Editor's note: Michael Sean Winters is on vacation through March 1. Filling in for him are various writers from Millennial, a journal featuring the writing of millennial Catholics. Winters will be back next week.
Pope Francis' now famous (or infamous, depending upon your political persuasion) comments about Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump not being a Christian has caused both massive uproar among Republicans and high praise from Democrats. His Holiness based his remarks upon Trump's claims that he will build a great and "'YUGE" wall (the wall keeps getting 10 feet higher every time he talks about it) to keep out undocumented Mexican immigrants. Pope Francis argued that "a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel."
Based upon the facts, it would appear that Pope Francis is correct. Donald Trump clearly does not embrace Catholic values when it comes to the rights of migrants, nor does he embrace the type of comprehensive immigration reform package that has earned the backing of many Catholic, Protestant, and evangelical leaders. His desire to ban Muslim immigrants to the United States is also out of step with Christian principles.
Very little that Trump is campaigning on could be said to be in lock-step with Christian values. His unequivocal embrace of an under-regulated market economy; tax policy, which in no way, shape, or form embodies a preferential option for the poor; blaming the victims of the Paris and San Bernardino shootings; support for Planned Parenthood; and advocacy for torture and bombing the s--- out of the Middle East all show that there is an entirely different set of values at the heart of his platform. On top of it all, Donald Trump does not even believe in the freedom of religion, as he has described his willingness to grossly violate religious liberty.
So why the rush to defend Donald Trump by many prominent Catholics and other religious leaders? Why must Republicans rush to the aid of Trump and defend him as a Christian with deeply-held Christian beliefs?
An answer may be found in the theory of voter rationalization. Voter rationalization means, in essence, that voters do not reason their way to a candidate. They do not take new facts and information and use these newly discovered pieces of data to pick candidates or change their own perspectives. Instead, voters already have pre-determined party or candidate loyalties and they fit these pre-determined loyalties into their worldviews. In other words, party loyalty trumps religious values and ideology.
This is not a new phenomenon either. After the Watergate scandal and the resignation of Richard Nixon, one's reaction to his resignation depended heavily upon party affiliation. Democrats were more likely to view the investigation and resignation favorably than Republicans, especially Southern Republicans, who had more negative feelings towards the Congressional investigation and the resignation of President Nixon.
A survey of pro-life Democrats and pro-choice Republicans from the 1970s through the 1990s demonstrated that as the parties become more ideologically pure on the issue of abortion, voters who had been pro-life Democrats became more in favor of abortion as time went on, while pro-choice Republicans became less pro-choice, as well.
While that helps to explain why conservative Christian Republicans support Donald Trump -- because they are first and foremost Republicans -- it does not necessarily explain why supporters continue to insist that Trump is a good Christian.
We could point to polling data that indicates that almost 70 percent of voters, and almost 90 percent of Evangelicals, insist on the necessity for a Presidential candidate to be strongly religious. But why did this not produce a mass exodus from Donald Trump, but instead, an attempt by voters to reinforce his religious identity?
This phenomenon seems to reveal a deeper layer of voter rationalization which may be unique to religious believers. Not only must they go through the typical process described in the above study to rationalize their pre-determined candidate preference, but their identity as believers also requires them go a step further and square that preference with their faith. In other words, the religious voter cannot simply support a candidate because he or she is a member of a certain party but must also justify that support as in keeping with their religious values.
In the past, Christians seem to have relied on the shared religious identity of their chosen candidate as shorthand for justifying that preference without deeper thought. If a candidate is a Christian, there is no need to think any more deeply about whether that person's beliefs are compatible with Christian teachings or values -- how could they not be when the candidate themselves is a Christian? This way of thinking has been brought into crisis by the Pope's statement that Trump is not a Christian.
If they accept that Trump is not a Christian, his supporters must find another way to rationalize supporting him. Christian Trump supporters would be forced to ask themselves whether his positions are truly consistent with their Christian values, and most would find that they are incompatible. This realization would force Christians to either choose their religious values over their preferred candidate or admit to themselves that they value some other criteria more highly than their faith.
Much easier than facing this dilemma, though, is doubling down on the old rationalization and insisting against all evidence that the Trump is a Christian who lives out these values. The pope's statement has presented an opportunity for Christian voters to move beyond easy rationalizations and consider more deeply how their faith should influence their political participation. In the face of this opportunity, many Christians have chosen instead to continue supporting Trump using the only justification they can: Trump must be a Christian.
[Daniel Petri is a graduate fellow at the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies and a PhD candidate in politics at the Catholic University of America. Kasey Petri is a PhD candidate in politics at the Catholic university of America.]