Buffalo native, spoke about her faith in six public speeches over the first two months of her term. Her belief has deep roots. She is Irish Catholic and told the Irish Echo weekly newspaper that she grew up with portraits of the Pope and President John F. Kennedy, the first Irish-American president, in her home.
Hochul’s reflections on her faith has come at venues that have ranged from a purely secular setting such as the Capitol’s historic Blue Room on Aug. 24 to news events with Black and Latino leaders. The topics included introducing her lieutenant governor, former Sen. Brian Benjamin — "He’s a very religious individual" — and urging New Yorkers to get vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus who say they object on religious grounds.
"I prayed, I prayed to God, God deliver us from this," Hochul said of the pandemic in her Sept. 12 speech at The Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. "And then he did … So how can you say no to that? How can you believe that God would give a vaccine that would cause you harm? That is not the truth."
"I need you to be my apostles," Hochul told the Black pastors at the historic church. "I feel that God has tapped me on the shoulder as well because everything I have done in life has been because of the grace of God leading me to that place and now God has asked me to serve humbly as your servant, as your governor."
She punctuated some statements with, "This is indeed the day the Lord has made. Amen? Amen" and even turned deep into the Old Testament. She bypassed Moses — "the big name" — to focus on his more obscure successor, Joshua, who is held in high esteem in Hebrew and Muslim teachings.
"Joshua … didn’t have the staff to part the Jordan River when they needed to get across," Hochul said. "So, what did he use? He used the promise of God … just like Joshua … my lieutenant governor and I are going to keep leading the people. We’re going to keep moving forward."
Hochul drew praise from Black leaders in Harlem during a lively, rally-like event in August. Hazel Dukes, 89, president of the NAACP New York State Conference, called the governor "Sister Kathy." On Oct. 18, Dukes endorsed Hochul in an important signal to Black voters in Dukes' Manhattan base.
But Hochul's remarks also could make her vulnerable.
"I think there is a backlash in the evangelical community," said the Rev. Jason J. McGuire, executive director of the New Yorker’s Family Research Foundation and an evangelical leader who lobbies state government. "I’m hearing from people who aren’t regular church attenders about the hypocrisy of her position."
Particularly galling, McGuire said, was Hochul’s use of faith against New Yorkers who feel refusing a COVID-19 vaccination as part of their personal religious convictions, while she "totally ignores her faith lessons" by supporting abortion rights.
"They see a governor who is pretty desperate right now grasping at any strings she can," McGuire said.
That risk, however, is nuanced, the researchers said.
"There’s definitely going to be a backlash," said Brockway of Syracuse University. "But the question is, will the backlash be from people who weren’t going to vote for her anyway?"
"I think the biggest risk for them is in the primary against a more liberal, more left, more secular candidate, especially if that candidate really leans into a secular or anti-religious identity and paints her as sort of a more established religious candidate," Brockway said. "I wouldn’t be surprised if some of this language is strategic … but it does create a primary problem."
Statewide, 32% of residents identify as Catholic, the most common religious affiliation by far in New York state, according to the national Public Religion Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group on religion and public policy. While the white Catholic population has fallen, the Latino Catholic population has been stable at 10% of the state population.
Hochul’s faith-based language may also turn off young progressives, who are a growing part of the Democratic Party and the party’s primary vote. But her religious references could also potentially attract more conservative Latino Catholics who had backed Republican President Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020 and others, the political scientists said.
"Secular progressives, especially younger ones, now have a pretty allergic reaction to religious rhetoric of any kind," said Philip Gorski, professor of sociology and religious studies and sociology department chairman at Yale University. "But that reaction is strongest vis-à-vis evangelicals. It does not extend to Black Christians, for example."
"It is true that many Democratic Party activists are pretty secular people; this is not true of African American Democrats — who have great and increasing influence within the party — and it is even less true of many Democratic voters," Gorski said.
"While the evangelical label has become increasingly indistinguishable from GOP identification, Catholics remain much more evenly split between the two parties," he said, noting President Biden made his Catholic faith part of his campaign last year. I don’t think being Catholic hurt Joe Biden. I doubt it will hurt Hochul, either."
"Of course," Gorski cautioned, "the 800-pound gorilla is abortion rights. On that, there is little daylight between the various currents within evangelicalism. And that will make it hard for any Democrat to win over many of these folks."
Polls suggest Hochul’s discussion of faith also could tap into the critical suburban vote, said Lee M. Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion and a political-science professor.
"There remains a sizable group of Catholic voters, especially in New York City and its suburbs, who she may appeal to with her religious grounding," Miringoff said. "She is in a unique position of having the resources of being an incumbent, while still able to define herself politically … she will appeal to some progressive voters, as the first woman governor, while having the middle lane mostly to herself."
"If she gets past the primary intact," Miringoff said, "this approach may bode well statewide, especially with the major Democratic Party registration advantages that this very blue state offers Democrats."
She will have to go through the suburbs to do it.
"Governor Hochul’s best chance to win election in her own right, as well as gain support for her policy proposals, is to strengthen her support among relatively conservative upstaters and moderate suburbanites," said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies. "To show moderate sensibilities … that resonate with suburban voters."
"But it can also backfire if a candidate comes across as insincere and patronizing and somehow choosing one religion over another," Levy said. "So far, the governor seems to have struck the right balance and avoided any gaffes. Her relatively strong suburban numbers reflect that."
Hochul has said she knows a line must be drawn between faith and governing and has done so in her effort to persuade New Yorkers who refused COVID-19 vaccines based on their personal religious views.
"Sometimes you have to do a calculation of what is important to your personal beliefs and where it interferes with lives," she said in answer to a Newsday question at an Oct. 13 news conference. "We also have a public health objective."
In October, for example, she made it clear her Catholicism doesn’t dictate her political views. She made impassioned speeches at the Seneca Falls Women’s March and Rally for Reproductive Rights in Albany in defense of abortion rights.
"I will protect those rights, I will make that torch grow even brighter," she said.
The governor developed her faith early growing up outside Buffalo near a Bethlehem Steel plant in a small trailer home. She is the granddaughter of Irish immigrants, earned her law degree at Catholic University, worked for Irish Catholic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and once was on the board of trustees of Immaculata Academy, a Catholic girls high school in a Buffalo suburb that closed in 2016. She carries her own Bible to Mass most Sundays.
"Governor Hochul in the time I’ve known here has always made comments here and there that, ‘I have to uphold my faith,’" said former Gov. David Paterson, who Hochul said is a trusted adviser.
"I think that many politicians refrain from talking about their faith because they don’t want to be proselytizing or in any way implicating the higher power has imputed on them the capacity the rest of us don’t," said Paterson. "She doesn’t do that."
He said there is a personal urge and a political need to let New Yorkers know who you are when, as Hochul and Paterson did, you rise suddenly from a little-known lieutenant governor upon a governor’s resignation.
"When I first became governor I said things that I wished that I hadn’t in retrospect — I didn’t have to go that far," Paterson said. "But I was really trying to let people know who I was. I was trying to be as honest a possible and let people hear it. And I think that is what she is doing as well."
As for Hochul, she has made a quick record of religious commitment.
"Here is my promise to you, my friends," Hochul said Sept. 26 at the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, "I will use the inspiration of God in my life and fight for you every single day as your governor and beyond … I believe there is a strong intersection between the teachings of the New and Old testaments and what we have been told to do," she said. "It’s calling all of us, but particularly those who’ve been called to serve as public servants, positions like governor."