Theologian Holly Taylor Coolman argues that, whatever good he may have done, many of Donald Trump’s actions were deeply opposed to Catholic teaching, and that the alliance of many Catholics with him damaged the Church. In the companion article, Catholic pro-family activist Peter Wolfgang argues that, despite his failings, Donald Trump did much for the Church and for the causes she supports, and that we will miss him when Biden becomes president.
Catholics have been engaged in endless analysis over the last five years. Can Catholics support Donald Trump? Must they? How should they discern?
Trump is on his way out of the White House now, though, and it is time to turn to analysis of a different sort:What about us? Where are we in the wake of Trump’s presidency?Who are we? Are we more able or less able to live out our vocation to be the Body of Christ?
Answering the Question
This question cannot be answered simply by tallying up the administration’s perceived success or failure. Catholic Trump supporters will point to actions that have moved public policy in the direction of the good: Trump signed legislation that effectively blocks abortion providers from funds associated with the Title X Family Planning program; he appointed three Supreme Court justices who will likely support limits on abortion; he ended the HHS contraceptive mandate, which had forced organizations with religious objections to cover abortifacients in their health plans.
Meanwhile, other initiatives were much less admirable, and certainly opposed to Church teaching: in more than two dozen official statements, the U.S. Catholic bishops criticized action taken by the White House against immigrants and refugees, described the administration’s lifting of protections for immigrant children in federal custody as “unlawful and inhumane,” and called the Department of Homeland Security’s immigration enforcement actions and limitations on asylum “contrary to American and Christian values.”
Under Trump, Attorney General William Barr oversaw the repeal of a de facto moratorium on federal executions. Although the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls the death penalty “inadmissible,” these last weeks of Trump’s term have seen an enthusiastic push to execute one after another of those living on death row.
In and among its official actions, though, the Trump presidency has fomented other, less easily measurable, but perhaps even more important, changes. The U.S. bishops described one immigrant policy as “inhumane,” and perhaps that can be taken as a watchword for a larger phenomenon.
Donald Trump did not just tighten immigration policies; he hired Stephen Miller to use cruelty as a policy of deterrence. He did not just condescend to women; he insulted them and mocked their physical appearance. He did not just ridicule his opponents; he clearly enjoyed doing so. Over and over, he demonstrated that he did not just consider political opponents to be opponents, but as enemies to be crushed. Many parents quickly determined that they did not want to let their children listen to the President speak. And many of us who did tune in found ourselves diminished — and angrier.
This contempt for enemies went beyond rhetoric. The emerging phenomenon of “Trumpism” demanded unquestioning loyalty, a loyalty best demonstrated by hatred for enemies, whether Democrats, “communists,” or the immigrants arriving from “sh–hole countries.”
For Trump loyalists, the circles were drawn tighter and tighter, and a new sense of communal identity was born. For those who have gone deepest down the rabbit hole, into the world of QAnon, there is a thrilling sense of belonging to an inner circle evoked in repeating, for example, “WW1WGA”—“Where we go one, we go all” (a rallying cry taken from the 1996 Ridley Scott film, “White Squall”).
This “conservative” harbor, characterized by contempt, has also become home for the most reactionary elements of the far right. Over the last four years, the president of the United States has enabled and promoted a violent movement that includes unapologetically xenophobic and racist forces. In August of 2017, a rally of far-right groups in Charlottesville, Virginia, including many white supremacists, revealed the character and power of this new movement. Bigotry and racist violence have always been a part of the American reality, but Trump has summoned them from the shadows and given them license.
For some Catholics, there are real temptations here. Amidst increasing secularization and reorganization of many social structures, this far right-wing option may appear to provide the safest haven. Here, perhaps, is a bulwark against the cultural and political Left, and the dangers of globalism, political correctness, and “cancel culture.”
The costs of giving into that temptation, though, are immense. Catholics who have placed their trust in Trump have risked becoming increasingly divided from their own Catholic brothers and sisters. They have been encouraged to call Catholics across the aisle “demoncrats.” They have either cheered or looked away as fellow Catholics who are black or brown, especially immigrants, have lived in fear. And they have had to face a very specific fact: the cult they trust demands unquestioning, sneering contempt for myriad “enemies,” including the Pope himself.
Pope Francis is certainly not a leftist, or even a liberal, but it has been clear that his priorities differ from Trump’s. In 2017, the pope wrote in criticism of immigration policies that would tear families apart: “The president of the United States presents himself as pro-life and if he is a good pro-lifer, he understands that family is the cradle of life and its unity must be protected.” In his most recent encyclical, FratelliTutti, the pope warns pointedly against “myopic, extremist, resentful and aggressive nationalism.”
To MAGA Nation, though, the Pope is as detestable as Democrats, socialists, or those who belong to the Black Lives Matter movement: one more traitor. One notable prelate, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who has aligned himself with these forces, has publicly sought to discredit the Pope, while lionizing Trump.
In 2018, Viganò called on Pope Francis to resign. In 2020, he wrote to Trump to express his support for the president in apocalyptic terms: “In recent months we have been witnessing the formation of two opposing sides that I would call Biblical: the children of light and the children of darkness. … In society, Mr. President, these two opposing realities co-exist as eternal enemies, just as God and Satan are eternal enemies.”
These “children of darkness,” Viganò wrote, are those “fiercely waging war” against Trump. And, like Viganò, we now have “Catholic” Internet celebrities in the U.S. who have made a cottage industry of praise for Donald Trump and criticism of the Vicar of Christ. At its most extreme edges, this cult of Trumpism, coupled with rejection of the Holy Father, have led some Catholics into something we would have to call an alternative religion.
In fact, all American Catholics have been diminished. We are sadder and angrier and more fearful. We are more cynical and more suspicious. We are more divided from one another. And this leads us back to the pivotal question: who are we now?
To know whether something was good for the Catholic Church, we cannot ask only whether and how some specific public-policy decisions may have moved the U.S. in the direction of the good. We also have to ask whether we ourselves have been strengthened to worship God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We have to ask whether we are better prepared to share the good news of Jesus Christ, and whether we have become more like our model in the faith, the Blessed Mother, who embodies patience, temperance, kindness, and humility.
After four years of Donald Trump, we have a lot of work to do.
Holly Taylor Coolman is assistant professor of theology at Providence College. She specializes in christology, ecclesiology, and Jewish-Christian relations.