Washington — Bishops across the country are encouraging parishioners to put aside their differences and work for the common good as President-elect Donald J. Trump prepared for his Jan. 20 inauguration.
The postelection messages that have emerged serve as both spiritual guide and practical response in an effort to overcome polarization and divisiveness that prevents the country from unifying.
The election saw Trump, the Republican candidate, win the Electoral College count, 306-232, even though he was out-polled by Democrat Hillary Clinton by more than 2.6 million in the popular vote. Several bishops lamented the negative tone of the nearly two-year-long campaign.
"Faced with two unpopular candidates, voters in record numbers decided to hold their noses and vote for the candidate they saw as the least worst option," opined Miami Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski in a column posted online Nov. 10.
"Both Clinton and Trump were flawed candidates — neither succeeded in winning approval from more than half the country. But Trump's negatives perhaps were seen as evidence that he was a 'sinner,' whereas Clinton's negatives hinted at real corruption," Wenski wrote.
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The archbishop's assessment seemed spot on, at least among Catholic voters, who overall preferred Trump 52 percent to 48 percent margin, according to a preliminary analysis by the Pew Research Center. Among white Catholics, Trump's margin stood at 60 percent to 37 percent while Hispanic voters preferred Clinton, 67 percent to 26 percent.
Despite Trumps threats on immigration, Catholic Hispanic support for the billionaire was stronger than for Republican Mitt Romney in 2012. Pew found that 26 percent of Catholic Hispanics supported Trump while 21 percent voted for Romney.
Leading to the election, Catholics, like the rest of the country, expressed concern about numerous issues that included immigration, abortion, access to health care, economic inequality, jobs, racial conflict and Supreme Court nominees as they studied the stances of the presidential candidates.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops offered "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship," its quadrennial statement on political responsibility. The document, revised by the bishops in at their fall meeting in November 2015, garnered discussion in some parishes, but previous surveys by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University found that fewer than 20 percent of Catholics recalled reading the document and about 5 percent considered it a major influence in their political choices.
One effort, the fifth Nuns on the Bus tour organized by Network, the Catholic social justice lobby, evolved over 19 days in July as a group of women religious traveled from Wisconsin to the national political conventions in Cleveland (Republican) and Philadelphia (Democratic) to discover what people in local communities were thinking about the country's major challenges in the run-up to the Nov. 8 election.
In Cleveland, sister of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Agnes in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin Julie Ann Krahl, told Catholic News Service that she learned that most people want to see the country unite to better respond to people's concerns. The goal of the conversations, she said, was to find the common ground that crossed political lines.
The effort continues, said Sister of Social Service and Network’s executive director Simone Campbell. "One of the biggest challenges is to not interpret what they say with the code words of the left and right but just continue to tell the story and let the story speak for itself," she explained to CNS Dec. 6.
In the end with a new resident in the White House, the USCCB and several individual bishops echoed the call for unity voiced by Trump and Clinton in the hours after the election and pledged to continue to assist immigrants and refugees who make their way to the U.S. no matter their immigration status.
Wenski, in his column, credited both candidates for setting a "hopeful tone."
"Let's hope that tone of civility endures," he wrote. "Because we won't make America great by making America mean."
The USCCB at its fall general assembly in Baltimore a week after the election urged calm and caution and repeated the need for unity following an election season fueled by vitriol, name-calling and fear mongering.
Bishop Christopher J. Coyne of Burlington, Vermont, said that the bishops as a group continued to assess how to move forward. The election, he said during a news conference Nov. 14, is "so beyond the pale of what we've faced before."
"We knew the lay of the land when we approached a Democratic presidency or a Republican presidency, you'd go into Congress and approach them in (certain) ways," he said. "This election has thrown all that out the window."
The core message of individual bishops addressing election results was to urge the incoming administration and Congress to work for the common good. Their statements included the importance of the country not abandoning the needs of poor, vulnerable and marginalized people and to fight racism in all its forms.
The conference as a whole and several individual bishops said they were especially prepared to defend immigrants in the country without documentation should Trump's announced intention to deport "millions" of people be carried out.
A letter read during the fall general assembly by Auxiliary Bishop Eusebio L. Elizondo of Seattle, immediate past chairman of the bishops' Committee on Migration, called on Trump "to continue to protect the inherent dignity of refugees and migrants."
The bishops affirmed the letter and its message of encouraging efforts "to work together to promote the common good, especially those to protect the most vulnerable among use."
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia, writing in a column on CatholicPhilly.com in mid-November, said Trump's "bluster on the campaign trail further divided a fractured nation and frightened millions of immigrants and members of ethnic and racial minorities."
While media hostile to Trump's message has served to worsen the problem, Chaput wrote, only the president-elect can "fix" the fear he has caused "with responsible language and behavior, and a willingness to listen to those who feel threatened by his victory."
The archbishop also deplored hate crimes, racist incidents and anti-immigrant prejudice that arose during the campaign and has continued since. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate crimes and tracks the actions of white nationalist, black-separatist and anti-gay and lesbian groups, reported Nov. 29 that 867 hate incidents occurred nationwide in the first 10 days following the election.
Chaput said American Catholics themselves can decide how best to respond in the wake of an acrimonious election season.
"As Catholics, we now get to choose whether we're Christians first and consistently, or just the latest version of political animals in religious clothing," he wrote. "We need to help the president-elect do what's right, support him when he does and resist him — respectfully but firmly — when he doesn't."