According to last night’s exit polling, president-elect Donald Trump won 52 percent of the Catholic vote, compared to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s 45 percent. The Catholic vote has a history of swinging between the two major parties quite a bit depending on the year, but it has favored Democrats in recent elections; since 2000, the only Republican presidential candidate to win the majority of Catholics was George W. Bush in 2004. Somehow, though, Trump managed to capture a larger percentage of Catholic voters than did Clinton, despite the fact that he seems less aligned with typical “Catholic values” than a candidate such as Mitt Romney, who lost Catholics to Obama by a slim margin.
Some of this swing might be accounted for by Clinton’s striking unpopularity compared with the high approval ratings Obama maintained throughout his campaigns and presidency. And though Trump has expressed vocal support for the pro-life movement and religious liberty, his track record on these topics is less clear. Given his history of supporting liberal Democrats and espousing progressive perspectives on everything from the economy to social issues, it is certainly not a given that he will act in favor of traditional Catholic objectives, at least on abortion, religious freedom, and marriage. Trump’s winning over of American Catholics in this election likely has less to do with Trump himself than it has to do with the poor treatment Catholics have received at the hands of the Obama administration and progressive elites. While many American Catholics have shown willingness in the past to support Democratic candidates regardless of their positions on social issues, perhaps the Obama administration and its progressive allies have taken things a bit too far.
For example, on the very same day that Obama was inaugurated into his second term as president, his Health and Human Services department announced a mandate to be tacked onto Obamacare, requiring all employers to provide employees with contraceptive coverage, regardless of religious beliefs. His administration went on to enforce this mandate stringently against all groups, including the Little Sisters of the Poor, Catholic hospitals, Catholic schools, and evangelical business owners such as those who run Hobby Lobby. Throughout this process, the Obama administration showed little to no interest in compromise, developing a half-hearted method of “exempting” narrow classes of religious groups from the mandate, but even this exemption still forced countless religious people and groups to be involved in acts they believed to be immoral and unconscionable.
Furthermore, this year’s Democratic party platform enshrined a plank vowing to dissolve the Hyde Amendment, which has been tacked onto spending bills since the 1970s in order to prevent taxpayer money from funding abortion. Some Catholics might be willing to turn a blind eye to a candidate’s support for the “right to choose”; less are willing to accept a government-led initiative to force them to pay for women’s exercise of that right. Catholics might feel similarly off-put by Clinton’s unilateral defense of partial-birth abortion, as well, and her deceptive tactics in doing so. It is worth noting that Clinton’s addition of Virginia senator Tim Kaine — a self-identified Roman Catholic — to her ticket did nothing to pull her over the threshold with Catholic voters. This is a testament either to the general lack of voter enthusiasm for vice-presidential candidates or to Catholic voters’ lack of identification with Kaine, who holds some positions that contradict central tenets of Church teaching.
While this year’s Catholic-vote swing back to the Republican party is likely not attributable to Trump’s qualities or policy ideas, it does indicate an openness to working with him. Pro-life and pro-family groups, for one, jumped behind Trump after he won the Republican nomination, certain that it would be easier to cooperate with than with a President Clinton; that was probably an accurate assessment. The next couple of years will show whether or not Catholics were right to foster any hope about Trump, and if he hopes to run for re-election in 2020, he would do well to play ball.