Donald Trump owes his gratitude to many people for his victory last November, not least of whom is Hillary Clinton, who bailed out his foible-ridden campaign with her own abysmal performance in the general election. Chief among the other groups to whom Trump should be thankful, though, are the millions of religious voters who played a crucial role in securing his win.
While Trump had already won the support of most Evangelicals as early as the GOP primary, Catholics were much less certain about him. A number of prominent Catholic intellectuals penned a March letter stating their opposition to Trump and urging Catholics to support any other GOP primary candidate. Polls revealed that most Catholics shared that aversion, and as the general election approached, Trump’s numbers among Catholics appeared to be a lost cause. In late August 2016, one poll showed Trump trailing Clinton among Catholic voters by an astonishing 23 points.
In response, the Trump campaign made a concerted effort to court Catholics, particularly conservative ones, by assuring them that the Republican candidate had their interests at heart. Trump wrote an open letter to American Catholics, pledging to oppose abortion, protect religious liberty (bolstered by a promise to protect groups such as the Little Sisters of the Poor from the Health and Human Services contraception mandate), and appoint a Supreme Court justice with a judicial philosophy similar to that of Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia.
In mid September, the Trump campaign formed an official pro-life coalition and published a list of explicit promises to pro-life Americans, saying that Trump would nominate pro-life Supreme Court justices, sign the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act to end late-term abortion, defund Planned Parenthood, and make the Hyde Amendment permanent to prevent federal funding of abortion. While it was unclear whether some of these items would fall within Trump’s executive powers, his campaign clearly intended to convince pro-life Americans, including many Catholics, that he would govern as an actively pro-life president.
Those efforts worked. In his shocking November triumph, Trump secured 52 percent of the Catholic vote, good enough to beat out Clinton’s mere 45 percent. This was a particularly surprising outcome, as a Republican presidential candidate had won the majority of Catholics only once since 2000: George W. Bush in 2004. Given the close margin of the final results, it’s likely that Catholic support was key in Trump’s victory.
According to Vice President Mike Pence in his speech on Tuesday at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, the Trump administration has shown that “American Catholics have an ally” in the president. But does Trump’s record thus far hold up when compared to the promises he made to Catholics in a play for their votes?
Trump’s biggest accomplishment on this score has been the appointment to the Supreme Court of Justice Neil Gorsuch, who by all accounts is a constitutional originalist dedicated to applying the text of the Constitution as the Founders intended. His jurisprudence has yet to be tested on the highest court, but as a federal judge he had a stellar record on religious-liberty issues.
On some key Catholic issues, though, there’s little Trump can do independently to advance the promises he made, and his approach to religious liberty in particular leaves much to be desired.
Trump has also reinstated and expanded the Mexico City policy, which prevents groups that provide or promote abortion overseas from receiving U.S. aid money. The administration’s new expansion has applied the policy to all spending by U.S. agencies on foreign health, meaning that now nearly $9 billion in federal aid is subject to the pro-life requirement.
On other key Catholic issues, though, there’s little Trump can do independently to advance the promises he made, and his approach to religious liberty in particular leaves much to be desired. He did issue an executive order on the topic, but it was largely empty rhetoric and, in part, it gave the executive branch far too much authority to punish religious Americans should it wish to do so. While that order did suggest that executive agencies should respect religious freedom, Trump has yet to request that his HHS secretary dismantle the department’s contraception mandate, for example. (A leaked draft of a possible executive order suggests that Trump is considering issuing such a request.)
His budget proposal would fully defund Planned Parenthood, as he promised to do. But the president can’t enact a budget on his own, nor can he conjure up a Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act or unilaterally transform the Hyde Amendment into “permanent law.” These efforts require congressional action, and judging from the president’s failed attempts to push the GOP health-care reform bill through the House, his deal-making skills aren’t nearly as good as they need to be to get issues as contentious as abortion restrictions through both gridlocked chambers of Congress.
To be sure, Trump has been a much more Catholic-friendly president than his Democratic opponent would have been, regardless of whether he has pushed for every policy he promised to support. But he could still act more decisively, even within the scope of presidential powers, especially to ensure that executive departments ease up on harsh rules, including the contraception mandate, and to demand an end to unequal enforcement of the federal FACE Act, under which pro-life demonstrators are punished but access to houses of worship is not protected.
Catholics who voted for Trump have no reason to feel serious regret at this point, at least in the realm of life issues and religious liberty. But it’s still too soon to rest easy, and Catholics wary of the president’s tendency to switch sides should continue reminding him of his promises to those who helped put him where he sits today.