I did not attend Tuesday's so-called "National Catholic Prayer Breakfast" and would not have attended even if I had been invited. You see, that "national" event is not really "national" so much as it is partisan. It used to be said that the Church of England was the Tory Party at prayer, although the history is a bit more complicated. The National Catholic Prayer Breakfast is the Republican Party at prayer, or at least that part of it which is not evangelical.
The main speaker June 6 was the vice president of the United States. He spoke powerfully about the faith in which he was raised, how it shaped his entire family and himself, about the denominational schools he attended, about the values he still draws from that faith. Yes, Vice President Mike Pence was once a Catholic but is no more. There was a time in the not-so-distant past when that fact would have made it impossible for Pence to speak at such an event. Formerly, we could call such a person an apostate. But it is a mark of progress in our understanding of democracy that a man's creed is no longer held against him, or for him, and that it is his public policies that matter. There is an exception to this rule that I shall consider presently.
The vice president is not the only person in the administration who has had a conversion. President Donald J. Trump was once pro-choice when it came to abortion, and he is now pro-life when it comes to abortion. When it comes to military spending and arms deals, when it comes to providing health care and nutritional assistance to poor folk, his pro-life credentials are suspect. And climate change, which could kill us all, is an issue on which the president's concern to fulfill a foolish campaign pledge and scratch the itch of a conspiracy theory overwhelmed his concern for the life of the planet. His indifference to the effects of his policies on families of immigrants and his bragging about "the mother of all bombs" stand against any conclusion that he is comprehensively pro-life.
In his speech at the breakfast, the vice president vouched for Trump's pro-life credentials:
And finally, let me say from my heart, it's the greatest privilege of my life to serve as vice president for President Donald Trump, but I couldn't be more proud to serve as vice president to a president who stands without apology for the sanctity of human life. (Applause.) Since day one of this administration, President Donald Trump has been keeping his promise to stand for life and life is winning in America again.
And the man who introduced Pence yesterday, The Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus and former Republican Party operative Carl Anderson, wrote in his column in the May issue of Columbia magazine:
Consider this: The House majority leader and the speaker of the House are strongly pro-life. So are the Senate majority leader and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Both the president and the vice president as well as 17 members of their cabinet are pro-life….Today, we have in America a new pro-life moment.
This is not only narrow and wrong, for the reasons I cited above. It is so wrong as to be offensive, even insulting. I consider abortion an infamy and care about the unborn as much as Mr. Pence and Mr. Anderson, but I care that the unborn will have a planet to live on, too.
I mentioned that I do not believe we should evaluate a political leaders based on their faith or, for that matter, other private matters. (NB: I understand that our faith is not properly considered private, but that is a discussion for another day.) The fact that Franklin Roosevelt loved Lucy Mercer made him a bad husband but not a bad president. Conversely, when someone defends a politician who is doing real harm to the country because he or she "is a nice person," I like to reply that Eva Braun was nice to the cats.
But there are some exceptions to this rule, and one of them is at work here in a way that shows the partisan bias of so many so-called pro-life leaders. One of the achievements of the pro-life movement in recent years has been the degree to which we have shed the perception that our opposition to abortion indicates a disregard for women. Women of my mother's generation would routinely say that men had nothing to say about the topic, and they resented the optics of a bunch of all-male, all-celibate clerics lecturing them on the subject. But if you listened to Cardinal Sean O'Malley's and Cardinal Timothy Dolan's sermons at the vigil Mass the night before the March for Life in the past few years, you would see how they made concern for women a central focus of their attention and encouraged the pro-life movement to do so as well. The pro-life movement will never succeed if there is even a whiff of misogyny about it.
I would submit, therefore, that this moment is not a "pro-life moment" as Pence and Anderson assert. It is, in fact, a moment of extreme peril for the pro-life movement. The concern is not only that everything Trump touches may be seen in a worse light for being associated with this man whose administration is going down in flames. It is that this man bragged, in the most vulgar terms, about his ability to seduce married women and displayed his misogyny in many different ways. He said he thought women who procure abortions should go to jail. If Mr. Trump is presented as a pro-life champion, the pro-life movement is about to be set back years, and we will have people like Pence and Anderson to blame for it.
The frequent applause that interrupted Pence's speech was something of a surprise to me. Do these people not watch the news? Do they not see that Mr. Trump is having a hard time finding staff for the White House, that he is having a hard time procuring the services of a top-tier law firm, all because it is clear as day that his administration is imploding? How do they think their applause will be seen in the rear view mirror? It is not the Democratic Party that will lose because of Trump's presidency, it is the Republican Party, including the Republican Party at prayer on Tuesday. And it couldn't happen to a nicer bunch of people.
[Michael Sean Winters covers the nexus of religion and politics for NCR.]