Should the bishops denounce Trump?

by Michael Sean Winters

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Mark Silk, Director of the Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life, recently posted an item at his RNS blog "Spiritual Politics" in which he asked why the U.S. bishops were so quiet about the presidential election. He noted that Archbishop Charles Chaput had recently posted a column on the subject but that, compared to our evangelical friends, the Catholic bishops have not spoken up and he encouraged them to do so.

Privately, I suspect most bishops, like most Americans, are not thrilled with their options this year. Some of those who lean more heavily towards the Republicans will say privately that they will hold their nose and vote for Donald Trump, while others, including some who probably have not voted for a Democrat in many, many elections, say they will hold their nose and vote for Hillary Clinton.

Interestingly, in addition to the issues, the candidacy of Donald Trump is forcing the bishops to recognize something that many of us have been saying for some time: It is not enough to consider "the issues" in choosing a presidential candidate, still less to only consider one issue, abortion. We vote on a person, not a policy, and we should consider the qualities of the person, their temperament, their experience, their capacity for compromise, when deciding how to vote too. Trump, because of his sheer vulgarity, is making some bishops realize how right we have been all along that it is not enough to know what a candidate says about abortion. They can't conceive of this man in the White House. In this regard, many bishops are like many moderate, suburban, educated Republicans who just can't stomach the thought of Trump in the Oval Office.  

I do not object when someone claims that abortion is the most important issue facing our country. I am frustrated that so many on the left minimize its importance, make excuses for pro-choice politicians, or wish it would go away. But, I am also frustrated when people on the right fail to see that being pro-life on abortion cannot be an excuse for being anti-immigrant. It is not that one issue is more important than the other, nor that one issue is more likely to meet with some positive change in the current political environment. My concern is to state that they are, at root, the same issue: Either we value human life and dignity, and seek to advance human life and dignity in all our decisions and across the full range of public policy issues, or we are inconsistent. It would behoove bishops to always look for the deepest, most foundational layer of an issue, in part because it allows them to avoid partisanship. For bishops, especially, it seems obvious that their best stance would be to show how our core values inform a range of issues, and invite all of us to recognize the ways we fall short of the Kingdom of God to which we are called. As a practical matter, no one should get "a pass" because they are pro-life or pro-immigration reform, if they are wrong on other issues and bishops should avoid framing the issues in such a way that they are clearly, if not explicitly, indicating a preference for one candidate or another.

The issues of immigration and life are linked in another way also: historically. Nothing is more insidious to the pro-life vision than eugenics, and eugenics has always been linked to debates about immigration. Not for nothing did the Johnson-Reed Act, limiting immigration from non Anglo-Saxon countries, secure passage in 1924, three years before the Supreme Court ruling in Buck v. Bell, which declared it constitutional to sterilize mentally handicapped people because, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote, "three generations of imbeciles are enough." The Roaring '20s also saw the spread of Planned Parenthood and no one should be surprised that the organization's founder, Margaret Sanger, spoke at Klan rallies: When you read the early editions of the "Birth Control Review" it is clear that concern for women's opportunities was not the sole, or even primary, concern: Eugenics was just as much a driving force. Indeed, concern to keep the Anglo-Saxon stock pure has stalked American history, not only in our ugly history with slavery and with Native Americans, but with our approach to immigration too. If prelates and Catholic commentators who fixate on abortion were more familiar with this history, perhaps they would see the linkage.

Nor is this linkage as distant as the 1920s. Donald Trump's very first campaign ad focused on immigration and the citation for the second factual claim was the Center for Immigration Studies. This innocuous sounding organization is actually one of the principal fonts of the far right's fact-free universe, as this article at Daily Beast explains. And, this report by the Anti-Defamation League exposes the eugenicist views of the group's founder. One of the first places to publish the Center's false claims every time they are made is Breitbart, the head of which, Steve Bannon, is now running Trump's campaign. This is not ancient history and it is not a conspiracy theory: It is a conspiracy fact.

Unfortunately, the time has passed when the bishops can speak out forcefully on immigration without appearing as partisan as those who speak out only about abortion. If they speak out, they must speak out about both issues at the same time and in the same way or, they can follow the example of Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe, New Mexico, whose pastoral letter is almost pitch perfect. (The "almost" is because he recommends reading the latest iteration of "Faithful Citizenship," but we are not in Lent, and the lay faithful should not be encouraged to read that now unwieldy document except as a Lenten penance.) The archbishop focuses almost exclusively on conscience formation. Cardinal Sean O'Malley also hit the right note when he was asked about Trump in an interview: he declined to name the candidate, but addressed the issue of divisive rhetoric and discussed the immigration issue in the same way he has been addressing it for forty years, focusing on the vulnerability of immigrants and the need for humane solutions. 

The fact that absolutizing abortion distorts the complex moral analysis of voting, minimizes other important, even related, issues, and embroils prelates in partisanship, taken together, constitute only the first of two objections to those bishops who speak out against candidates by name or by clear implication, as happened with President Obama, and before that with then Sen. John Kerry, and before that, with Rep. Geraldine Ferraro and Gov. Mario Cuomo. The other objection is that doing so usurps the role and judgment of the laity. It is the laity, not the bishops, who possess the right to determine, in conscience, which candidate best pursues the common good. If less reactionary bishops were to suddenly denounce Trump, or even to repeat the sample wording offered by Professor Silk, they might get some applause from liberal political circles, but they would still have crossed a line that should not be crossed. Bishops should form, not replace, the consciences laity as someone famously said.

Here, too, is where the role of the bishops' conference is so important. If the USCCB were consistently addressing issues in a thoughtful, balanced way, then when a bishop in, say, Providence, Rhode Island or Peoria, Illinois goes off the reservation, the conference leadership could explain, with authority, that the bishops as a whole do not subscribe to the comments from those bishops. The conference could, politely, minimize the damage done. Sadly, the leadership of the conference has been all too keen to flame the anti-Obama flames for eight years, and there is little hope things will change with Hillary Clinton. I shudder to think of the price the church will pay with Latinos for our failure to speak out more forcefully on their behalf this past year when they have been insulted and threatened with deportation!

I have never subscribed to the position articulated by John F. Kennedy at the Houston Ministerial Association in 1960 when he was running for president, a position that took separationism from the realm of a constitutional norm to a cultural extreme. On the other hand, we all have seen the futility (and worse) of conflating religion and politics as too many conservative Christians have been content to do with the Moral Majority, First Things, etc. Between those two extremes resides the proper balance: Bishops should speak to core values that transcend politics, strive to avoid partisanship, not isolate any one issue, even a very grave one, and recognize the freedom of the laity to make their own judgments on what are substantially secular and prudential judgments. Those judgments may be right or they may be wrong, and yes, I believe it would be very wrong for anyone to vote for Donald Trump! But democracy, unlike the church, presumes a right to be wrong. The alternative, a politicized church, is worse.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.] 

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