Catholics in a Post-Trump and Post-Truth Era

COMMENTARY: The dictatorship of relativism Pope Benedict XVI warned about is here in full force.

Outgoing President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump exit Air Force One as they arrive at Palm Beach International Airport in West Palm Beach, Florida, on January 20, 2021.
Outgoing President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump exit Air Force One as they arrive at Palm Beach International Airport in West Palm Beach, Florida, on January 20, 2021. (photo: Alex Edelman / AFP/Getty)

With Donald Trump no longer president, Catholics in the post-Trump era face the question of how to best respond to the person and the presidency of Donald J. Trump. For many committed supporters, Trump and his legacy poses no dilemma. They are proud to vehemently defend him. For the Catholic voter who cast a ballot for Trump reluctantly, however, the matter is more complicated. Many fear social reprisals by a punitive cancel culture — by those who show intolerance to those with whom they disagree. I would like to speak here to those Catholics in particular, though my broader observations are aimed at all Catholics concerned about the state of the culture and country and where we go from here.

As for those who cast a vote for Trump reluctantly, perhaps as the lesser of two evils, and fear being attacked for your decision, I say this: you have no public responsibility to explain to anyone why you voted as you did. Your vote is your private affair. You need not divulge it to anyone. In a civic sense, your vote is sacrosanct. If an intolerant colleague in the workplace demands to know how you voted in order to browbeat or hold it against you, let that person know it isn’t his or her business.

And believe me, some are in that position. Last week I received a troubling email from a student who just graduated.

“I am genuinely scared,” he wrote. “I’m scared that they are going to strip us of our civil liberties. They are gonna label anything they don’t agree with or not in line with woke-ism as white nationalist and fascist.” 

He has been a offered a job with a major firm in the Northeast, where he interned this past summer and knows the culture, which includes people on his floor who are outspokenly liberal and political. As a Trump supporter, he kept his politics to himself. He’s fearful they’ll find a photo of him wearing a red MAGA hat and harass him. He’s actually considering declining the job and applying to a monastery, or “buy a house in rural Eastern Montana.”

He’s not the only Catholic who voted for Trump who has told me that he fears retaliation. I told him to be “smart and careful,” which, if you think about it, is pretty sad advice. Must he tread through life as if his vote (one among 74 million for Trump) is some social stigma?

But sadly, such is the culture in the U.S. today. A great many people on the political left, despite their claims of diversity and tolerance, are anything but.

I would encourage such Catholics who voted for Trump not to be scared or defensive. If you do divulge how you voted explain with clarity and charity why you did, with an earnest attempt at acknowledging the good and the bad, especially in a culture and country rapidly losing its moral bearings.

As for the good, on matters of religious liberty, freedom of conscience and pro-life, Donald Trump shocked many of us. If you look at the long list of remarkable Trump administration actions in those areas, you cannot help but be impressed. Those Catholics (and non-Catholics) who assert the contrary either aren’t looking at the data or simply refuse to concede any credit to a man they revile. But sensible Catholics ought to be able to acknowledge the undeniable accomplishments.

Groups like LifeNews, the Susan B. Anthony List and others have documented the huge number of Trump pro-life overtures, from executive initiatives to court picks. Note the list from LifeNews, which stands as a stark contrast to the outrageously long list of anti-life actions by the Obama administration, which would have been seamlessly picked up by a Hillary Clinton administration and will be picked up by the Biden administration. (Likewise for the breathtaking sexual-cultural revolution undertaken by the Obama administration.)

Personally, in 2016 I couldn’t imagine Trump, a one-time liberal and libertine pro-choice New York playboy billionaire, possibly being decent on pro-life issues. I was totally wrong. Whether Donald Trump’s good work in that regard was from the heart and a matter of personal conviction and conversion, or merely a matter of political expedience (his pro-life staff, much of it Catholic and evangelical, did an effective job guiding him), well, go ahead and debate that. The pro-life record, however, is undeniable. 

As for the bad to pin on President Trump, I think that’s more complicated than liberal Catholics and anti-Trumpers would like to acknowledge — which brings me to my broader thoughts about the state of the culture and country today. It relates to not just the post-Trump era but the post-truth era we continue to spiral into.

For every issue brought up as an indictment of Donald Trump and his presidency, from immigration to his alleged failures to address COVID-19 to various accusations of racial and other insensitivities, each side — friend or foe — brandishes its preferred sources and often refuses to look at the other side’s sources. We’re in an awful time where even the sincerest truth-seekers no longer know where to go for information. It’s a state of vast confusion, fomented by woefully biased media. So many of my fellow academics who study this stuff for a living have chosen a side and close their eyes to alternative viewpoints. I check about 20 sources a day, and still at the end of day struggle to know what to trust or believe.

“What is truth?” asked Pilate. I can’t begin to count the number of people who have said to me in exasperation: “I don’t even know what’s true anymore! Where do I go for reliable information? What do you read? What do you watch?” 

So many Catholics feel that way about their country, the culture and their Church. The dictatorship of relativism that Benedict XVI warned about is in full force; it has been a train wreck for the truth.

I ask all: Have you ever seen so many lies? They abound. If ever one needed proof that the Father of Lies exists, just look around you in modern America.

We now seem to have fully entered an era of post-truth. The universal suspicions of omnipresent “fake news” (Pope Francis even used the term) have intensified. We were already there in a subtler, personal way with the dictatorship of relativism, encouraging people to decide subjectively their own truths about life, marriage, gender, meaning, even God. 

But now we’re there blatantly so as no one knows where to go for accurate information even if they are looking for objective truth. There was already a crisis philosophically, spiritually, but now media and Big Tech and education have exacerbated, if not exploded, it.

Where do concerned Catholics go from here? 

In the long road of history, Trump was a bump. The bad times visible in the road ahead in 2015 or 2016 look still worse in 2021. We now have a new president, and he’s a lifelong professing Catholic. When it comes to those crucial non-negotiables for Catholic voters (moral issues like the unborn, marriage, family and religious liberty), Donald Trump’s actions as president were more Catholic than Joe Biden’s will be.

As for orthodox Catholics who were conflicted about Trump, you no longer need be quite so conflicted. He’s out. Acknowledge the good and bad about him and what he did, and now move forward as faithful Catholics supporting the good and opposing the bad in politicians of both parties. 

The next four years will unfortunately offer ample such opportunities with no less than a president whose professed Catholic beliefs are often shelved for political expediency. For Catholics, the next four years will be not about President Donald Trump but President Joe Biden. It will be an era most difficult, less because it’s post-Trump than post-truth.