John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life Action and author of “The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.
A political truism, backed by decades of data, holds that the presidential candidate most successful at persuading Catholic voters usually wins the White House.
Barack Obama won the Catholic vote twice. Donald Trump’s path to victory in 2016 ran through Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where Catholics make up a disproportionate share of the population. The president’s narrow margin of success in those states was fueled by white Catholics.
In 2020, these same Catholic swing voters could end up complicating his reelection. Along with that political calculus, the president’s actions have raised a theological and moral question: Can a faithful Catholic vote for Trump?
This may seem to be a strange question, given Trump’s commitment to appointing anti-abortion judges and his appeals to religious liberty in chipping away at LGBT rights. Both are strongly supported by the Catholic hierarchy. While polling shows a majority of Catholics oppose criminalizing abortion and a majority favor marriage equality, opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage are lynchpins of Catholic identity for bishops, conservative Catholic activists and millions of Catholic voters.
In fact, those issues have been so central to defining the Catholic political narrative that two months before the 2012 election, a bishop in Illinois warned his flock that voting for a Democrat could put “the eternal salvation of your own soul in serious jeopardy.”
A less discussed but increasingly relevant topic for Catholic voters is church teaching on racism. “A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who favors promoting an intrinsically evil act,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops states in “Faithful Citizenship,” a reflection guide for Catholic voters released every four years. Among those acts, the bishops specifically cite racist behavior, noting that Catholics “would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil” if their intent was to support such actions.
Racism is not treated as a peripheral issue by the bishops. “If a candidate’s position on a single issue promotes an intrinsically evil act, such as legal abortion, redefining marriage in a way that denies its essential meaning, or racist behavior,” the bishops write,” a voter may legitimately disqualify a candidate from receiving support.”
Almost half (48%) of U.S. Catholics now think Trump is a racist, according to a new Quinnipiac University poll, compared with 21% of evangelicals. On a recent Sunday at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament, a Catholic parish in Washington, a priest made national news for his homily that called on Trump to resign because he “spews hatred, bigotry and intolerance.”
The president has earned these opinions. A man who claims there were “very fine people on both sides” of a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va.; who tells women of color in Congress to “go back” to the “crime-infested places from which they came”; and who recently described a predominantly black district of Baltimore as a “disgusting, rat-infested mess” where “no human being would want to live” has demonstrated a consistent pattern of willfully exploiting racism for political effect in ways that no conscientious Catholic should support.