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Catholics and the future of American politics



Donald Trump shocked the world with his upset victory in the 2016 US presidential election. And his victory instantly transformed American politics and the Republican Party. Upon taking office, the Trump administration swiftly pursued its agenda of plutocratic economic policies, populist nationalist immigration and foreign policies, and conservative social policies.

President-elect Joe Biden (L) leaves St. Joseph on the Brandywine Roman Catholic Church after attending Sunday mass (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Trump changed the coalition crafted by President Ronald Reagan in 1980 and led American conservativism and the Republican Party down an alternative path. This rise of populist nationalism — an ‘America First’ skepticism toward international trade, immigration, and the promotion of democracy and human rights abroad — was a sharp break from decades of Republican commitments, stretching all the way back to Dwight Eisenhower’s primary victory in the 1952 presidential election.

This was not the only precedent-shattering aspect of Donald Trump’s presidency. His attacks on the media, the judiciary and American intelligence services are unique in American history. His affinity for dictators, indifference to Russian interference in the 2016 election, withholding of aid to Ukraine to damage his 2020 opponent and repeated unfounded claims about illegal voting have altered perceptions about the strength and durability of American democratic norms and institutions.

But Donald Trump lost. Joe Biden will be the next President of the United States. Now the question is: will the Republican Party revert back to its pre-Trump days, continue down the path of Trumpian populism, or seek an alternative to both? No matter which path is pursued, American Catholics will likely play a key role in shaping the party’s future direction.

While the 2020 election was unusual in many ways, some key dynamics from past elections continued to play similar roles. This is true of the Catholic vote. American Catholics are divided in their political orientations and loyalties. The Catholic vote is closely contested in nearly every presidential election — seen by many as a decisive factor in who will win the highest office in the land.

Both presidential campaigns sought to increase their share of the Catholic vote. Joseph Biden, who will become the second Catholic President of the United States, spoke freely and frequently about his faith. He also put together a strong faith outreach team that skillfully targeted different religious groups, including Catholics. 


'The real mystery is over the future of the Republican Party. Will alt-Catholicism collapse without a president that affirms its illiberal, antidemocratic impulses? Will it find a new leader to champion its ideas?'


President Trump meanwhile aligned his campaign with Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the conspiracy theory-promoting critic of the pope. He gambled, hoping that resentment against Pope Francis and his agenda were more widespread than the tiny traditionalist circles that conjure up conspiracy theorists and elaborate justifications for right-wing dissent. Some of his strongest defenders were Catholic anti-abortion activists who downplay the importance of every other issue, but he also relied on alt-Catholics, those Catholics who have somehow found a way to integrate the sexism, bigotry, xenophobia and isolationist nationalism of the alt-right with their faith.

In the end, Biden appears to have narrowly won the Catholic vote, which played an important role in key contests in the west and the midwest’s ‘Rust Belt’. So it was perhaps fitting for him to quote the Catholic hymn ‘On Eagle’s Wings’ in his first speech as president-elect. Yet despite his calls for unity and reconciliation, polarisation within the country and the American Church seem unlikely to disappear overnight.

Perhaps a competent approach to the coronavirus and the pursuit of policies that advance racial, economic and environmental justice will alter the status quo, but the Republican Party may use its power in Congress to block key reforms and allow America’s problems to fester, hoping to pin the blame on the Biden administration. Perhaps Biden will pull more American Catholics into the Democratic Party by broadening its appeal, but this would require taking on certain party elites and the wealthy special interest groups that have pushed the party away from the center on issues like abortion.

The real mystery is over the future of the Republican Party. Will alt-Catholicism collapse without a president that affirms its illiberal, antidemocratic impulses? Will it find a new leader to champion its ideas? Will President Trump run again in 2024 or will one of his children take up the cause? We are unlikely to see Trumpian nationalism disappear, since this election was not a clear rejection of it. But its future and the role of Catholics in promoting it are murky right now. Some may double down, while others may pull away.

Those who edged closer and closer to Trump in the 2020 election, despite favoring the economic, social, and foreign policy conservatism that defined the pre-Trump Republican Party, may find it difficult to disentangle themselves and revivify their ideology. The pro-life movement may suffer from its association with a president who frequently showed no regard for human dignity.

One alternative to both of these paths is to try to build a more working class, diverse Republican Party that is guided by communitarian and whole life values. Instead of relying on the dark side of populism, this approach would seek to reshape the party by promoting pro-family policies on issues like childcare and economic security, while displaying a more consistent commitment to protecting human life. It would mean embracing democracy and human rights — and addressing racial injustice, while seeking more humane policies on immigration. This would be a radical break from the past, but it would be encouraging to see Catholic Republicans putting their faith first and working as a vanguard to build a better party in the wake of President Trump’s defeat.



Robert ChristianRobert Christian is the editor of Millennial, an online periodical on religion, politics, and culture by millennial Catholics.

Main image: President-elect Joe Biden (L) leaves St. Joseph on the Brandywine Roman Catholic Church after attending Sunday mass (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Robert Christian, US, America, presidential election, Donald Trump, politics, Catholic, alt-Catholic



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It was consoling to read Robert Christian's focus on alt-right Catholics who make up 'tiny traditionalist circles' and who support the dark populism of Donald Trump. That said, I remain puzzled by Cardinal Timothy Dolan's bookending of the Trump presidency. The New York Archbishop offered benediction at Trump's 2017 inauguration and in 2020 opened with a 'prayer' the Republican National Convention, a campaign event held controversially in the White House. The Cardinal’s prayer looked mightily like a blessing given to an administration that over four years had been noted for its readiness to violate norms, protocols and precedents, trash standards of civility and decency, and pay scant regard to the rule of law. Timothy Dolan, like any other citizen, is entitled to conservative personal views. However, gifting the authority of his position to the Trump campaign suggests that Catholic support was institutional rather than limited to alt-Catholic white nationalists and fringe conspiracy theorists. As an Australian Catholic I remain puzzled as to how he was permitted to gift the brand of the church to a regime that implemented a policy of separating vulnerable children from their parents so recklessly that it has not been able to reunite hundreds of them.

Paul Begley | 12 November 2020  

"Economic, social, and foreign policy conservatism that defined the pre-Trump Republican Party"? To my view (my adult memory of US politics stretches back to Johnson) it was Reagan who radicalised Republicanism, the US counterpart to UK conservatism. He perverted the former's old ideals as Thatcher did the latter: turned Republicanism from husbanding civilising conventions around the social contract to sustaining a frenzy of laissez-faire deregulation and privileging of oligarchs; exactly the sort of winner-take-all pitiless economic milieu that Vatican social teaching condemned as trenchantly as it did Stalinist collectivism. So what kind of "normal" Republican Party are we envisaging after 40 years of self-serving, socially malignant neo-liberal dogma? The Trump followers may have fallen for a self-serving predator; but in their desperation they have been rebelling, after all that time, against the excesses of Reagan. It seems to me that the ultra-conservative Catholic falange was Reaganite long before it became Trumpite.

Fred Green | 12 November 2020  

The exit polls tell us that Catholics who go to Mass voted overwhelmingly for Trump. A man who has many obvious faults. Why? Perhaps it was because he was only one of the two candidates to support the right to life. Without life, no other right matters. Joe Biden not only opposes the right to life of the weakest of the weak and poorest of the poor. He advocates for the taking of innocent human life. No Catholic, who has even the most basic understanding of the faith, could possibly support his agenda, no matter how Christian his other policies are. The NAZIs, being a socialist party, had very good looking social policies too, but they also had the plan to commit genocide. Actually, there are many parallels between the social policies of the NAZIs and the Democrats. A Catholic would have to reject the complete agendas of these parties because of the plan to kill fellow human beings.

Chris Howard | 12 November 2020  

I was a lifelong Republican, a constituent of Henry Hyde for many years. Last year I became a member of Democrats for Life, a growing group within the Democratic party, feeling that I had a better chance of my voice being heard and influencing the culture than with the Republican party. #DFLA did not endorse anyone for president.

Mary Ann Gisburne | 13 November 2020  

Vain hope for a reformed US Republican party. Just as the Catholic right was welcoming Judge Barrett to the Supremes, Pope Francis was calling for civil marriage to help protect LBGT citizens. It was entirely lost on these divisive religious fundamentalists that Barrett long and publically opposed such civil reforms, albeit now affirmed by her fellow judges. If everything in life and morals was so black and white there would be no use for glorious rainbows. Welcome Joe Biden, a small "c" catholic of the best traditions. Austin Texas.

j p brown | 13 November 2020  

The Trump administration “pursued its agenda of plutocratic economic policies”. Nonsense! Trump was opposed by plutocrats, multinationals, banks, media and big tech. 370 economists predicted disaster. The opposite happened. Under Trump, Americans had their best wage growth in 40 years. The inflation-adjusted growth for the median weekly wage had been $4.05 per quarter, then $3.20 under Obama, but $6.90 in Trumps first three years. Unemployment became the lowest in 50 years. Black and Hispanic unemployment the lowest ever recorded. Workers shifted to the Republicans. Plutocrats supported the Democratic Party massively over Republicans, including a final-weeks Silicon Valley $100 million anti-Trump ad blitz. Democrats commissioned and paid for the phoney Steele Dossier to instigate the Russia/Trump collusion hoax, call Trump a traitor, and try to oust him; they defamed Judge Kavanaugh as a gang rapist; and they were aided and abetted by corrupt media and big tech who suppressed anything negative about Biden. Democrats persecuted the Little Sisters of the Poor for 8 years, even after Trump passed measures to protect their conscience objections. Blinded by self-righteousness to their own nefariousness, Democrats now proclaim unity and reconciliation. Wisely, St. Edith said: “Do not accept anything as love which lacks truth.”

Ross Howard | 13 November 2020  

Mario Vigano has denounced Pope Francis for his legitimization of same sex marriage. Vigano claims that homosexuality and pedophilia are linked and that legitimization of these incredibly recurrent and insidious practices within the church will ultimately destroy it. Vigano was responsible for the downfall of Cardinal McCarrick, who abused altar boys and Seminarians for 50 years. So he's a hard line supporter of marriage being a union between a man and a woman. Trump did stand up to China, and he championed the right to life. Yet he started no new wars, brought US troops home, attacked the cartels and curbed their influence on US soil. These days, with a Pope soft on clericalism, soft on child abuse, soft on misappropriation of church money, soft on cleaning up the church's internal corruption, his outright refusal to equalize women's rights, one can take no pride in being a catholic under this caretaker Pope. Biden's presidency may be due to the Catholic vote- ironic as he supports abortion, wanders all over the place in his speeches, inappropriate as he says he enjoys children jumping into his lap. Whether he will be a good president remains to be seen. I predict Harris will quickly take over.

Francis Armstrong | 13 November 2020  

A "Millennial" editorial by the author (February 3rd, 2016) claims: "The whole life movement is not a rival of the pro-life movement." The tenor of Robert Christian's article here suggests quite the opposite, particularly in its definition of "alt-Catholicism." (I wonder who coined that term?) Credit where it is due: Mr Trump stopped American funding directed via the UN to "reproductive health " programs - read for that State-imposed abortion - in poverty-stricken countries. As Chris Howard notes above, quality of life ("whole life") issues presuppose respect for the right to life, the foundational expression of human dignity in Catholic social teaching.

John RD | 13 November 2020  

The Editor. If the final paragraph of my earlier letter referred to “St. Edith”, it was, of course, meant to refer to “St. Edith Stein.” My apologies,

Ross Howard | 13 November 2020  

Chris Howard is entitled to his opinions, including the risible comparison of Hitler’s Nazi Party with Biden’s Democrats. However, with respect I suggest he is not entitled to equate German Nazism with socialism, despite the keenness to revive the idea in the Murdoch media. Some German Nazis and Italian Fascists engaged in early socialist dalliances to be sure, but by the 1930s anything anti-capitalist that appeared in their ranks had been crushed. Although the German Party retained ‘national socialist’ in its title, it was a strategy to win working class votes at the ballot-box. Hitler banned unions in 1933 and after Gregor Strasser was murdered in 1934 there was no trace remaining of socialism in the Nazi Party. Retention of the term could be compared to the title of ‘Liberal-National in Australia’s coalition. The ‘liberal’ works historically to echo the golden days of Robert Menzies and to attract civil libertarians who trace their thinking to John Stuart Mill. The word liberal is now used by Republicans in the US as a term of contempt on a par with the word leftist. It may well go the same way in Australia as fewer civil libertarians find a home in the LNP.

Paul Begley | 13 November 2020  

Here are some notes I have made about American "Christianity". I lived in the USA off and on for about 5 years, and couldn't understand why America felt so different. It took me decades to learn about the Protestant Work Ethic, Calvinism and the Prosperity Gospel. American Christianity is very different from the Christianity I learned at Jesuit Xavier College. And most Americans believe they have to be rich to get to heaven. Our Prime Minister Scott Morrison's religion of Pentecostalism is very much along these lines. My notes are here: http://www.makingabeautifulworld.com/correspondence/trump-and-morrison-prosperity

Clement Clarke | 13 November 2020  

Un-deifying the President. Now that America is used to censoring its President on social and legacy media, perhaps it can get used to denying him Holy Communion for being a stumbling block to the consciences of the faithful. If the institutional American Church really wanted to remind the public about abortion, it can do so every Sunday for the next four years. In fact, every Sunday for the next four years will be crunch time for the backbone of the Church or, unfortunately for him, the soul of the Cardinal Archbishop of Washington, especially so because of the stature and halo that he possesses from also being black. Actually, it's really his backbone that is going to be tested over two hundred times, the "lead us not into temptation" notwithstanding. If anyone needs prayers, it's Wilton Gregory who is, all things being equal, about the same distance from eternity as Joe Biden.

roy chen yee | 14 November 2020  

An interesting critique of American protestants on your link Clement, but what about the 'alt-Catholics' and 'Catholics for Trump'? Would they pass your 'God rather than Mammon' test?

Ginger Meggs | 16 November 2020  

Not so Roy, he (Wilton Gregory), is 5 years younger so "all things being equal" (which they are certainly not in this fossil of a church), Biden is statistically much closer to eternity. Perhaps you meant "heaven"? Interesting statistic: Only two countries are represented by cardinal electors whose numbers are composed of two digits: Italy and the United States. Italy has 26 cardinals with the right to vote in a Conclave, 10 of them are residential bishops and 16 are members of the Curia: this accounts for 21% of the electoral college. USA has 34. Based on Italy's population of 60.6 m, Australia with 25.5m (all thing being equal) should have 10.5 Cardinals. And of course the one we do have is comfortably back in Rome congratulating Francis for firing his successor. At least Wilton Gregory is consistent with Mario Vigano in his attempts to root out abuse in the church. And as for the Biden foundation- which had a stated aim to protect children from domestic violence and child abuse, effective April 25, 2019, the Biden Foundation suspended operations. Ill leave you to puzzle those quandaries out Roy.

Francis Armstrong | 16 November 2020  

Francis Anderson: “puzzle those quandaries” You call those quandaries? The quandary, my friend, is when a head of state of international distinction is a stumbling block to the universal church, what does a Pope, who is supposed to strengthen his brothers, do? John Maynard Keynes referred to the influence of the “defunct scribbler”. Given that God lives in the permanent present because, ultimately, there is no past or future, one wonders what the newly defunct modernist scribblers of yore would have had to say at their tribunal upon learning that they had put a pope in the soup.

roy chen yee | 19 November 2020  

I believe a priest in the USA refused to give Communion to Joe Biden recently due to the latter's position on abortion. It was done politely but firmly. This is probably the street level Church initiative which makes the official situation clear. Rather than talk the Church must act like this. It might seem tough but it makes things clear.

Edward Fido | 20 November 2020  

Roy, presumably the head of state is Biden and the pope in the soup is Francis and the former is a stumbling block to the plans of the latter? And said Pope is supposed to strengthen his brothers? What about his sisters? Calmly they remain trodden underfoot. As for bringing God into the equation as if you are his spokesman, it wont wash. God is in heaven waiting to judge us whilst we are on earth trying to get some meaningful participation in a church that refuses to listen to the laity. Your comment "Given that God lives in the permanent present because, ultimately, there is no past or future, one wonders what the newly defunct modernist scribblers of yore would have had to say at their tribunal upon learning that they had put a pope in the soup." would inscribe well in the tower of Babel.

Francis Armstrong | 21 November 2020  

Yes, Edward, respect for official Catholic teaching is weakened when it is flouted publicly, creating impression that pression that such teaching is optional and a matter of indifference. Such breaches also positions a faux PC inclusivity over the Church's understanding of communion.

John RD | 21 November 2020  

Francis Armstrong: "As for bringing God into the equation as if you are his spokesman, it wont wash." But it washes if you make-believe you are his spokesman by tub-thumping about women priests?

roy chen yee | 23 November 2020  

There is a saying about California that it grows all sorts of fruits and nuts. You could say that about the political system in most of the Anglosphere. We are fortunate that our systems are open, free and democratic in a way much of the world isn't. Trump lost the election fairly and squarely and he needs to go. I don't think his presidency was all bad, but there were certain aspects of it I certainly didn't like. I am not as worried about Biden as I am about Kamala Harris, an interesting character, who took a very hard line in California on prosecuting men on certain issues. From what I read, she is also very much a supporter of of very late term abortions. It is incomprehensible to me why, if people really don't want babies and want to have a 'free' sex life, they don't use contraception rather than abortion. Japan, where access to contraception is limited, uses abortion as its normal means of family planning. Demographically, the Japanese are dying out. The same thing is happening in Western Europe, certain segments of the American population and in Australia. This is not a healthy situation.

Edward Fido | 23 November 2020  

Tub-thumping? Sounds to me a little like pot calling kettle black!

Ginger Meggs | 24 November 2020  

Ginger Meggs: “Tub-thumping? Sounds to me a little like pot calling kettle black!” That’s right. Francis is the pot. We ARE both tub-thumpers. That's the nature of this forum. Insinuating its denial for oneself is a signalling of absent virtue. I get the sense from your posts over time that you're very likely an atheist or agnostic visitor to our little religious blogsite here, so I'm always interested in reading your tub-thumps.

roy chen yee | 25 November 2020  

I'm intrigued Edward as to why you think that it is is 'not a healthy situation' if some segments of the world's population fail to reproduce at rates necessary to maintain the population levels of those segments. (I'm assuming here that you are referring to the outcome - the decrease in population numbers - rather than the means - fertility management, contraception, abortion, etc). It's not as if our species (unlike many other species) is in danger of extinction in the foreseeable future, and one could well argue that a reduction in the overall population of humans would be good for the planet. So why do you suggest that it is 'not a healthy situation' ?

Ginger Meggs | 25 November 2020  

Meggsie, You have every entitlement to draw a distinction between ends and means; as does every mother, Catholic or otherwise, atheist, agnostic or believer, who dissents from Paul VI's disquisition on the topic, Humane Vitae. Would that he or our Church had modified its impact by offering to pick up the tab on feeding every extra body and soul, Catholic or otherwise, resulting from Eddie's all too exquisite point! I, for one, await, more than half a century after its proclamation, an instruction from the Vatican to open a special fund to feed the hungry in those jurisdictions in which population regularly outstrips food supply.

Michael Leonard FURTADO | 26 November 2020  

Michael Leonard Furtado: “those jurisdictions in which population regularly outstrips food supply.” This where the rubber of Faith meets the road (to the joy of crowing Atheism), as per the principle that man does not live by bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God. This is where situational ethics bounces from one frightened response to the other because it has forgotten to look at deep principle. Just as the question of woman’s ordination cannot be answered in the affirmative until we know why God is a male, the deep principles here are (1.) God incarnates souls because he enjoys loving a human and (2.) God loves each human equally. So, where is our writ to say God is to be deprived of Japanese incarnated souls? Or that he must only love 10 million Australian souls, not 25? If you want to believe in religion, believe in it. Ignoring deep principle is Laodicean. As for jurisdictions, Eden was only one, and Catholicism, like Islam, believes that all the world should be (properly) of its religion. If it were, borders will become moot and humans can steward the Earth by allocating populations rationally.

roy chen yee | 27 November 2020  

Aren’t you selling ES a little short Roy by describing it as ‘our little religious blogsite’ to which I am just ‘a visitor’? In the ABOUT tab ES describes itself as ‘a vibrant online journal of analysis, commentary and reflection on current issues in the worlds of politics, religion and culture [which] aims to participate in public discussion and influence public opinion regarding the things that matter…’, a view with which I would wholeheartedly concur. ES also claims that ‘its audience includes readers of all religions or none, who share or may be enhanced by the values and respect for the flourishing of human dignity that underpin [its] articles’. I’d like to think that such a description could include one such as I.

Ginger Meggs | 27 November 2020  

Ginger Meggs: “just ‘a visitor’?” “Just” is your interpolation. Words have consequences as words change meanings. As for “journal of…reflection…[which] aims to ….influence public opinion regarding the things that matter”, I’m sure there’s a flourishing discourse somewhere on why it does matter that religious education should be completely banned from public schools but I haven’t seen it here. Would you like to contribute a real tub-thumper article on that?

roy chen yee | 28 November 2020  

Don't be drawn by Roy's distraction, Ginge. What I'd like to see, as we enter Advent, is another side to Roy: the bit that he keeps carefully hidden, as indeed all of us do at various times because it entails being human and vulnerable in the manner that Advent and the Incarnation foretell. Perchance then, the pastoral theology underpinning so much of ES's intellectual work would be enhanced by Roy's brilliant insights, rather than crushed.

Michael Leonard FURTADO | 01 December 2020  

It is interesting to me, Ginger, that the places where populations are declining in large numbers are generally the wealthy countries. These countries are often ones that effectively segregate immigrants from the Third World into ghettos. They also tend to treat them as 'foreign' even if they were born there. Right wing groups blame and victimise them. Neo-Fascism and racial discrimination are alive and well in Western Europe where it is claimed immigrants are replacing Frenchmen, Austrians, Germans etc.

Edward Fido | 01 December 2020  

Michael Leonard Furtado: “it entails being ... vulnerable." Like the self-assured twelve year old in the Temple who gave his parents the boot for a few days. In imitation of Christ, we might have to say that 'vulnerable' has its place.

roy chen yee | 02 December 2020  

Nice one, Lee Roy! Point taken ;)

Michael Leonard FURTADO | 03 December 2020  

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