It was 3am when Donald Trump stood at the podium at the Hilton Hotel in New York to effectively end one of the ugliest and most divisive elections in U.S. history. He announced that Hillary Clinton had called him to concede. He proceeded to thank numerous people: his wife, his children, his parents, his sisters, his brother, his late brother, Reince Priebus, Mike Pence, Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani, Ben Carson and Kellyanne Conway. But as Donald Trump further savors his shocking upset victory, he might want to pause to give thanks to Catholics.
According to CNN exit polling and Pew Research Center data, Catholics voted for Donald Trump 52%-45%. White Catholics went for Trump 60%-37%. As I write, we’re awaiting better data, but another number that usually captures faithful Catholics is this one: Those who attend religious services weekly or more went for Trump 56%-40%.It was 3am when Donald Trump stood at the podium at the Hilton Hotel in New York to effectively end one of the ugliest and most divisive elections in U.S. history.
It’s quite telling that Catholics suddenly surged for Trump only in the final weeks of the campaign, after months of Trump understandably failing to attract them, given his huge flaws, especially his crude and vulgar behavior and impulsive and often reckless temperament. And yet, not only did he ultimately win Catholics, but he won them handily.
Consider: In presidential elections, Catholics frequently mirror the overall popular vote, and thus pick the winner. They did so in 2012, voting for Obama by 50%-48%, precisely Obama’s overall vote percentage. One of my favorite examples of Catholic voting is how Catholics in 2004 went for George W. Bush 52%-47%, which was crucial to Bush’s 51%-48% overall vote percentage; thus, Catholics rejected another Catholic, John Kerry, for a Protestant, George W. Bush, who they believed better represented their values and preferences.
But this year, Catholics were far more committed to the maverick Republican nominee and bucked the overall vote. Clinton won the popular vote, possibly by as many as 600,000 ballots (votes are still being tabulated as I write). She could win it by 48%-47%. So, in 2016, Catholics did not mirror the popular vote. They went strongly for Trump — or, I would argue, they went strongly against Clinton.
My take on the Catholic vote in 2016 is just that — namely, Hillary Clinton lost Catholics more than Donald Trump won them. Or, put differently, Catholics found her less preferable, less appealing than Trump, even as so many Catholics found him unappealing. Many Catholics saw this election as the lesser of two evils, with Hillary Clinton in the end judged the greater evil.
George Weigel, a “Never Trumper,” put it this way: “The good news is that she lost. The bad news is that he won.” Millions of Catholics opted for the former scenario.
Speaking for myself, as someone who was “Never Trump” and “Never Hillary,” I frankly wanted both to lose, but I especially wanted Hillary to lose. He was and remains a big risk, but what she represented was never a guess. We knew her. I believe that thinking speaks for many of us Catholics.
So, why did the majority of Catholics suddenly break for Trump in those final weeks? There were many reasons, with no single simple answer. That said, I believe a few things at the end of the campaign were crucial to Catholics. To wit:
The partial-birth abortion answers by Trump and Clinton during the final presidential debate were significant. The question came from Fox News Channel’s Chris Wallace, who asked Clinton: “You have been quoted as saying that the fetus has no constitutional rights. You also voted against a ban on late-term, partial-birth abortions. Why?”
Clinton’s answer was the canned and awful one that I expected, but broadcast live for all to see: “Because Roe v. Wade very clearly sets out that there can be regulations on abortion so long as the life and the health of the mother are taken into account …”
Trump’s response was unsophisticated and uncomplicated, but spot-on: “Well, I think it’s terrible. If you go with what Hillary is saying, in the ninth month, you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby. Now, you can say that that’s okay, and Hillary can say that that’s okay, but it’s not okay with me.”
In response, Clinton’s eyes narrowed. She denounced Trump’s “scare rhetoric.” It was classic Clinton: “The government has no business in the decisions that women make with their families in accordance with their faith,” she lectured. As she did, pro-life Catholics everywhere recoiled. This was the real Hillary Clinton. Roe v. Wade is the hill she dies on. That moment was crucial.
Likewise, significant in the final days were the WikiLeaks emails, especially those between Clinton campaign manager John Podesta (a liberal Catholic) and Sandy Newman of the left-wing group Voices of Progress, on the need for a liberating “Catholic Spring” akin to the “Arab Spring,” a push to free supposedly suffering Catholics from their alleged rigid, anachronistic, misogynistic, anti-“marriage equality” Church.
“There needs to be a Catholic Spring, in which Catholics themselves demand the end of a Middle Ages dictatorship and the beginning of a little democracy and respect for gender equality in the Catholic Church,” Newman wrote with stunning arrogance. The two discussed how to “plant the seeds of the revolution.”
It was appalling — and unsurprising.
And it wasn’t the only such WikiLeaks email that was highly disturbing. The exchanges between Podesta’s brother Tony and a “magick”/occult “performance artist” named Marina Abramovic, inviting John to a “Spirit Cooking dinner” at the home of the “artist,” were as sickening as they were surreal. It was yet another example of the dark world we Catholics were looking at with this particular breed of “progressives,” as they marched and plotted against our values. Yes, Trump certainly has significant character flaws, but at least he wasn’t engaged in this kind of outright hostility to people of traditional faith and morality. And he reached out to Catholics with an advisory council and through a letter.
And finally, amid all of this, there was for Catholics the make-or-break issue: the critical realization of just how crucial the Supreme Court would be, especially on issues of family, life, marriage and sexuality.
To be sure, I think that Donald Trump is at best indifferent to matters like transgenderism, sexuality and even same-sex “marriage.” I hope he has indeed evolved to being pro-life, as he has said, after once having openly supported even partial-birth abortion in his stridently “pro-choice” days. But indifference is far preferable to a Hillary Clinton who stridently hoists the rainbow flag, fights fanatically for government-funded and mandated abortion, and generally carries the Obama torch of fundamental transformation.
Trump, to the contrary, will not be advancing the radical secular-progressive agenda on these things. Indifference is far better than aggression. With his victory, the human-nature transformers have been halted, at least for a time.
In the end, all of this pushed Catholics to Donald Trump, or, maybe better put, pushed them away from any thought of pulling the lever for Hillary Clinton. Now, I would urge Catholics to pray just as hard for Donald Trump to be a decent president as they prayed for Hillary not to be president. Seriously, pray. Pray hard.
As for Donald Trump, he should look with gratitude to those who helped to elect him in 2016: millions of Catholics.
Paul Kengor is a professor
of political science and
executive director of The Center for Vision
& Values at Grove City College.