“Ecclesiastical establishments” James Madison wrote to his friend William Bradford Jr. in 1774, “tend to great ignorance and corruption, all of which facilitate the execution of mischievous projects.”
If ever there was proof of Madison’s preternatural wisdom it was the role of organized religion in Donald Trump’s recent electoral victory. In fact, for those of us who take faith and politics seriously, the conduct of America’s major religious voting blocs—Catholics and evangelical Protestants—and, particularly their leaders is further evidence of the moral and intellectual bankruptcy that ought to disqualify them from further influence over the minds of reasonable Americans.
Such people, even if they’re religious believers, may take their values but never their politics from the churches. Unfortunately, that commonsensical proposition has had to struggle to establish itself in too many recent elections. In large sections of the country we still are struggling with a fallacy against which Madison warned more than two centuries ago in another letter to the distinguished jurist Edward Livingston. “In some parts of our Country,” he wrote, “there remains in others a strong bias towards the old error, that without some sort of alliance or coalition between Government’ & Religion neither can be duly supported: Such indeed is the tendency to such a coalition, and such its corrupting influence on both the parties, that the danger cannot be too carefully guarded against.”
The results of not doing so can be read in the exit polls from the last Election Day. Urged on by the majority of their national leaders, more than eight in 10 white evangelical Protestants voted for Trump, while only 16% cast ballots for Hillary Clinton. That 65-point gap is a far better margin than the one the evangelicals’ coreligionist George Bush ran up in 2008.
Similarly, white Catholics went for Trump over Clinton 60% to 37%, which was enough to give the Republican candidate 52% of the total Catholic vote, overcoming the Democrat’s 41-point margin, 67% to 26%, among Latino Catholics.
Clinton did carry Jews by a 71%-29% margin, as she did nearly seven of 10 voters with no religious affiliation. Americans who profess a faith other than Judaism or Christianity also went for the Democratic candidate 62%-29%.
How is it that a thrice married, self-confessed adulterer and seducer of married women with no discernible religious convictions or even any ability to speak intelligibly about faith could carry believers by such margins? The answer is that the leaders of both the organized evangelical and Catholic communities essentially have brought their entire engagement with our national politics down to just three issues: abortion, same-sex marriage and the appointment of Supreme Court justices who will toe the conservative line on the first two questions.
These leaders willingness to accept Trump’s unapologetic amorality—indeed, his old-fashioned idolatry of profit and wealth—is a powerful proof of their own moral bankruptcy. So, too, their willingness to believe his assurances on abortion and the court, despite the self-evident fact that Trump gave them not out of conviction, but as a matter of political expediency.
Evangelical leaders were frank about what they feel they’ve gained during a meeting in Washington last week—access and influence in a Trump Administration, particularly one that will include numerous self-professed allies, like Atty. Gen.-designate Jeff Sessions and advisor Kellyanne Conway. This from a group that has styled itself a “moral majority” comprised of “values voters.”
The Biblical precedent that comes to mind involves the exchange of a birthright for a mess of pottage.
Then there’s the disgrace of the Catholic bishops. They, of course, forfeited most of their moral authority in the appalling sequence of child molestation scandals that so far have resulted in more than $1 billion in cash settlements and forced one diocese after another into bankruptcy.
What’s frequently overlooked in this sordid saga is that, while it involved a tiny minority of the nation’s priests, the overwhelming majority of the bishops were complicit or involved. You’d think those still exercising episcopal authority might have acquired a modicum of humility concerning their judgement—or, at least, a minimal discretion in expressing it. Instead, leading bishops of a church that once advanced a social agenda that included universal healthcare, the living wage and the right to organize to achieve it and a humane immigration policy doubled down on their moral reductionism—reducing their concerns to abortion and same-sex marriage.
One influential Catholic web site approvingly quoted a parish priest who told his congregation, “Some people have come to us and asked who they should vote for? We can’t tell you who to vote for. But I can tell you this: as a Catholic, you cannot vote for someone who is pro-abortion. You cannot support them killing your fellow citizens. If you vote for such a person, you commit a mortal sin. And you cannot receive Communion until you have full repentance and reconciliation.”
So much for Clinton, who supports reproductive choice.
Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia wrote on his diocesan web site: “What are we to do this election cycle as Catholic voters? Note that by “Catholic,” I mean people who take their faith seriously; people who actually believe what the Catholic faith holds to be true; people who place it first in their loyalty, thoughts and actions; people who submit their lives to Jesus Christ, to Scripture and to the guidance of the community of belief we know as the Church. Anyone else who claims the Catholic label is simply fooling himself or herself — and even more importantly, misleading others.”
Take that, Tim Kaine, Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry et al.
Denver’s Archbishop Samuel Aquila was even more explicit. “This year the Democratic party platform calls for the overturning of the Hyde Amendment, a provision that both parties have voted to include in the federal budget and on other spending bills for 40 years. The Hyde Amendment prohibits federal taxpayer money from being used for abortion. The platform is aggressively pro-abortion, not only in funding matters, but in the appointment of only those judges who will support abortion and the repealing of the Helms Amendment, which prevents the U.S. from supporting abortion availability overseas. Conversely, the Republican Party platform is supportive of the Hyde Amendment and just this year strengthened its support for life by calling for the defunding of Planned Parenthood, banning dismemberment abortion and opposing assisted suicide. . .
“Catholic voters must make themselves aware of where the parties stand on these essential issues. The right to life is the most important and fundamental right, since life is necessary for any of the other rights to matter. There are some issues that can legitimately be debated by Christians, such as which policies are the most effective in caring for the poor, but the direct killing of innocent human life must be opposed at all times by every follower of Jesus Christ. There are no legitimate exceptions to this teaching.”
So much for liberty of conscience and its prudential exercise as a lay Catholic’s responsibility.
Meanwhile, you have the example of Los Angeles’ Archbishop Jose Gomez, who convened a post-election prayer service at his cathedral and delivered a moving homily in support of immigrants’ rights. Fair enough, but where was the politically conservative prelate before Election Day, when he might have made a difference with his sentiments?
The moral reductionism of both the evangelical leaders and Catholic bishops is not clarifying; it is scandalous, an abuse really of both the obligations of citizenship and the trust conferred on them by believers. Why anyone with minimal critical faculties would grant them any future influence is an open question.
What they’ve forgotten—and the principle they’ve betrayed—is one Thomas Jefferson enunciated in his famous letter to the Danbury Baptists: “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.”