In the election post-mortem and hand-wringing among pollsters, pundits, and prognosticators, many factors will be identified as contributing to Donald Trump’s decisive victory, including race, class, and gender. But one other factor that deserves more attention is religion. In spite of reports indicating that Trump was having “problems” with the Catholic vote, exit polling indicates that he won Catholics by 52% to 45%. This marks a substantial change from the previous two presidential elections when Catholics voted for Obama by margins of 9% in 2008 and 2% in 2012.
In my view, Trump’s turnaround was the result of a deep antipathy to cultural elites who are perceived as not only being tone deaf to Catholic sensibilities, but also as actively antagonistic to them.
Catholic journalist Andrew Sullivan argues in New York Magazine that the “left” had overplayed its hand on cultural issues. Obviously, abortion is a central part of this perceived “overplay,” and even liberal Catholics—many of whom are against abortion but not willing to outlaw it—are taken aback by positions reflected in social media campaigns such as #shoutyourabortion, not to mention Trump’s opponent Hillary Clinton’s own defense of late-term pregnancy terminations.
But beyond the incendiary issue of abortion, there are other issues concerning perceived government encroachments on the ability, and right, of religious institutions and communities to operate according to their own deeply held values and commitments. Such debates, ranging from whether religious institutions should support health plans that cover contraception, to the establishment of gender-neutral bathrooms, involve difficult questions concerning how civil society should be structured. Many Catholics, though by no means all, wonder whether in making civil society more inclusive, there is paradoxically less space for traditional forms of religious expression.
For their part, liberal Catholics are a minority and often find themselves outnumbered, not just within the Catholic church, but among their liberal non-Catholic friends and colleagues. While Catholic liberals likely did not vote for Trump (though those numbers are not reflected in the exit poll), they were neither supported by Clinton’s campaign, as the Wikileaks email dump suggested Democrats taking advantage of the “Catholic spring” with disparaging comments about other groups of Catholics. This signaled that while liberal Catholics may not feel at home in the Republican Party, they aren’t exactly understood by some members of the Democratic Party elite, even though Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Tim Kaine are prominent and powerful Catholic Democrats.
As far as Catholic conservatives are concerned, I know many who believe that Trump’s appeals to racism and misogyny are not only antithetical to Catholic commitments, but to the values of the Republican Party. Nonetheless, I suspect that a good number of these Catholic conservatives likely voted for Trump, though reluctantly and quietly, because of the importance they attach to future Supreme Court nominations.
Of course, the perspectives of white working-class Catholics rarely find expression in mainstream media outlets or in academic journals. In fact, many Catholic intellectuals, whether they be conservative or liberal, have seen fit to ignore their importance. Latino Catholics, while a growing and demographically important group, still have not been given the voice they deserve either on the national level or within American Catholicism itself.
If any good can come from this election, it would be a willingness among elite Catholic intellectuals and commentators to listen to both groups more carefully to understand the choices and challenges they face.
It remains to be seen whether Trump will deliver the protections, recognition, and vision hoped for by the Catholics who voted for him. My sense is that the disconnect between many Catholics and the Washington establishment will remain, but will have more fault lines than seen under the Obama administration: Issues of character and commitment to democratic norms are important to American Catholics, precisely because they are both American and Catholic.
As both an American and a Catholic, I could not—and did not—cast my vote for Trump. But even though I cannot commend my fellow Catholics who voted for him, I do think it is important that I understand and reflect seriously why they did indeed support him—however reluctantly.
Mathew N. Schmalz is an associate professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. He is the author of Mercy Matters: Opening Yourself to the Life-Changing Gift.