Editor’s Note: With the 2020 U.S. presidential election only days away, America’s editors seek to sum up the appeal of each major presidential candidate. These articles are intended as analyses, not endorsements. Read the Catholic case for Joe Biden here.
Why would an American Catholic vote for Donald J. Trump? The most obvious reason is that they did it before. In 2016, 52 percent of Catholics backed Mr. Trump, while 44 percent voted for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, according to the Pew Research Center. There are, of course, many kinds of Catholic voters in the United States, and there is no question that Mr. Trump usually polls far higher among white Catholics than among Catholics from other ethnic groups. Two-thirds of U.S. Catholics registered to vote identify as white.
Does that make this more of an explainer on why white Catholics would vote for President Trump? Yes and no. The issues addressed below are not pertinent only to white voters, after all, and they are often also the reasons why a person of color approves of Mr. Trump.
Reason No. 1: Anyone but Biden
Mr. Trump and his campaign have made much of former Vice President Biden’s low-profile, careful public statements and what Mr. Trump has characterized as Mr. Biden’s lack of charisma or energy—hence the “Sleepy Joe” of a thousand tweets. Many Trump supporters see the past four years as a period of action and results, particularly on issues dear to many Catholic voters. “Had President Trump proven unfaithful to his promises to protect the unborn and religious liberty, I would consider voting for someone else. Had a significant number of his judicial nominees been unqualified or unsuitable, I would be looking at other candidates more closely,” wrote Teresa S. Collet last September in an article for America. “Had the president failed to seek an orderly and just system of legal immigration, I would have to look at others. In fact, the president has been faithful to his promises and delivered more than I hoped for when I voted for him in 2016.”
The growth in prominence over the last decade of Catholic pundits like Taylor Marshall and conservative organizations like the Napa Institute, Church Militant, Lifesite and others has also buoyed Mr. Trump’s standing among traditionally minded Catholics, as those groups and individuals are overwhelmingly pro-Trump. For many it is not so much an issue of Mr. Trump’s qualities—no one is arguing he is a paragon of Christian morality—but of a deep-seated distrust of former President Barack Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and, by extension, Mr. Biden. Mr. Marshall, who serves on the board of the “Catholics for Trump” outreach group, told his followers in July that he was supporting Mr. Trump because “Joe Biden is vehemently pro-choice, pro-abortion, and supports a number of policies that grind against Catholic doctrine and Catholic social teaching.” Earlier that month, Mr. Trump had retweeted Mr. Marshall’s statement that “There is a war on Christianity.”
Catholic voters concerned about a legal curtailing of religious liberty see Mr. Trump as a trustworthy opponent to legislative or judicial creep on these issues.
Catholic voters concerned about a legal curtailing of religious liberty—whether through the Affordable Care Act or judicial activism on the level of Obergefell v. Hodges, both of which came to fruition during Mr. Biden’s time in the Obama administration—see Mr. Trump as a trustworthy opponent to legislative or judicial creep on these issues. Mr. Trump’s campaign has been savvy in capitalizing on such perceptions and concerns.
Reason No. 2: Abortion
Perhaps no issue in U.S. politics over the last half-century has driven more Catholics from their traditionally Democratic leanings into the arms of the Republican Party than abortion law. No matter how many of Mr. Biden’s positions align more closely than those of Mr. Trump with Catholic teachings—on immigration, on the economy or on the death penalty, for example—the consistent leftward drift of the Democratic Party on abortion is a huge stumbling block to Mr. Biden’s pursuit of widespread Catholic support. (For America’s analysis of what effect a Trump or Biden victory would have on abortion policies, click here and here.)
The consistent leftward drift of the Democratic Party on abortion is a huge stumbling block to Mr. Biden’s pursuit of widespread Catholic support.
While several Catholic bishops have spoken out against “single-issue voting,” including Bishop Mark J. Seitz in America, Catholic voters for whom the protection of the unborn is a “pre-eminent priority” consider Mr. Biden’s record on restrictions to abortion law to be dismal—and getting worse. In this presidential campaign, he has strongly associated himself with the Democratic Party platform on abortion. For example, he reversed course last year on his previous support of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding of abortions, and declared in October of this year that as president he would make Roe v. Wade “the law of the land.”
While no one ever called President Bill Clinton pro-life on the abortion issue, he did stake out a fairly moderate position during his presidential campaigns: that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.” Neither Mr. Biden nor his running mate Kamala Harris has come anywhere close to embracing such an ethos, with the result that a significant percentage of pro-life voters who consider the abortion issue “very important” have moved into Mr. Trump’s orbit: A Pew Research Center poll released in August showed that only 35 percent of Biden supporters considered abortion a very important issue, down from 50 percent of Hillary Clinton supporters in 2016; but among Trump supporters the share saying that abortion is very important rose from 41 percent to 46 percent.
While Mr. Trump has hardly been a consistent champion of the pro-life cause—he was publicly in favor of abortion rights until 2011 and described himself as “very pro-choice” in an interview with NBC News in 1999—opponents of legal abortion point to his successful transformation of the Supreme Court with Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and now Amy Coney Barrett as proof positive that he can alter the realities of abortion politics. The tantalizing possibility of overturning Roe v. Wade by a judicial ruling could counteract any impression among pro-life Catholics that Mr. Trump is otherwise unconcerned with life issues.
Catholic voters for whom the protection of the unborn is a “pre-eminent priority” consider Mr. Biden’s record on restrictions to abortion law to be dismal—and getting worse.
“We want to preserve life. We are family-oriented. It’s common sense. We need to strive to defend life in this country,” Patricia Romero, a 30-year-old immigrant from Mexico, told Kevin Christopher Robles in a recent America article. “If we don’t have life, we have nothing else. Everything—immigration, borders, taxes, health care—it all goes to nothing if there is no right to life.”
Reason No. 3: ‘Make Catholicism Great Again’
A major factor in Ronald Reagan’s victory over the incumbent Jimmy Carter in 1980 was a widespread sense that the United States had entered a period of malaise, what President Carter himself (though he never used the term) called “a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.”
That a brutal economic recession accompanied by inflation and high unemployment followed soon after Reagan took office did not affect his optics, and he won the presidency again in 1984 in a landslide after declaring “It’s morning again in America.” More important than his policies, it seemed, was his optimism and his take-charge persona. It is a persona we have seen in spades over the past four years with Mr. Trump, for better or for worse, and it may appeal to a restless, dissatisfied population in the pews and at the polls.
More than a few want to Make Catholicism Great Again, and they are largely not fans of Joe Biden.
Covid-19, a shattered economy, widespread social unrest and increasing levels of mental illness and addiction are realities of American life that affect everyone; but for Catholics battered by two decades of revelations of sexual abuse and corruption, decreasing Mass attendance, internal strife over doctrine and policy and more, the perceived decline in the nation’s status is paralleled by a perceived decline in the church’s fortunes. Behind the “Make America Great Again” slogan is the conviction that there was a glorious past for America that has been lost. A similar feeling is prevalent among large swaths of American Catholics. More than a few want to Make Catholicism Great Again, and they are largely not fans of Mr. Biden.
“For those who follow Catholics on social media, it can almost seem as if this year’s presidential election were a mere proxy for a debate over the direction of the church,” wrote one of America’s senior editors, Robert David Sullivan, in September. “That is, Catholic voters are not deciding between Donald J. Trump or Joseph R. Biden Jr.; instead, they are signaling their feelings about Pope Francis or the traditional Latin Mass, with the governance of the United States a secondary concern.”
More Election Stories from America
– Bishop Seitz: Single-issue voting has corrupted Christian political witness
– I helped write the bishops’ first document on Catholics and voting. Here’s why I’m voting Biden, not Trump.
– Jeannie Gaffigan: My loved ones told me ‘real’ Catholics vote for Trump. Here’s my response.
– President Trump kept his promises. That’s why, as a Catholic, I want four more years.