For the past 20 years, Dr. Matthew E. Bunson has been active in the area of Catholic social communications and education, including writing, editing, and teaching on a variety of topics related to Church history, the papacy, the saints and Catholic culture. He is faculty chair at Catholic Distance University, a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, and the author or co-author of over 50 books including: The Encyclopedia of Catholic History, The Pope Encyclopedia, We Have a Pope! Benedict XVI, The Saints Encyclopedia and best-selling biographies of St. Damien of Molokai and St. Kateri Tekakwitha.
The Republican National Convention drew to a close on Thursday with the much-anticipated acceptance speech by the party’s newly minted nominee, Donald Trump. Introduced by his daughter Ivanka, Trump took the next step in his unexpected climb to the pinnacle of American political life with a speech that highlighted dramatically his unconventional political style.
In his 76-minute-long speech, Trump was absolutely faithful to his personal brand of populism, unabashed self-assurance and personal pledge to be a fighter in restoring America to its greatness. His language was deliberately crafted to appeal to the same constituencies that had proven so crucial to the success of his primary campaign: blue collar workers, middle-class Americans, those who feel disenfranchised by the present economic system and the many Americans who worry about rising crime, threats to personal freedoms, illegal immigration and radical Islam.
As the convention comes to an end, and as the glare of the media turns to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia starting Monday, it is worth asking a few questions as Catholics.
First, where did Trump stand with Catholics going in to the convention, and where is he now? As was noted in the first blog post this week, Trump has a great deal of ground to make up with Catholic voters. In fairness, he is at a disadvantage because Latino Catholics are supporting the Democratic Party at this point by a 77% majority. This is a reality that is not likely to change. Trump does hold a small lead (50%-46%) among white Catholics, but he is almost certainly not going to carry the Catholic vote this year, such as it is. He is polling worse among white Catholics than the Republican candidates in the last elections—including George W. Bush in 2000, who was supported by 52% of white Catholics against Al Gore, and John McCain in 2008, with 52% against Barack Obama. Bush won the election, barely, but lost the overall Catholic vote 50%-47%, and McCain was defeated by Obama, who carried 54% of all Catholics.
Having said that, can Trump make inroads with the one group that has proven consistent in its support of Republicans—Catholics who are ardently pro-life and are also concerned about marriage and religious liberty? In modern times, these so-called conservative Catholics have typically comprised around 25% of the Catholic vote. Politically moderate Catholics have been a slightly larger group, and they have formed historically something of the swing vote within the Catholic voter bloc.
Heading into Cleveland, Trump was in little danger of losing conservative Catholics to Hillary Clinton. The risk will be whether they are galvanized to vote against Clinton even if they are not excited about Trump.
What will be important is to track polls over the next few days. There is typically a bump that candidates receive from their conventions. Trump may as well. Will there be a “Catholic bump?” That will be explored within the internals of larger polls, but it will be worth monitoring closely.
Looking at the convention itself, did it touch on issues that are important to faithful Catholics? It depends on whether the focus is on Trump’s speech alone or the convention in its entirety.
On Wednesday night, voters heard speeches from several speakers—including Ted Cruz, Newt Gingrich and Vice Presidential nominee Mike Pence—that included references to faith, family and life. To be sure, there was little of what journalists traditionally term “red meat” for social conservatives, values voters and those who cherish Life. Still, as was noted in the blog post for Wednesday, the Trump campaign seems to be making the calculus that in the end, the platform and the Pence pick—along with the positions of the Democratic Party in general and Hillary Clinton in particular on life—will be enough not only to keep them in the fold but convince them to turn out to vote. That may ultimately prove true.
As for Trump’s nomination acceptance speech, he said little directly to Catholics, choosing to name only one significant religious group as central to the campaign going forward. “At this moment, I would like to thank the evangelical community who have been so good to me and so supportive.” It was a gesture of genuine gratitude to a group that moved sharply in Trump’s direction after Senator Ted Cruz left the race and Trump secured the nomination.
But it was in reference to this large voting group that Trump spoke directly about religious liberty and freedom of speech. “You have so much to contribute to our politics,” he said, speaking about the evangelicals, “yet our laws prevent you from speaking your minds from your own pulpits. An amendment, pushed by Lyndon Johnson, many years ago, threatens religious institutions with a loss of their tax-exempt status if they openly advocate their political views. I am going to work very hard to repeal that language and protect free speech for all Americans. We can accomplish these great things, and so much else—all we need to do is start believing in ourselves and in our country again.”
While he did not directly address marriage, abortion or gender ideology, he did focus on two areas of great concern to many Catholics. The first is the situation facing workers and the middle class, who have been struggling in a sluggish economy following the 2008 financial collapse. “I have visited the laid-off factory workers, and the communities crushed by our horrible and unfair trade deals. These are the forgotten men and women of our country. People who work hard but no longer have a voice.”
He spoke as well about education, the needs of children and making “life better for young Americans in Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Ferguson—who have as much of a right to live out their dreams as any other child in America.”
The Trump campaign now sets out on the road to election day. On Monday evening the Democrats will complete the process of nominating Hillary Clinton. The contest between the Democrat and the Republican seems to be very tight, and both sides will need every vote they can find among an electorate that has been suspicious of both candidates.
Trump had his chance to close the deal with American voters. We will know shortly if he pulled it off.
Clinton has just as difficult a job ahead next week. See you in Philadelphia.