Donald Trump’s emergence as the Republicans’ presumptive nominee has profound consequences for those Catholics who have aligned their vote with socially conservative concerns, especially the issues of gay marriage and abortion. These Catholics have also traditionally had a certain devotion to the pope. With Trump, however, they are faced with a candidate who, while ostensibly adhering to socially conservative positions, has no specific agenda to effect the change conservative Catholics desire. Add this to the recent spat between Trump and Pope Francis over immigration, and conservative Catholics have a difficult choice before them come November.
A Brief History
In order to understand this conundrum, it is important to understand that since Roe v. Wade in 1973, the pro-life position has served as the primary issue that has motivated many socially conservative Christians to vote. In 1968 the United States Catholic Conference (USCC) Family Life Bureau organized the National Right to Life Committee. Formally incorporated as an independent organization in 1973, the NRLC sought to appeal beyond its Catholic membership, and to work at the local and national levels on behalf of the unborn right to life. In the 1970s, the Christian Right, made up primarily of white evangelical Protestants, began mobilizing, and by the end of the decade had turned its focus to the abortion issue, as well. The two movements, Catholic and evangelical, did not really begin to work together until the 1980s.
The emergence of the pro-life cause did make abortion a key issue in the 1980 presidential election, however. Catholics, who had in the 1950s and 60s largely voted for Democrats, began a move toward the Republicans in the 1970s, and at the same time southern evangelical Protestants began to drift away from the Democrats, as well. The adoption of a pro-life position in the 1980 Republican platform cemented the political allegiances of a large number of socially conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants.
Throughout the decades, the abortion issue has continued to play an important role in shaping the religious vote. During the 2000 election, George W. Bush won 53% of the Catholic vote in part because he held a pro-life stance. After 9/11, however, many voters began to reassess what constituted the nation’s most pressing concerns. While the pro-life lobby continued to bring voters to the polls, politicians catered to it less and less. At the same time, according to the Pew Research Center, politicians themselves have become more and more polarized, making effective action on the issues of concern to social conservatives harder to achieve.
Social conservatives have witnessed not only the failure of any meaningful legal limitations on abortion, but also a rapid shift in the social and legal acceptance of gay marriage. The 2015 Obergfell v. Hodges case rendered all state amendments prohibiting gay marriage unconstitutional, sweeping away one of social conservatives’ main indicators that their country was not becoming completely unmoored from morality. Social conservatives themselves have become unmoored, either becoming more vocally opposed to abortion and gay marriage (viz. the 2009 Manhattan Declaration), downplaying the political advocacy of a social agenda (e.g., the Tea Party), or seeking to extend their moral political agenda to other issues. Social conservatives, including Catholics, have therefore taken a variety of political paths in the past few years.
Turning to Trump
Into this instability enters Trump, who, for all his bluster, is at least saying the words conservatives like to hear. Trump has changed his views on the issues, particularly because he often speaks in off the cuff remarks. As his campaign has progressed, however, Trump’s statements have conformed more and more to the standard template of a socially conservative Republican, while remaining ambiguous.
Trump had been vocally pro-choice as recently as 1999; he noted in a Fox News interview that although he dislikes abortion personally, he is favors a woman’s choice on abortion through the third trimester. By 2011, Trump’s views seem to have shifted to a pro-life stance, although his reasons for the change remain ambiguous, and could simply be politically expedient. What he believes should be done about the issue also remains vague. Apart from noting that the decision regarding abortion’s legality should be turned over to the states, he seems content to leave abortion laws as they stand.
Likewise, with respect to gay marriage and gay rights, Trump’s views have traveled in some ways and remained the same in others. Although he noted in 2000 that marriage should be between a man and a woman, he has also maintained long-term friendships with individuals who identify as gay, employed gay individuals in high-ranking positions, and expressed happiness for civilly-united gay couples, most notably Elton John and his partner. These actions have led Gregory T. Angelo, president of the pro-gay rights Log Cabin Republicans, to tell the New York Times that Trump “will be the most gay-friendly Republican nominee for president ever.”
At the same time, in an interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace, Trump suggested he might appoint Supreme Court justices who would try to overturn Obergefell v. Hodges. Again, though, he appeals to the idea of state’s rights; the status of gay marriage should not be a federal decision, but rather determined within each state. This stance has gratified some and confused others. Perhaps in part because of this mixed public reaction, Trump has refrained from answering most questions on gay marriage since March 2016.
Trump’s ambiguity and focus on legal issues rather than the underlying moral questions leaves conservative Catholics in a bind. Questions about the nature of marriage and the right to life of the unborn are moral issues, regardless of how one answers them. The lack of any real policy agenda gives Trump the appearance of having conservative views, while leaving in doubt their real substance. This ambiguity means that the abortion issue can no longer be used by conservatives as a reliable voting guide.
Further complicating things for Catholic voters is what some have called the “Francis effect.” For over three decades, socially conservative Catholics could appeal to official Catholic teaching in support of their position. Although Pope John Paul II taught on a wide range of issues, he seemed to a put a priority on the issues of abortion and family, for example through his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae. Pope Francis has shifted the priorities. In his first interview as pope in 2013, Francis said: “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods . . . it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.” Instead, he urges people to realize that “God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy.” This interview, in addition to his very sparse comments on the protection of human life in his speech before Congress in this past September, have made conservative Catholics rather nervous. The very issues that seemed to define a particular stripe of Catholic have been downplayed by the pope himself.
At the same time, Pope Francis has relentlessly focused on other issues of human dignity, in particular immigration, that clash with the views of many socially conservative Catholics and Trump’s campaign declarations. Unlike his views on abortion and gay marriage, Trump’s views on immigration are unambiguous. They are, as Uri Friedman has noted, “the fulcrum of the Republican frontrunner’s policy platform.” Trump’s statements that he will make Mexico build a border wall, and his desire to temporarily bar all Muslims from entering the US, have capitalized on voters’ fears. A broad swath of conservative Americans would welcome such measures, and are eating up the rhetoric Trump is offering.
But for Catholics and others who align with Catholic social tradition, the question is, just like abortion or marriage, a moral one that gets to the heart of the faith. Pope Francis indicated as much when, in response to a journalist’s question about the Mexican wall, he said: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not of building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel. As far as what you said about whether I would advise [people] to vote or not to vote, I am not going to get involved in that. I say only that this man is not Christian if he has said things like that.”
But Francis’ comments strike many conservative Catholics as out of alignment with the Catholic Church’s moral priorities. They seem liberal on the American political spectrum. Drilled for so long that abortion and gay marriage are the issues that should matter to Catholics, conservative Catholics have come to regard other aspects of the Catholic social tradition as optional. Francis reminds his flock that they are not.
Moreover, the pontiff’s focus on immigration provides an alternative guide for conservative Catholics when it comes time to vote. Rather than supporting a candidate who pays lip service to pro-life and anti-gay marriage interests, Catholic voters can judge each candidate’s platform based upon how it conforms to the gospel of mercy: whether it will effectively help the poor, ethically reform immigration policy, and promote a robust agenda of peace.
In light of the pope’s focus, Trump’s response to Francis’ comments regarding the border wall seems to hearken to a type of politics that is unnecessarily inflammatory and seeks to capitalize on the demoralization many conservative Christians are feeling: “For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful. I am proud to be a Christian and as president I will not allow Christianity to be consistently attacked and weakened, unlike what is happening now.”
Trump’s comments about Christianity imply that Francis’ understanding of the Gospel waters down Christianity and thereby weakens it. He advocates, as a counter, a “strong” Christianity, which one assumes he believes is reflected in his political platform.
What Trump has forgotten is that, as Christ has said, “If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35 NASB). Christianity is a faith which from the beginning has recognized seeming weakness as strength, and allied itself with the vulnerable and poor. Pope Francis prophetically noted that the Church needs to find a way past its nearly exclusive focus on abortion and gay marriage: “We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.” Catholics need to heed this warning in the political sphere. If conservative Catholics wish to remain single-issue voters, then the time has come to change the issue.
Petra Elaine Turner is a Doctoral Candidate in Philosophical Theology in the Program of Theology Ethics and Culture at the University of Virginia’s Religious Studies Department. She is currently completing her dissertation, which employs contemporary French phenomenology to raise up the experiential aspects of Augustine’s understanding of faith.