There really isn’t a “Catholic vote” the way there is a Mormon or Jewish or white Evangelical vote. These other groups tend to vote as more cohesive blocks according to shared sets of political values. Catholics are much more politically diverse and few take any account of Church teaching when voting. Like people who are left-handed, Catholics as a whole tend to vote for the winner in presidential elections. Last week’s results were no exception. Trump won Catholic voters by seven percentage points.
The outcome only highlights the gulf between Catholic voters and Catholic values. The typical presidential election features two competent, qualified candidates, one endorsing Church teaching on issues that skew right and the other on those that skew left. This was not such an election.
In his run for the White House, Trump showed little or no commitment to conservative social issues. His own life demonstrates what he thinks of Catholic teaching on marriage and sexual fidelity, and he has a history of bragging about getting away with sexually assaulting women. His anti-Muslim rhetoric and policy promises were a direct repudiation of the religious liberty principles the Catholic bishops have stressed so much in recent years. He is committed to sabotaging global efforts to prevent catastrophic climate change. He has promised to bring back torture and order the U.S. military to commit war crimes against non-combatants. He intends to tear apart countless families by deporting millions of Hispanic immigrants, most of them Catholic. He mocks the weak, the vulnerable, the disabled. He ran the most openly racist campaign for president in modern American history. He has no respect for basic democratic norms. He called Pope Francis “disgraceful.” All this is to say that if the Church’s efforts to articulate a body of social teaching doesn’t prevent 52% of Catholics from voting for Donald Trump for president, with the not-so-subtle support of some bishops charged with protecting that teaching, then what’s the point?
Speaking about Catholicism and politics in parishes, Theology on Tap sessions, and similar venues around Eastern Iowa in the months leading up to the election, I talked with plenty of Catholics planning to vote for Trump. Many pointed to abortion and the Supreme Court’s vacancy. As a pro-lifer myself, I certainly understood their motivation, but I can’t agree that it justified a vote for Trump. A Republican majority on the Supreme Court gave us Roe v. Wade and it has been all Republican majorities since. The high-water mark of GOP dominance came with Planned Parenthood v. Casey, where the Court’s single Democratic-appointee was a pro-life vote and only four of the eight Republican-appointees needed to join him to overturn Roe. Instead, the Court affirmed Roe in a decision written by Justices O’Connor, Kennedy, and Souter, all appointed by pro-life Republican presidents elected by pro-life voters.
So while Republicans have had a majority on the Supreme Court for almost half a century, they have not overturned Roe, even while shrinking union rights, expanding gun rights, facilitating voter suppression, eroding environmental protections, bolstering corporate power over elections, and a host of other actions running counter to Catholic social teaching. To my mind, letting the highly uncertain outcomes of future Supreme Court cases outweigh the very real and immediate damage of a Trump presidency to Catholic values, as well as undermining the moral integrity of the pro-life cause by hitching it to a figure such as Trump, was and is a grave mistake.
Even more worrisome in my conversations with some Catholic Trump voters, both before and since the election, is how abortion grants permission for a Trump vote that may be also motivated by other things. It isn’t that such voters aren’t pro-life, but rather that invoking abortion lets them move on to things they seem much more passionate or angry about—environmental laws, undeserving welfare recipients, excessive taxation, “illegals” speaking Spanish on the street, Black Lives Matter as a “terrorist” movement. During one session in rural Iowa a few weeks before the election, I got five minutes of questions and comments on abortion compared to twenty minutes on the threat of massive voter fraud in “urban” areas and the likelihood of Obama’s declaring martial law to stay in power. For some of Trump’s Catholic supporters, abortion provides cover for less noble, and certainly less Catholic, reasons to support him.
Voters act from a variety of motives and campaigns draw on many streams of support, but it is clear that a resurgent white nationalism was central to Trump’s appeal. Speaking with right-leaning Catholics, there is a powerful temptation to deny this by talking instead about class, portraying Clinton voters as privileged, wealthy elites and Trump voters as real, working-class Americans (since they have been dealing in such misleading stereotypes for years now, I expect the lead editorials at First Things to do yeoman work in this area moving forward). The reality is that while you can find plenty of typecast voters in each candidate’s coalition, Clinton won voters with below-average incomes and Trump won voters with above-average incomes, just as Clinton beat Trump in union households and Trump beat Clinton in non-union households. These gaps, however, were not especially pronounced, all within around ten percentage points or fewer, compared to the 21 points by which white Americans supported Trump and the 53 points by which non-white Americans supported Clinton. And such racial gaps are mirrored among Catholics themselves. While Trump won white Catholics by 23 points, Clinton won Hispanic Catholics by 41 points.
This, then, is yet another reason it doesn’t make much sense to talk about a single “Catholic vote.” Catholics are as politically fragmented as the country itself, divided by demographic and ideological factors that have little to do with Church teaching. And a Trump presidency is the bitter fruit of these divisions. How we respond will tell us much about who we are as Americans and as Catholics.
David Carroll Cochran is Professor of Politics at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa. His most recent books are Catholic Realism and the Abolition of War (Orbis) and The Catholic Church in Ireland Today (Rowman & Littlefield).