Earlier this week, there was that mega-meeting Donald Trump had with Christian faith leaders. Among them was Brian Burch of Catholic Vote, who helped invite some people. Knowing Catholic Vote was “Never Trump” in the primaries, I asked him about the meeting and the future. – KJL
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What was your involvement with the Trump meeting with Evangelicals earlier this week?
Brian Burch: I was asked to participate as a member of the steering committee that was consulted on the original idea, and later provided input on the format, guest list, logistics, and strategy for the meeting.
Lopez: How did it get so big?
Burch: The steering committee was asked to reach out to key leaders within their network. As the word spread, interest multiplied exponentially. I also think the timing played into the massive response. Many leaders and groups, including our own, remain uncertain on how to move forward with Trump. The opportunity to get more clarity, without the expectation of an endorsement or support, allowed many different people to attend.
Lopez: Did you worry at any point that it might be a compromise of your values to help organize that meeting with Donald Trump?
Burch: I would be willing to organize a meeting with any political leader on the terms that were agreed upon. There was no expectation of support or endorsement. We were allowed to submit our own questions and speak freely to the media about what we thought of his answers. The Trump campaign knew of our opposition as well as that of others during the primaries. I heard someone compare the meeting to the dating site “It’s Just Lunch.” So no, I was not worried about compromising any of my values. If Hillary Clinton was willing to listen to Christian leaders express their concerns about her statements and policies in a constructive way, I would gladly attend such a meeting. The fact that such a meeting with Hillary is impossible tells you something.
Lopez: What do you think it accomplished?
Burch: I am not sure that 90 minutes of conversation was going to accomplish much given the starting points and where we have been with Trump. This is why expectations were not overplayed. Most of the conversation involved answers and commitments that Trump had previously announced. However, I do think the event was helpful in that it was a reminder that social conservatives, Evangelicals, and Catholics are critical. Without them, the GOP nominee will lose. Because Trump ran a non-traditional campaign, and because other candidates were assumed to be the “social-conservative option,” there has been the misconception that advocates of life, marriage, and religious liberty are now irrelevant. Whether or not these same voters turn out in November remains uncertain. But Republican candidates cannot afford to dismiss us.
Lopez: Photos surfaced of Falwell with a Playboy cover in the background — can this be a good thing, really? What do you say to people who found it unseemly at best?
Burch: We cited Trump’s appearance in Playboy repeatedly during the primaries and continue to find it unseemly. I wasn’t invited to his office and didn’t have my picture taken with the magazine cover framed in the background. I don’t think it was helpful, but I also don’t think it was intentional.
Lopez: What are you looking for from Trump?
Burch: I’m looking for him to mature as a candidate, to make commitments to a set of core issues beginning with judges, and demonstrate he can surround himself with intelligent qualified conservatives that can help make up for his weaknesses.
Lopez: Did you learn anything?
Burch: Yes. That his seriousness on judges appears genuine. That both the Federalist Society and Heritage have helped guide him in thinking about potential judicial nominations. And that he needs more social conservatives on his team to help him better understand the threats to religious liberty.
Lopez: What do you say to people who are thinking of not voting in this election?
Not voting is not an option. For Catholic voters, we have a responsibility to participate in public life, including voting.
Burch: Not voting is not an option. For Catholic voters, we have a responsibility to participate in public life, including voting. If you don’t like Hillary or Trump, make sure you show up and vote in many of the other big races on the ballot, especially if you live in a state with a competitive Senate race. If you have reservations about Trump, welcome to the club. Let’s see how the next several weeks and months play out. I suspect come Election Day, the choice will be clear and not voting will not be an option.
Lopez: Do you daydream about alternatives at this point?
Burch: I’m not sure about daydreaming. But yes, we continue to talk about the scenario of an alternative. But as you know, all the money and planning does not a candidate make. Any alternative strategy requires a candidate that can unite the GOP and defeat Hillary. And the clock is ticking.
Lopez: What is “the Catholic vote” and how could it play this year?
Burch: The Catholic vote is often misunderstood. Writ large, the Catholic vote is indistinguishable from the general electorate. So you have to qualify the category in different ways. The model of the last 16 years of associating mass attendance and voting habits continues to have merit. But we are working with some additional models now that account for the present habits of many Catholics in America. We refer to our target demographic as “Catholic sensibility” voters. These voters find themselves trapped between both political parties. They are people of faith, but don’t always attend church. They find the modern Democratic party repulsive, but also believe the Republican party doesn’t care about them. Many of these voters reside in rust-belt swing states such as Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. The data suggests huge numbers of these voters stayed home in 2012 and therefore could be decisive in 2016 if they come back.
Lopez: What is your primary work going to be this election cycle? Do you think you will ever get to the point of endorsing Trump? What will you focus on if not?
Burch: We are primarily focused on keeping the Senate in pro-life hands. Whether Trump wins or loses, the Senate will be essential. As to endorsing Trump, I don’t see that happening anytime soon, if ever. But that does not mean we can’t work to secure as many commitments as possible and do what we can to influence the race.
Lopez: What might you recommend pastors say or do?
Burch: Pastors should do what pastors do — teach the faith. Inspire Catholics to be saints. And work on becoming one themselves. When it comes to politics, they should make sure their parishioners are registered to vote, know the Faith, and understand what is at stake in this election.