In the Trump era, the relationship between Catholics and U.S. politics is complicated.
The November election showed a major shift in the Catholic vote: for the first time since 1968, the majority of Catholics did not vote in the same way as the majority of Americans. In 1968, the majority of Catholics voted for Hubert Humphrey, while the majority of the popular vote went, as we know, to Richard Nixon (though Humphrey lost almost 20 percentage points to the Republicans as compared to the 1964 elections). Even in 2000, Catholics voted in the same way as the majority of their fellow citizens: 51% of them chose Al Gore, who was eventually defeated by the Electoral College system. This identity between “Catholic vote” and popular vote has led many observers to state that a “Catholic vote” simply does not exist, or even that “Catholics are the bellwether voters: as go Catholics, so goes the nation.”
Last November, the majority of Catholics voted by a comfortable majority (55%) for the candidate who collected only a minority of the popular vote (46.1%), a difference of about nine percentage points. This is a noteworthy change, one that signals at least two things: first, that the Catholic hierarchy did not challenge Donald Trump, despite what certain statements made by Pope Francis during the campaign had led people to think; and second, that there is a majority of Catholics in the United States who want to carve their social, and therefore political, advancement in stone. And that these two phenomena influence each other.
Last November, the majority of Catholics voted by a comfortable majority for the candidate who collected only a minority of the popular vote.
This thirst for social advancement can be explained in the following way: since the end of the World War II, Catholics have climbed the social ladder, achieving the pre-eminent role in the political life of the country that I describe in my new book, In Rome We Trust. The result is that they now have dreams of overcoming the traditional social hierarchy that identifies America with WASPs. Some of them want to see a “De-WASPing of America’s Power Elite,” as Robert C. Christopher puts it in Crashing the Gates–something achieved in the Supreme Court before the death of Antonin Scalia, when three Jews and six Catholics made up the country’s most important judicial body. Others (now clearly a majority) on the contrary, aspire to join the WASP ranks, thus distinguishing not from the WASPs themselves, but from those Catholics who remain on the lowest rungs of the social ladder, essentially, recent immigrants from Latin America and the Philippines. The most radical wing of this latter group has pushed its “WASP-ing” agenda to the point of abandoning Catholicism for militant evangelicalism (Mike Pence, Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz, and Neil Gorsuch are the best known examples).
The Catholic hierarchy, for its part, is not ready to turn its back on more than half of its flock. On the contrary, the nature of the Catholic Church, to cite from Carl Schmitt’s Roman Catholicism and Political Form, as a “complexio compositorum,” or “complex of opposites” allows it to be home to both Latinos and the forgotten and left-behind of the Rust Belt, of anti-abortion activists as well as pro-immigration activists (“there is no antithesis it does not embrace,” Schmitt writes). This is why not only was there no concerted Catholic campaign against Donald Trump, but plausibly, in some parishes, a discreet campaign for Donald Trump.
And what of the presence of Catholics at the top of American political life? Their role appears to remain important, although it is too early to say, given that Trump’s government is still a work-in-process. Among Catholics in key positions are the Vice-President, who was a faithful of Rome up until he was in college, House Speaker Paul Ryan, presidential Counselor Kellyanne Conway, Press Secretary Sean Spicer, and, of course, White House Chief Strategist at the time of this writing, Steve Bannon, who might be considered the “WASP-ing” Catholics’ leader and principal ideologist. We might include Andrew Bremberg, Director of the Domestic Policy Council, Labor Secretary Andrew Puzder, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security John F. Kelly, not to mention some of the old Catholic establishment who played a role in the Trump campaign, such as Rudy Giuliani, Chris Christie, and Newt Gingrich. The Director of the FBI and its three Deputies, as well as the Director of the CIA, all Catholics, have thus far been tacitly confirmed in their posts. And even after the appointment of the “WASP-ing” Neil Gorsuch, the internal balance of the Supreme Court remains largely in favor of Catholics (five out of nine). Last but not least, following the November elections, the percentage of Catholics in the House has gone from 31% up to 34%.
Not only was there no concerted Catholic campaign against Donald Trump, but plausibly, in some parishes, a discreet campaign for Donald Trump.
What I said earlier concerning the American episcopate’s benign neglect during the presidential campaign does not mean that the Catholic Church will have good relations with the new administration. Let us not forget that the Church strengthens itself by fighting minority and upstream battles, which suggests that the defense of immigration, immigrants, and Muslims will remain one of the main lines of action of the American Church.
As for the relationship with Rome, most likely it will be quite chilly. Not only because the priorities of the Bergoglio Pontificate are the opposite of Donald Trump’s, but also because of the clumsy attempt by Steve Bannon to create an anti-Francis axis with Cardinal Raymond Burke, as reported by the Washington Post. Bannon, in his delirium of omnipotence, would like to impose a “new order” not only on the United States but also on the Catholic Church, and would rely on internal opposition of which Cardinal Burke represents a key figure. But to think that it is possible to challenge the power and the leader (what’s more, a Jesuit leader) of the Catholic Church shows very little familiarity with the Church’s history, its traditions, its habits, and its culture. No one can predict the evolution (or, more likely, the involution) of the United States under the new administration. It is nevertheless predictable that, sooner or later, Donald Trump will have to walk the road to Canossa.