Catholics Grapple With a Trump Candidacy
Some pro-lifers believe the presumptive Republican nominee is clearly preferable to a Hillary Clinton candidacy, but other prominent Catholics remain unconvinced about supporting him.
WASHINGTON — Republicans and Catholic voters who take moral and pro-life principles into account are coming to terms with the fact that Donald Trump appears to be the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, now that U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Ohio Gov. John Kasich have ended their campaigns.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican who is also a pro-life Catholic, told CNN on May 5 that he was “not ready” to endorse Trump for president, despite his previous statements that he would support his party’s presidential nominee.
“I think conservatives want to know: Does he share our values and our principles on limited government, the proper role of the executive, adherence to the Constitution?” Ryan said. “There’s a lot of questions that conservatives, I think, are going to want answers to.”
Some of those answers could be forthcoming, at least privately, at the meeting between the two men scheduled to take place in Washington on Thursday.
Princeton University law professor Robert George, who co-wrote an appeal with George Weigel in the National Review urging Catholic voters to reject Trump, has already expressed his displeasure with Trump’s presumptive nomination. Shortly after Cruz dropped out of the race on May 3, George tweeted, “God help us.” George has subsequently criticized Trump and Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, tweeting that they are “both products of the culture of narcissism, which is the me-generation's true and lasting legacy.”
Pro-Life Perspectives: The Better Alternative?
While Catholic commentators such as George remain skeptical of Trump’s commitment to conservative principles and the pro-life cause, other observers believe he is a better alternative than Clinton, who is unambiguously pro-abortion and a staunch supporter of Planned Parenthood and same-sex “marriage.”
“Trump is absolutely, without a doubt, a better choice than Hillary Clinton. The difference between them is night and day,” said Father Frank Pavone, the national director of Priests for Life.
Father Pavone told the Register that Trump, while not a perfect candidate, has expressed opposition to abortion and said he would appoint pro-life justices like the late Antonin Scalia to the U.S. Supreme Court. Father Pavone said he has also met with Trump and his aides, coming away confident that Trump would sign pro-life legislation such as the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.
“He, like so many other people, has evolved on the issue,” Father Pavone said. “Of course, we deal with that every day. We have pro-life advocates today who used to be abortionists. We all know conversion is the name of the game. We shouldn’t deny that to politicians. Even though the change may be politically expedient, it doesn’t mean it’s insincere.”
Trump pleased many pro-life leaders by hiring John Mashburn, a longtime conservative congressional aide, to be his policy director. Mashburn is pro-life and has worked for several pro-life lawmakers on Capitol Hill, including the late Sen. Jesse Helms and former Senate Republican Majority Leader Trent Lott. Several pro-life officials saw Mashburn’s hiring as a hopeful sign.
Judicial Appointments Cited
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, told the Register that Trump has already made commitments to the pro-life cause, such as vowing to defund Planned Parenthood, appointing strict constitutionalist judges to the Supreme Court, as well as supporting and advancing the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.
“While we have not endorsed him, in a choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, we believe Mr. Trump is the better choice,” Dannenfelser said. “The balance of the Supreme Court is in jeopardy. We know exactly the kind of judges Hillary Clinton will nominate and who she has made her promises to in this election.”
If elected president, Dannenfelser said pro-life leaders would expect and fight for Trump’s fidelity to the specific pro-life commitments he has made on the campaign trail.
“In the coming months, it will be important to monitor who he selects as his vice-presidential nominee and who he thinks his top executive appointments will be,” she said. “All these factors will indicate to Catholic and pro-life voters where he stands.”
Austin Ruse, president of the Center for Family & Human Rights, an organization that monitors and seeks to affect the social-policy debate at the United Nations and other international institutions, told the Register that he believes pro-life and pro-life family advocates would have a “seat at the table” in a Trump administration.
“The Federalist Society is already advising Trump on federal judges and potential Supreme Court justices,” Ruse said. “Hillary Clinton wouldn’t meet with the Federalist Society until hell freezes over.”
That position is echoed by Amherst College professor Hadley Arkes, who wrote in The Catholic Thing that even a liberal candidate who was “winsome and squeaky clean” would still lead an administration that would be unrelenting “in its war to make Catholic institutions fund abortions and contraceptives and recede from any moral objection to same-sex marriage.”
While admitting that Trump is “a wild card,” Arkes argued that he is likely to sign pro-life measures and added that Trump “is seeking advice now from the right people to appoint a plausible successor to Justice Scalia.”
Trump’s no-holds-barred style of campaigning, complete with personal attacks on his opponents, and controversial statements that many see as being in open contradiction with Catholic teachings and Christian charity — such as his call for a total ban on Muslim immigration, his apparent support for torture and his declaration that Mexico sends criminals, rapists and people with “lots of problems” north of the border — have endeared him to his base while alienating GOP leaders, Hispanics and moderate voters.
Catholic voters should still think long and hard before casting their votes for Trump, said Joshua Mercer, the co-founder and political director of CatholicVote.org, which earlier this year urged voters to reject Trump.
“There are still so many concerns about Donald Trump,” Mercer said. “Not only is this a man who has owned strip clubs and casinos, but he also bragged in his book about having affairs with married women.”
Contrary to what Trump supporters may say, Mercer said, Trump has never expressed regret for his past misdeeds and noted that Trump has said that he does not ask God for forgiveness. Trump, on the campaign trail, has also shown an aversion to apologizing and never admitting when he makes a mistake.
“He strikes me as a person so out of touch, so egotistical, and that’s a big concern,” Mercer said. “I think, with Donald Trump, Catholic voters should definitely not jump so quickly on his bandwagon. They really need to think long and hard about what Donald Trump really means for this country and continue to express these kinds of concerns.”
Doubts About Character and Conservatism
Like Mercer, Stephen Krason, a professor of political science and legal studies and director of the political-science program at Franciscan University of Steubenville, urges continuing caution with Trump, arguing that he has serious character problems.
Krason also doubts whether Trump is a true conservative, noting that Trump has said Planned Parenthood does many good things, besides abortion, and that Trump has said he thinks the Republican Party’s platform on the right to life should be softened to include exceptions for rape and incest.
“I think Donald Trump is more leftist than he is conservative,” Krason said. “Maybe he’ll say some of the right things to get support on some of these issues, but I don’t see this man having a well-developed political philosophy.”
Krason also doubts that Trump has strong pro-life convictions and worries about an “amoral politics” developing, adding, “That’s one of the most troubling things you can think about politics.”
Vincent Munoz, a political-science professor at the University of Notre Dame, told the Register that Trump’s becoming the Republican Party’s standard-bearer says that “GOP leaders — at least those that champion traditional GOP positions and principles such as limited government, respect for the natural right of life, including the rights of the unborn, the necessity of moral character in public office, free trade based on respect for the individual’s right to acquire and use his property — have failed to persuade GOP voters of the wisdom of these principles and positions.”
Munoz said that the apparent choice between Trump and Clinton “means that the pro-life vote does not have a candidate for president in 2016.”
Tapping Working-Class Anger
Trump’s supporters seem to appreciate a candidate who is not an airbrushed politician who delivers carefully crafted statements tested in focus groups.
“There has been a quite [a] dissatisfaction out there in the country, with the politics as usual that the Republican Party has been offering up,” Ruse said. “I just think that Trump speaks to this kind of revolutionary fervor that middle-class folks are feeling.”
Trump has tapped into working-class anger over the economy, especially with trade deals with Mexico, China and other countries that critics say resulted in thousands of manufacturing jobs being outsourced overseas. Trump’s immigration rhetoric has also struck a chord, especially with many in the electorate frustrated with a dysfunctional immigration system that they believe helps drive down wages.
“The Republican Party insider types have themselves to blame for the emergence of Donald Trump,” said Krason.
Krason said that the GOP’s leadership was more concerned with maintaining positions in the party and keeping relationships with lobbyists and interest groups than addressing the issues that Trump exploited for his political gain.
“People were dissatisfied with that, and that’s why I think you saw candidates who were identified with the mainstream elected officials in the party, with the so-called party establishment, [that] they didn’t do very well,” Krason said. “Kasich hung on the longest, but he didn’t win very much.”
Francis Rooney, who served as U.S. ambassador to the Holy See during President George W. Bush’s administration, underscored Trump’s appeal to working people, writing in Crux last week that Trump “has connected viscerally with people who feel marginalized, left out and put at risk by technological change and the globalization of commerce, which has been stimulated by numerous trade arrangements in recent decades.”
Rooney wrote, “In this sense, Catholic thought is in sync with what Trump has brought forward. Perhaps less nuanced than some would like, he has tangibly and succinctly brought forth the urgent need to bring more good jobs back to America and to get wages rising again.”
But despite Trump’s inarguable populist appeal, grave doubts persist about his candidacy, even among some pro-life leaders, despite the unswerving pro-choice loyalties of Trump’s likely Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.
Noting Trump's controversial actions on the campaign trail and his statements that Planned Parenthood does many good things and that women should be punished for having abortions, Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, is skeptical about Trump's pro-life credentials.
“I think it's going to be a tough sell to say to pro-lifers that they should hold their noses and vote for Donald Trump,” said Hawkins, who believes many pro-life activists, especially Millennials, would vote for a viable third-party candidate.
As for Trump's campaign pro-life campaign promises, Hawkins added, “I'm all about holding him to his promises.”
Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.
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