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The American Catholic dilemma

Illustration by Christian Adams

The sudden death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia on February 13 caused despair among many American Catholics. They had lost one of their most prominent intellects, and suddenly had to take the rise of Donald Trump a little more seriously. If he became president and there was a vacancy on the bench, who would he pick to fill it?

A conservative? A liberal? Or even, as he once suggested, his own sister? Trump, meanwhile, told a right-wing radio host that Scalia’s death looked suspicious. Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist, claimed the establishment would probably assassinate Trump next. The United States lives in interesting times.

This time last year Catholics were conquering the Republican Party. They dared dream that one of their own – Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio – might take on Hillary Clinton and win the White House. But now that we’re in 2016 AD (Anno Donald) everything has changed. The religious Right is divided and, possibly, without a party. Catholics are in the political wilderness.

It’s taken a long journey to get there. Decades ago Catholics overwhelmingly voted Democrat – the party of big city immigrants and the poor. John F Kennedy, the first (and so far only) Catholic president, won nearly 78 per cent of his co-religionists’ votes in the 1960 election. In the 1970s and 1980s, however, Republicans used the issues of abortion, sexuality and religious liberty to peel away culturally conservative Catholics from the Democratic coalition. They bifurcated politically between more liberal ethnic Catholics and more conservative religious Catholics.

President George W Bush turned outreach to religious voters into a critical part of his political strategy. Media exit polls showed Bush winning the Catholic vote in 2004 by 52 to 47 per cent, some of which was down to his appeal to the growing population of Hispanics. It seemed that the future of the GOP, the Grand Old Party, lay in combining free market economics, traditionalist social policy and candidates who could speak Spanish.

Once excluded from the conservative establishment largely on the grounds of sectarian prejudice, Catholics have been welcomed with open arms. The heroic role of John Paul II at the end of the Cold War helped to break down Evangelical antipathy; Washington became home to dozens of pro-family political action committees; and Catholics slowly entered Congress on the GOP ticket.

It could be argued that Republican Catholicism reached its institutional pinnacle in the period 2012-2015. Mitt Romney picked a Catholic, Paul Ryan, to be his running mate in 2012. In early 2015, Catholics Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio announced their presidential candidacies – billed respectively as the frontrunner and the future of the party. In September 2015, the GOP House Speaker John Boehner, yet another Catholic, looked on in awe as Pope Francis addressed Congress.

Paul Ryan replaced Boehner as Speaker in October 2015 and quickly became the effective head of the moderate wing of his party. If anyone can stop Trump at the July nominating convention, it’s him.

But he probably won’t, because Trump is Trump and Trump keeps on winning. To get the nomination he needs to poll enough votes in the primaries to secure a majority of the delegates at the national convention. He’s not there yet, but there are many more primaries to come and he has every chance of making it.

The rise of Trump has spelled disaster for powerful Catholics. At the very moment when they seemed to be doing so well, the roof fell in. The candidacies of Bush and Rubio flopped. Their attempts to court Hispanic voters only lost the confidence of whites. They tried to play Trump at his own game, throwing insults around in the debates, but it diminished them rather than hurt him.

Horrified at the rise of The Donald, many Catholic organisations staked some of their reputation as vote-getters on denouncing their nemesis in print and online: one open letter in the National Review dismissed him as “manifestly unfit to be president”. They seemed to imagine that Trump could be stopped by the sheer weight of received wisdom. They were wrong. Not only is Trump winning, but he’s also winning Catholics.

Take Florida. Rubio should have walked the primary on March 15. It’s his own state, after all. Instead, Trump beat him 46 per cent to 27 per cent – and took half the Catholic vote.

In the Massachusetts primary, home turf of the Kennedy family, Trump won an astonishing 53 per cent of Catholics. This was despite the fact that his record of statements on abortion and gay marriage is vague, he is thrice-married and he has publicly boasted about his sexual prowess.

Trump has, memorably, even traded words with the Pope. In 2015, he said that he disagreed strongly with Francis’s views on immigration and global warming – adding that he is not a believer in man-made climate change. In February 2016, he suggested the Pope was a “pawn” of the Mexican government. Asked to comment, Francis told a plane-load of journalists that an obsession with erecting walls, as Trump wishes to do along the Mexican border, is un-Christian. The two men subsequently climbed down, but the impression of mutual animosity has stuck. The Italian newspaper La Stampa declared: “Francis Excommunicates Trump”.

How can ordinary Republican Catholics vote for Trump? Well, for some of them, the very fact that he has had a fight with Francis is itself a vote-winner. The speech that the Pope gave last year in Congress might have been a lovely occasion for Boehner, Ryan and all the Catholic lawmakers who got to meet a pontiff in person – but many right-wing Catholics simply heard another social justice warrior preaching to the converted. Yes, His Holiness told Americans to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development. But he swiftly moved on to denounce capital punishment. He also urged his audience to embrace immigrants and fight climate change. That the congressional GOP listened supine to the Pope and then showered praise on him for the television cameras only confirmed a suspicion among grassroots conservatives that Washington breeds deference to political correctness. That Trump had the guts to pick a fight with the world’s best-loved cleric, without any regard for diplomatic protocol, is exactly why so many American conservatives revere him.

Moreover, the religious vote is nowhere near as coherent as many Republican strategists assumed. It was also expected that Evangelicals would oppose Trump
on grounds of personal morality – but, to everyone’s surprise, they voted for him in huge numbers too.

One explanation is that the already split religious vote – torn between Democrat and Republican – has divided yet again within the Republican coalition. Ross Douthat, the incisive Catholic columnist for the New York Times, argues that it’s a split between a) those who are intellectually – and very actively – Christian, and b) irregular church-goers who see Christianity as a cultural identity under siege. Trump’s scrappy, sometimes theologically illiterate defence of religion in the public realm appeals most to those who hanker for the past.

Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of the US Congress (Photo: CNS)
Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of the US Congress. ‘For some Catholics, the fact that Trump has fought with Francis is itself a vote-winner.’ (Photo: CNS)

It’s hard not to infer a little snobbery in that analysis. Douthat is right: Trump’s sheer crudity says something about the decline of American popular culture, and the compassionate spirit of the Gospels ought to draw Christians towards a more sensitive politics. But isn’t it possible that Trump’s Catholics back him for more rational reasons than Douthat supposes? They may well be Catholic, but they might also have seen their job shipped off to China, witnessed their country’s borders disintegrate, watched prayer being stripped out of schools, observed failed wars and rampant corruption – and asked: “What have the Republican Catholics in Congress actually done about any of this?”

Catholics have worked hard to become part of the establishment and, in this electoral cycle at least, the establishment is hated. Hence Catholic politicians are getting it in the neck from Catholic voters.

Concerned, intelligent Catholics like Douthat are, however, left with a puzzle: who speaks for them now? Not the Democratic Party. True, those Catholics who emphasise the Social Gospel will be drawn to its message on making college cheaper, expanding renewable energy, welcoming Mexican migrants and increasing the minimum wage. But Hillary Clinton has staked her presidential candidacy on winning a clear majority of women voters – and thinks this means pushing a feminist, hyper-liberal platform.

Indeed, it’s important to stress that there are militants to be found on both sides of the culture war. For example, when Obamacare was introduced, the Democrats insisted on mandating employers to provide free contraception for their workers – a totally unnecessary, spiteful breach
of the constitutional right to religious freedom.

An exception was made for houses of worship but employees of many religious organisations could still expect to have their sex lives financed by their Catholic boss. One such group, the Little Sisters of the Poor, who run nursing homes, have actually found themselves giving evidence before the Supreme Court.

The battle between Democrat lawmakers and a handful of sweet little nuns nicely symbolises the American Left’s growing intolerance of philosophical dissent – as well as just how high the stakes are in the 2016 election.

Control of the Supreme Court is critical to determining where political power lies in the United States. It has become not just a means of testing the legality of legislation but, increasingly, an architect of law itself. It was this court that said gay marriage was a constitutional right – striking down state referenda – in probably the biggest civil rights struggle of the past 20 years.

Hence America’s conservative Catholic establishment has every cause to look upon the future with trepidation. Will it contain a President Trump – totally unpredictable and at war with the Vatican? Or will it be President Clinton – leading the sisterhood on the long march to, as the Right sees it, the de-Christianisation of America? Neither outcome seems particularly bright.

Tim Stanley is a historian, Daily Telegraph columnist and contributing editor of the Catholic Herald.

This article first appeared in the April 1 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To download the entire issue for free with our new app, go here