Who Will Catholic Bishops Turn to in Trump Era?

Many people are questioning whether Donald Trump’s dominance in the GOP nominating process, and his dismissal of evangelical leaders like Russell Moore, spells the end of the religious right as a key force in the Republic Party. As Sarah Posner notes, Trump is exploiting fissures that have existed in this alliance for a long time:

The evangelical-Republican alliance, while certainly formidable and enduring, has suffered from growing tensions. Chief among them are inflexible ideological litmus tests on certain issues, such as abortion and gay rights, while internal disagreements over political issues like immigration, as well as core theological concerns, were shrugged off.

But it’s not just evangelicals who have been key to this alliance, although they are most commonly identified as the “religious right.” Conservative Catholics (defined by pollsters as white, weekly church going Catholics) have played a smaller, but important role in the coalition, voting decisively for George W. Bush and Mitt Romney.

While some conservative Catholics jumped on the ill-fated anyone-but-Trump bandwagon, rank-and-file Catholics have been happy to vote for him, helping Trump win decisive victories in heavily Catholic states like Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts.

But a much smaller, although vastly more influential, faction of the religious right coalition may be permanently sidelined by the rise of Trump: the Catholic bishops. The bishops, both individually and in the persona of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have been critical to the GOP in two ways.

First, in their insistence that Catholics eschew political candidates that support abortion rights, while appearing friendly to a pro-free market, winner-take-all ideology, they helped steer a significant portion of Catholics toward the Republican Party. The condemnation of John Kerry during the 2004 election, complete with suggestions that he not take communion, by several high-profile prelates like Raymond Burke and Charles Chaput (who turned a blind eye to Bush’s support for the death penalty) was a turning point in the American bishops’ relationship with the electoral process.

Just as importantly, it was largely the bishops who created the “religious liberty” meme that helped further polarize a significant portion of the right-learning electorate, not just Catholics, against the Obama administration.

The Republican candidates who were most amenable to the bishops’ priorities were Jeb Bush and his one-time protégé Marco Rubio, which isn’t surprising since it was W. who created the model for the GOP-Catholic right alliance in the first place.

The bishops could even have worked with Ted Cruz, finding commonality in their shared right-wing views on religious freedom and hardline posture on abortion rights.

But there’s little to suggest they could find any common ground with Trump or that he would court and defer to them they way that Bush did. After all, this is a man who has refused to defer to the uber-bishop, Pope Francis.

Trump’s stance on immigrants and immigration directly contradicts the bishops’ left-leaning position that not only should immigrants be welcomed but should be eligible for the full range of government-funded social service and support programs. While they haven’t been nearly as vocal about immigration as abortion, the USCCB has long lobbied for immigrant and refugee-friendly programs. To date the conference hasn’t taken on Trump directly, but they have countered his claims about “birthright citizenship” and influential bishops like Timothy Dolan have criticized his nativist views.

Like others on the right, the bishops will also be wary of Trump’s flip-flops on abortion and his live-and-let-live attitude regarding LGBT rights. And his ostentatious shows of personal wealth, combined with his somewhat unhinged economic theories, will not sit well with the bishops, many of whose congregants and social circles are more comfortable with Wall Street than Main Street.

This means for the first time in some 15 years, the Catholic bishops have no clear ally, or path to influence, within the Republican Party. The alliance that George W. and Karl Rove so carefully nurtured with “compassionate conservatism” and bishops’ endorsements masquerading as photo-ops is in tatters.

With a Democratic alliance off the table, it’s not clear which way the bishops will turn. But being accustomed to power and influence, not to mention the existence of their increasingly politicized USCCB staff, I somehow doubt it will be in the direction that Pope Francis counsels: away from politics and back to the gospel.

The Catholic bishops were never the heart of the religious right, nor did their congregants ever swell the grassroots the way evangelicals did. But from their strategy of using Medicaid to cut off abortion access for poor women, to their clever leveraging of health insurance to create faith-based carve outs, which led directly to the expanded definition of “religious liberty,” they were in many ways its head.