In June 2016 at a rally in Los Angeles, candidate Trump gestured to the right toward the crowd and roared, “Look at my African-American.” By September 2019 that African-American told PBS that he had resigned from the Republican Party, finding its leader racist.
Can a faithful Catholic vote for Trump? In early March of 2020, a coalition was announced to be led by American Conservative Union (CPAC) chair Matt Schlapp, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and political consultant Mary Matalin. The object is to “energize” the Catholic community in the U.S. to re-elect Donald Trump. The 2020 Catholics for Trump group said it aims to promote its view that the president’s policies model and reflect Catholic social teaching.
A Catholics for Trump rally was planned by the new group for March 19 in Milwaukee but COVID-19 forced its cancellation. Wisconsin Catholic leadership was clear in announcing that the event was not sponsored by the Church. Any anticipation to hear “Look at my Catholics” was lost, at least for the time being.
Until Trump carried 51 percent of their votes in 2016, American Catholics supported the Democratic nominee in all but four presidential cycles since 1952. But after betting it all on the thrice-married Manhattan businessman — Trump won white Catholics by a 23-point margin, compared with Mitt Romney’s 19-point victory in 2012 — they never received so much as a “thank you” from the 45th president.
The Trump campaign says that’s all about to change: If the 2020 election is to be won or lost in the Rust Belt — specifically, in economically depressed counties throughout Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin that boast a sizable share of cultural and devout Catholics — the president can’t afford to have Catholics feeling left out.
“Catholics were of secondary importance to the Trump campaign in 2016, behind evangelicals. That hasn’t changed, but there is at least an effort to reach this community now,” said former GOP Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, now a senior political adviser for CatholicVote.org who attended the White House briefing for Catholics in December.
“When you look at Catholic social teaching, it is very much aligned with the way this president prioritizes strength on the national stage and fairness in economic relations with other nations, such as with China and NATO,” said Fr. Frank Pavone, a controversial Catholic priest who served on Trump’s anti-abortion advisory board in 2016.
“The nature of the Catholic sensibility — based in both faith and reason — is such that [it] does not lend itself to being ideological and rather lends itself to being persuadable.”
“The nature of the Catholic sensibility — based in both faith and reason — is such that [it] does not lend itself to being ideological and rather lends itself to being persuadable,” according to Steven Krueger, president of the group Catholic Democrats. Clearly, there are differences of opinion and prospects.
Anti-Catholicism existed in colonial America but played a minor role in American politics until the arrival of large numbers of Irish and German Catholics in the 1840s. It then reemerged in nativist attacks on Catholic immigration appearing in New York politics as early as 1843 under the banner of the American Republican Party. The movement quickly spread to nearby states using that name or Native American Party or variants of it, morphing subsequently into the so-called Know Nothing Party.
Alfred E. Smith, a popular governor of New York, swept the Catholic vote in the 1928 presidential election but lost to Herbert Hoover overwhelmingly across the nation. The fact that Smith was Catholic and the descendant of Catholic immigrants was instrumental in his loss, arising from centuries of Protestant domination that promoted myths and superstitions about Catholicism, especially that they would be obedient to the Pope in Rome.
Nearly 60 years ago, September 12, 1960, Sen. John F. Kennedy spoke to Protestant ministers in Houston, delivering a clear and credible rationale as to why a Catholic could be president of the United States. For the most part of these six decades, American Catholics have appeared to be content with the détente created by Kennedy and have not, unlike many other Christian groups, especially evangelicals, organized grass roots movements seeking to transform the nation’s political dialogue into one about religious values over secular ones. American Catholics, in short, have largely avoided identity politics. There is, however, a core cohort of “traditional” Catholics who align with some of the more prominent evangelical political positions, e.g. abortion, contraception, immigration (to one extent or another), and religious freedom.
Traditionalists have justified voting for Trump less about his personal appeal and more about a long-running belief among many conservative Catholics that the country is moving in a dangerous direction, and so is the Catholic Church. Pope Francis has only increased their worry.
These traditionalists have justified voting for Trump less about his personal appeal and more about a long-running belief among many conservative Catholics that the country is moving in a dangerous direction, and so is the Catholic Church. Pope Francis has only increased their worry with his ambiguous statements about gay and lesbian people in the church and the potential for married priests. Francis is already an object of suspicion for many conservatives, who for decades trusted in European and Old World preeminence in the church. Now a pope from the Southern Hemisphere, tainted by liberation theology, challenges the direction of the church in total, causing alarm in an American church rocked by the clergy sexual abuse crisis and ever more aware of its shrinking numbers of adherents and worshipers.
The “big tent” of Catholicism has always had an ability to hold within it a diverse, pluralistic constituency of believers: Jesuits, Benedictines, religious sisters, union members, parish instructors, Irish, Italians, Mexicans, Americans. A political truism, backed by decades of data, holds that the presidential candidate most successful at persuading Catholic voters usually wins the White House.
A political truism, backed by decades of data, holds that the presidential candidate most successful at persuading Catholic voters usually wins the White House.
Barack Obama won the Catholic vote twice. Donald Trump’s path to victory in 2016 ran through Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, where Catholics make up a disproportionate share of the population. The president’s narrow margin of success in those states was fueled in large part by white Catholics. In 2020, these same Catholic swing voters could end up complicating his reelection. Along with that political calculus, some of the president’s actions have challenged traditionalist beliefs.
In 2016, Donald Trump, running alongside a Catholic turned evangelical in Mike Pence, scooped up a majority of the Catholic vote. Hillary Clinton had added to her ticket nominally Catholic Tim Kaine, but that didn’t stop white Catholics from gravitating to Trump. Joe Biden faces a similar problem as Trump remains popular with Mass-going white Catholics, who appreciate his strong stances in favor of religious freedom and a pro-life judiciary.
Racism, on the other hand, is not treated as a peripheral issue by Catholic bishops. “If a candidate’s position on a single issue promotes an intrinsically evil act, such as legal abortion, redefining marriage in a way that denies its essential meaning, or racist behavior,” the bishops write,” a voter may legitimately disqualify a candidate from receiving support.” . . . Almost half (48%) of U.S. Catholics now think Trump is a racist.
Racism, on the other hand, is not treated as a peripheral issue by the Catholic bishops. “If a candidate’s position on a single issue promotes an intrinsically evil act, such as legal abortion, redefining marriage in a way that denies its essential meaning, or racist behavior,” the bishops write,” a voter may legitimately disqualify a candidate from receiving support.” Immigration and DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) are crucial concerns of Hispanic Catholics, who constitute a substantial cohort of faithful Catholics, especially in key states such as Texas and Arizona.
Almost half (48%) of U.S. Catholics now think Trump is a racist, according to a Quinnipiac University poll, compared with 21% of evangelicals. Faithful or traditional Catholics will have another reason to question their support for Trump after the recent decision by Attorney General William Barr to reinstate the federal death penalty. Barr, a Catholic, said in announcing the decision that “we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”
Last summer, Pope Francis built on several decades of pro-life church teaching that challenged the death penalty and revised the Catechism of the Catholic Church to categorically declare capital punishment “inadmissible” in all cases because it is “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”
Catholics for Trump are betting on the theory of the president’s record and its affinity with Catholic teaching. But the winds of Trump’s term in office may be blowing against them. Will American Catholics judge his values as reflecting Catholic social doctrine? How will they receive the Catholic Joe Biden? The results of the November contest will tell the tale.
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