Half of America’s Catholics support Trump. Why?

Image credit: CJCS Jeffrey Bruno

By Christopher Lamb

Donald Trump has garnered a loyal following of Catholics in the United States, despite his political philosophy sharply diverging from the worldview of Pope Francis.

Polls showed Catholic voters were almost evenly split between supporting Trump and Joe Biden. Four years earlier, Trump won the support of 64 per cent of white Catholics. His backers include some powerful figures, including church leaders, donors and media networks. Even after the heart of US democracy on Capitol Hill was stormed on 6 January, it seems many remain wedded to Trumpism and the “make American great again” agenda.

Why do Catholics support Trump?

There is no such thing as a “bloc” of Catholic voters; instead those of the faith reflect existing trends in the country. Many Catholics supported Trump for the same variety of reasons as millions across the United States did. Nevertheless, abortion played an important role here with Trump presenting himself as “pro-life”. He also backed religious freedom issues and promised additional funding for Catholic schools in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. In some respects, the relationship between Trump and the church was a transactional one. We have also seen an alliance forming between Catholic Trump supporters and evangelical ones, something that was explored in detail by La Civiltà Cattolica, a Vatican-sanctioned journal.

Another important factor is the Catholic media, with Trump receiving strong support from the influential Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN). Founded in 1981 by a nun, Mother Angelica, EWTN has grown to become the world’s largest religious news operation: according to the latest figures available, it generated an annual income of $64,646,744.

Before the 2020 election, EWTN declared its support for Trump while its news anchors conducted friendly interviews with the president on several occasions. EWTN also receives financial support from the Knights of Columbus, a lay Catholic organisation that gives tens of millions each year to many Catholic causes.

The Knights were set up in the 19th century to offer immigrant Catholics life insurance, and today their insurance arm is a multibillion-dollar business. The Knights’ leadership, however, is political and has been supportive of the Trump presidency. Last summer, Trump made a trip to the John Paul II shrine in Washington the day after anti-racism protesters were dispersed with tear gas so that Trump could pose with a Bible in front of St John’s Episcopal Church. The knights operate the shrine.

What’s happened since the 6 January violence?

Like Republican politicians who have distanced themselves from Trump, many Catholic supporters of the Republican party are deeply uncomfortable with and opposed to “Maga Christianity”. Many will seek to further distance themselves from Trump after the Capitol Hill attack.

Nevertheless, two far-right Catholic news websites — Church Militant and Lifesite News — have pushed the bogus claims of election fraud with Church Militant announcing on 6 January that “election steal protesters break into the Capitol” while using Catholic imagery to glorify the rioters. Meanwhile, on one of the best-read Christian blogs, Fr John Zuhlsdorf — known as “Fr Z” — had been carrying out exorcisms against “election fraud.”

(In 2018, Church Militant/St Michael’s Media was designated as an anti-LGBT hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Centre.)

But these sentiments are not restricted to fringe sites. Fr James Martin, the prominent Jesuit priest, has argued that Catholic leaders, including bishops and priests, helped foment violence in the capital through irresponsible rhetoric about the election. Fr Martin cites several clergy who characterised the election as a battle between good and evil, and even claiming “you cannot be a Catholic and a Democrat”.

Have there been any mea culpas?

Mark Shea, a Catholic blogger, writes in detail in this essay about what drew him to “Maga Christianity” and apologises.

“I believe Christians in the US are in desperate need of metanoia– of turning around and, above all, of taking full responsibility for our part in doing the ecclesial equivalent of dipping the eucharist in sewage and then being upset that normal people are refusing to receive at it our filthy hands.”

What about Pope Francis?

The nationalist-populist agenda espoused by Trump and other political leaders runs contrary to everything the Pope stands for. Francis has repeatedly warned that the rhetoric of populist leaders today has echoes with the 1930s during the rise of fascism. The Argentine Pope has a unique perspective, given he lived under a military junta in his homeland during the 1970s and 1980s.

Francis and Trump did not see eye to eye on anything much. Tensions between Trump and Francis can be traced back to 2013 when the newly elected Pope returned to pay for his Rome hotel room. The celebrity businessman, as he was then, complained on Twitter that “it’s not Pope-like!”

Three years later, during the 2016 presidential election campaign, Francis said Trump’s policy of building a wall on the US-Mexico border was “not Christian” and in 2019 he described the Trump administration policy of separating migrant children from their families as “cruelty of the highest form.”

There are other examples of big differences on policy. When the Pope amended Catholic teaching ruling that the death penalty was “inadmissible”, Trump’s former attorney-general, William Barr, a Catholic, restarted federal executions after a 17-year lapse. On climate change, when Trump and Francis met in the Vatican in May 2017, the president promised he would read Laudato si’ the Pope’s landmark encyclical letter on protecting the environment before withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate accords a few days later.

Does this make any difference to Trump’s Catholic supporters?

The short answer is no. So often, support for the Maga agenda goes hand in hand with hostility to Pope Francis, something I set out in my book, The Outsider. Steve Bannon, a Catholic and the president’s former chief strategist, has led the charge describing the Pope as “beneath contempt”. Bannon let slip the anti-Francis, pro-Trump alliance when he interviewed Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a former papal envoy to the US, who has called on Francis to resign. Viganò is also an enthusiastic Trump supporter. One of Bannon’s questions read: “You seem to suggest that the Trump administration could be instrumental in helping to return the church to a pre-Francis Catholicism. How does the Trump administration accomplish that . . .?”

What impact will President Joe Biden, a Catholic, have?

President Joe Biden is a practising Catholic who often refers to his faith, and the Bible in his political speeches. But don’t expect him to receive a warm welcome from the Trump-supporting lobby in his own church. The United States’ bishops’ conference has already set up a working group to examine Biden’s policies on abortion, and some bishops have talked about refusing the president communion. Although Biden’s position on abortion has been disappointing to Catholics, the argument that Catholics could not vote for him on these grounds is an overly-narrow reading of church teaching.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops says: “There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position even on policies promoting an intrinsically evil act may reasonably decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons.”

Meanwhile, President Biden will get a warmer welcome in the Vatican. He and Pope Francis have met on several occasions and have plenty of common ground on foreign policy and building up multilateral institutions such as the United Nations. Francis was among the first world leaders to congratulate the president on his 2020 election victory.