“Morally unacceptable.” “Especially dismal.” “Destructive.” “A bit like being water-boarded.”
That is how some Catholic academics active in conservative political circles who signed a letter earlier this year urging their fellow believers to reject Donald Trump are describing November’s election now that the match appears set.
Back in March, Trump was comfortably on his way to win the G.O.P. nomination. But about three dozen Catholics hoped a last minute effort could block the Manhattan real estate mogul from earning enough delegates needed to clinch the nomination. Senator Marco Rubio, Senator Ted Cruz and Governor John Kasich were still in the race, and while it was impossible for them to overtake Trump, they hoped that his rivals could win enough delegates to force a contested convention.
“Donald Trump is manifestly unfit to be president of the United States,” wrote the authors, Robert P. George and George Weigel. They cited Trump’s “appeals to racial and ethnic fears and prejudice” and his support for torture as reasons why Catholics could not support Trump. They expressed skepticism that his views on abortion or marriage were in line with church teaching.
Nearly five months later, Trump has accepted the G.O.P. nomination and he will likely face Democrat Hillary Clinton in November. So, what do the signers of the National Review letter believe Catholic voters are to do at the ballot box? America reached out to all the signers, and those who replied said they stand by their statement. Clinton is not fit to be president, and neither is Trump, they said. But, they added, this does not mean Catholics should stay home in November.
“I'm convinced that both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton would use the office of the presidency to act in ways profoundly contrary to, and, ultimately, destructive of, the common good,” said Stephen P. White, a Catholic studies fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “I won't vote for either.”
White, author of Red, White, Blue and Catholic, said it is a mistake to turn to politics for salvation, but that Catholics nonetheless have a duty to work through political channels. “To despair of politics is, in this sense, a sin against charity,” he said.
A few of the signers said they believe both Clinton and Trump represent unique threats to the common good.
David R. Upham, a politics professor at the University of Dallas, called the election “an especially dismal choice.”
Both candidates “would each substantially harm the common good.” But, he said, “abstention is arguably morally problematic.”
Bruce D. Marshall, a theology professor at Southern Methodist University, agreed, saying it is “incompatible with Catholic conviction to vote for either one.”
“That doesn’t mean I’ll ‘stay home,’ since there are naturally numerous state and local elections in which I intend to vote,” he continued. “Much as I regret it, though, I do not intend to cast a vote for president this year.”
The head of the pastoral ministry program at the University of St. Thomas, Deborah Savage, said that non-presidential races should become the focus for Catholic voters, who are, “at a minimum, obligated to cast a vote for the best choice in those matters.”
Some conservatives who are not necessarily on board with Trump nonetheless think voting for him is worth it, because they believe he is likely to pick Supreme Court justices who align more closely with their views. Others point to his running mate selection, Governor Mike Pence of Indiana, as an example of the kind of people Trump may gravitate toward as he fills out his team of advisers.
David Deavel, an associate editor of the journal Logos, called this line of thinking “plausible,” especially when it comes to religious liberty issues. But he remains dubious about the gamble, saying, “many of Mr. Trump’s commitments to things Catholics care about don’t jive with his past positions and don’t seem sincere.”
But the president of the D.C.-based Faith and Reason Institute, Robert Royal, was less sanguine about the possibility of a Trump presidency. He said voting this year will be a “bit like being water-boarded.” Trump is a bad option “because of his near ignorance about our Constitutional system and foreign affairs” and “his repulsive and dangerous characteristics as a person.”
“I’m astonished at how many people—some longstanding, mature and intelligent friends—don’t see that at a glance,” he said.
A scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, James C. Capretta, agreed.
“There’s a question of whether someone has the personal character to be president of the United States, someone who understands the office, the power,” he said. “Donald Trump plainly does not understand that at all.”
“He shouldn’t be president despite the problems that would come from electing someone else,” he continued.
We won't abandon our principles. We will restore the conservative movement and rebuild---or, if necessary, replace---the Republican Party.— Robert P. George (@McCormickProf) July 20, 2016
Then there is the Catholic idea of voting with well-formed consciences. When no single candidate perfectly encapsulates church teaching, the church teaches, Catholic voters should vote with their consciences. Relying on church teaching, voters should discern which candidate would enact policies that best protect the common good while not violating core beliefs.
But one of the signers thinks conscience is not on the mind of many voters.
Chad Pecknold, a theology professor at the Catholic University of America, pointed to Senator Ted Cruz being met with loud boos when he told delegates at the G.O.P. convention last week to vote their consciences. Cruz’s comment was interpreted as a rebuke to Trump, whose attacks on Cruz had been unusually personal during the G.O.P. primary.
“Obviously there are also Catholics who mournfully, reluctantly voting for Trump for prudential reasons rather than consequentialist ones,” Pecknold said, referring to the idea that voting for Trump could yield better results than a vote for Clinton. “But when a U.S. senator is booed off the R.N.C. stage for telling Americans to ‘vote your conscience,’ that tells you that a great many voters are not being guided by it.”
The signers of the letter aren’t alone when it comes to Catholic distaste for Trump. According to a Pew poll released earlier this month, 56 percent of U.S. Catholics say they plan to support Clinton. The number is higher than the share of Catholics Democrat Barack Obama won in 2012, and it is driven largely by Hispanic voters.
Stephen J. Heaney, a philosophy professor at the University of St. Thomas, said Catholics should consider a candidate’s views first on life issues, followed by marriage and religious freedom. When it comes to Trump, Heaney calls the notion that Trump is suddenly on board with Catholic teaching on those issues “magical thinking.”
“I can see that some may hold out a glimmer of hope that Trump may, under the influence of a Republican Congress, do at least some things good that Clinton would never do,” he said.
It's amusing, but also distressing, to hear people at the RNC call Trump "a good man." Whatever he is, he is not that. Not by a long shot.— Robert P. George (@McCormickProf) July 20, 2016
Meanwhile, the authors of the letter have addressed the election on social media and in other columns, suggesting that the Republican Party under Trump might not be a valid option for Catholics.
Writing for Denver Catholic, Weigel said he has not completely lost hope in the Republican Party, especially when it comes to abortion and economic issues. But he said he cannot bring himself to vote for Trump, “even under the rubric of playing strategic electoral defense.”
George, for his part, tweeted during the G.O.P. convention that it was “distressing” listening to people “call Trump ‘a good man.’ Whatever he is, he is not that. Not by a long shot.” He also tweeted that he would continue to fight for conservative values and help “rebuild—or, if necessary, replace—the Republican Party.”
Michael O’Loughlin is the national correspondent for America. Follow him on Twitter at @mikeoloughlin.