Is “Weak Leadership” to Blame for Catholic Trump Support?

It’s perhaps a sign of the times that two of the four articles in the Washington Post’s “Outlook” section dedicated to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation are actually about the role of evangelical and white Catholic voters in politicsparticularly the rise of Donald Trumpin a sign of how inseparable the two have become in what used to be called the “Christian Coalition.”

Lydia Bean pins the evangelical and white Catholic support of Donald Trump on the failure of elite religious leaders to sway voters:

The reason that Trump did so well with both groups is that laypeople were not looking to theologically trained religious elites to tell them how to vote. For many white evangelical and Catholic parishioners, their partisan map of “us vs. them” had already reshaped their religious identity. … When their pope or their pastor clashed with their party’s nominee, they looked to partisan sources to justify their political biases in faith-based language—to tell them that their party was right and the pope was wrong.

Bean is insightful in grasping how a partisan, tribal political identity has supplanted religious identity, especially for Republicans. She pins the blame for the white Catholic shift in loyalty toward the GOP since 2008 to a decline in the authority of both clerical and lay leaders in the church, which she says left the door open for white Catholics to be influenced by claims the Democratic Party was anti-faith, as well as appeals to white nationalism that she believes ultimately turned the tide toward Trump. “Last year’s election showed the dark side of weak religious authority, the failure to form lay people’s consciences for faithful citizenship,” she writes.

But missing from Bean’s analysis is the fact that it was “theologically trained religious elites” that helped swing white Catholics toward the GOP in the first place. It was in fact the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops quadrennial “Faithful Citizenship” guidelines that at least since the late 1990s have stated with varying degrees of vigor that good Catholics can’t vote for candidates who support legal abortion.

It was the bishops’ 1998 statement, Living the Gospel of Life, that famously declared: “Abortion and euthanasia have become preeminent threats to human life and dignity because they directly attack life itself, the most fundamental good and the condition for all others,” which, not surprising, led many Catholics to believe they couldn’t vote for candidates who supported abortion rights.

And it was the Catholic bishops’ opposition to the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act, paired with opposition to same-sex marriage, that helped convince a significant segment of white Catholics that the Democratic Party is hostile to people of faith.

As Mark Silk notes in RNS, the campaign to turn the Catholic Church “into a spiritual doppelgänger of the Republican Party” on the part of both lay and clerical elites from the right has been underway for some time:

Despite the Church’s longstanding support for universal health care, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops managed to come out against the Affordable Care Act on the grounds that it didn’t go far enough in exempting religious institutions from having to provide female employees with contraceptive coverage.

There have also been efforts to pretend that the Church is not all that opposed to the death penalty and all that supportive of gun control, and notable inattention to Pope Francis’ stern warning on the dangers of climate change.

So it’s not the case that white Catholics have been ignoring the elites or that elites have lost power, it’s that they’ve been paying attention to a very specific set of conservatives elites who have told them not to worry about things like the environment or the preferential option for the poor.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Bruenig tackles the question of what Catholicism loses when Catholics and evangelicals cooperate politically. She locates the beginning of this cooperation with the signing of the historic Evangelicals and Catholics Together declaration in 1994, in which conservative leaders from both traditions pledged to set aside traditional theological differences in order to tackle culture-war problems like abortion and the encroachment of secularism.

Importantly, Bruenig notes: “These were the leaders and the elites: the pastors and priests, professors and bishops, notables and worthies from each side of the great schism.” The creation of the culture warrior Catholic then, is a phenomenon that can be traced to the action of elites, and not, as Bean asserts, a failure of elite leadership.

Over time, this produced a new breed of Catholic, the widely discussed evangelical Catholic, who, as Bruenig notes, “have little use for the church’s social teaching (which includes support for organized labor, immigrants and the poor) but adhere vehemently to its teaching on issues related to sexuality. ”

From Paul Ryan to Bobby Jindal to Marco Rubio, these Catholics “have adjusted their faith” to suit the priorities of the GOP and distanced themselves from the social justice message of Pope Francis and the church, says Bruenig, “with showy indifference.”

At the same time, she notes, Catholics attuned to the social justice message of the church would have a hard time “working within the Democratic establishment, where the situation is similar in kind but reversed on the issues”—particularly abortion and LGBTQ rights within the framework of “religious liberty.”

As political scientist Timothy Byrnes recently argued, however, our two-party system will inevitably frustrate Catholics seeking a political home that tracks with the teaching of the church:

Simply put, in the United States there is no “Catholic party” that could faithfully reflect the Church’s positions on the wide array of policy issues related to the Church’s teachings. We can imagine a party that opposes abortion and euthanasia while also opposing the death penalty and pre-emptive war. Or one that calls for tuition tax credits for parochial schools and also for more aggressive government support for the needy. Or one that demands that the US open its doors to more refugees while also demanding that marriage be restricted to unions between members of opposite sexes.  We can imagine such a party, but no such party exists in the United States, and no such party is likely to ever exist in the future.

While Bruenig laments that it’s apparently impossible for a Catholic to combine “authenticity and efficacy” in our two-party system, Byrnes argues that the fact that the “‘Catholic’ agenda cuts so dramatically across the party divide in the US is actually a very positive thing that needs to be treasured, and even nurtured”:

It means that bishops can speak meaningfully to all voters about the issues facing the country, and it means that the bishops’ role in policy debates will outlast any particular set of issues or set of partisan commitments. When bishops forget this long-term consideration and explicitly link their own statements of priority to those of a given political party at a given moment in time, that inevitably leads to the bishops’ agenda being artificially trimmed to accommodate the competition between the two major parties that the country happens to feature at that particular (fleeting) moment.

Unfortunately, this is very much what has happened with the U.S. bishops’ conference over the past eighteen or so years, as it helped drive a significant portion of white Catholics toward the GOP, where their religious and political identities became fused in a way that is unlikey to be undone, as the historic resistance to Pope Francis’ agenda demonstrates.

The result, says Silk, “is what amounts to an ecclesial civil war that has sucked all issues confronting the Church into it, most prominently whether to permit communion for the divorced and remarried. On one side is the Party of Francis and on the other, the Party of, well, Reaction. Rome is as much of a battlefield as the United States.”

Religion, and attendant social and culture war issues that have been elevated to the level of theology, helped draw us into these battlefields, but at this point, it seems, are unlikely to show us a way out.