During an interview last night on the Catholic Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), Donald Trump said, “Why would an evangelical or a Catholic—almost you could say anybody of faith, but in particular evangelicals and Catholics—how could they vote for Hillary Clinton?”
Trump was also featured on Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) the same night, saying if evangelicals turn out to vote, “we’re gonna win the election.” [Both videos appear at the end of this article.]
The truth is, evangelicals and Catholics no longer make up the religious voting bloc Republicans relied on for decades—and it’s Catholics who are stepping away for Clinton. While many evangelicals have given Trump their reluctant blessing, more of their brothers and sisters across the Tiber are increasingly split between the Republican and Democratic presidential tickets.
Most evangelicals of color have backed Clinton, and American Catholics’ soaring ethnic diversity—more than their Protestant counterparts and more than in years past—is partly responsible for their veering voting patterns.
More than a quarter of American Catholics are first-generation immigrants, and 42 percent are people of color, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center. These demographics impact church politics as a whole; even white Catholics are up to twice as likely to support Clinton as white evangelicals.
“Trump is also seeing erosion among white Catholics in comparison with previous GOP candidates,” said Stephen F. Schneck, director for the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at Catholic University. “That reflects rising education levels among white Catholics, and also reflects a reaction to the negative tone of Trump's remarks about immigration, race, and so on. Many of those criticized by Trump are whites’ fellow parishioners in the pews.”
Clinton secured support from 46 percent of white Catholics compared to 19 percent of white evangelicals in a Pew survey over the summer. More recent polls from Gallup and Public Religion Research Institute continue to show white Catholics as less likely than white evangelicals to support Trump and more likely to support Clinton by margins of 10 to 20 percentage points.
Party loyalty remains a major pull for white evangelicals. They were more likely than voters from any other religious group, including Catholics, to say they support Trump because he is the Republican nominee.
Historically, Protestants and Catholics identified with different parties up until the 1970s, when the Democratic stance on social issues and Roe v. Wade pushed Catholics over to the Republican side. Republican candidates kept that support up through the Obama elections, writes Mark Rozell at The Washington Post. But while white evangelical Protestants have remained in Trump’s corner, white Catholics are deserting him for Clinton—one of the largest shifts from prior elections.
“I do think that the pattern we're seeing spells trouble for the long-term broader political alliance of Catholics and evangelicals,” said Schneck. “Any rebuilding of the alliance will depend on evangelical commitment to things like immigration reform.”
The political unity between the Christian traditions worked out due to overlapping convictions on core issues such as religious liberty and abortion. Catholic voters, though, were beginning to adopt more liberal positions on immigration and other social issues before Trump came along. But his candidacy—deemed “manifestly unfit” by one group of Catholic thinkers—has made the shift more stark.
“The evangelical-Catholic political alliance remained a fragile one, even when results from the ballot box made it appear more solid. Even as conservative Catholics drew to evangelicals on social issues, like abortion, their church often took political stances on matters like welfare and nuclear armament that put them in opposition to the Republican Party,” wrote Neil J. Young, author of We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics, at Religion Dispatches. “What this means for the future of the Republican Party remains uncertain.”
As some evangelical leaders extended grace to a controversy-ridden but Christ-professing candidate like Trump, some say the divergence didn’t come due to policy differences but doctrine itself.
“When Christians judge one another, they tend to do so less in doctrinal terms than on stances on particular issues—such as same-sex marriage or abortion (it’s worth noting that Trump’s support among evangelical leaders doubled after he released a short-list of pro-life potential Supreme Court justices),” wrote Karen E. Parks in the Catholic magazine Commonweal.
Yet Pope Francis’ declaration that Trump “is not a Christian,” a response to the billionaire’s plan to build a border wall, reflects Catholics’ unique attention to good works or “works righteousness,” a doctrine overturned by Martin Luther, the theology professor pointed out. Trump’s popularity among evangelicals, and not Catholics, may partly be a result:
Maybe in the pared-down, stripped-down, non-magisterial American evangelical theology of today, the behavior of a super-sinner like Trump is irrelevant, since even with his gambling, his fornication, his divorces, and his crude and ugly behavior he is just as close to being a Christian as anyone else. He doesn’t need works; he just needs to make an individual statement (accountable to no authority) that he is a Christian. Sadly, at least for now, this seems to be enough.
Some Catholics are taking that approach too. “Ever read the ‘Confessions’ of St. Augustine?” former New York mayor and Trump backer Rudy Giuliani said on TV earlier this month. “Men can change, people can change.”
This election has surprised voters, pundits, and politics experts in many ways. In addition to the diverging politics between Catholics and evangelicals, the campaign has largely done away with the “God gap,” the notion that church attendance and level of religiosity correspond with voting patterns.
CT’s current issue features a trio of essays from evangelicals reflecting on this year’s presidential candidates.
CT’s previous reporting on Catholic-evangelical relations includes the Evangelicals and Catholics Together initiative, which two decades ago charted a historical path between church-state debates and unified evangelicals and Catholics against nihilism. The group, founded by Chuck Colson and Richard John Neuhaus, was an improbable alliance that kept the two groups from fighting over religious liberty issues.