Inside Donald Trump’s Catholic Problem

Experts explain why Clinton could attract far more Catholic voters than Democrats in years past.

FILE - In this Sept. 24, 2015, file photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump waves to the crowd gathered in front of Trump Tower ahead of the arrival of the pope's motorcade for an appearance in New York's Central Park. Trump holds a trademark to use the words “Central Park” on items including furniture, chandeliers and even key chains. Records show his first application came in 1991, when the city’s crime rate was near its height and the park had a less-than-glamorous reputation.
AP Photo/Kevin Hagen
Colin Diersing
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Colin Diersing
Aug. 2, 2016, 8 p.m.

A former Je­suit mis­sion­ary, an act­iv­ist pope, and Don­ald Trump walk in­to an elec­tion cycle. It sounds like the setup to a joke, but the res­ults could be any­thing but funny for the Re­pub­lic­an real-es­tate mogul.

That’s be­cause Trump has a prob­lem with Cath­ol­ic voters.

Ex­perts on Amer­ic­an Cath­ol­ics say Demo­crats have an op­por­tun­ity to at­tract re­li­gious Cath­ol­ic voters in a way they have not for dec­ades, thanks in part to an un­usu­al duo of Cath­ol­ic char­ac­ters: Tim Kaine, a former Je­suit mis­sion­ary who kicked off his first rally after join­ing the Hil­lary Clin­ton tick­et by say­ing he’d still be home for Mass the next day, and Pope Fran­cis, who has made is­sues such as cli­mate change and poverty cent­ral to his papacy.

But sev­er­al ex­perts said Trump should ascribe the ma­jor­ity of the blame for his Cath­ol­ic prob­lem to one per­son: him­self.

“It seems to me that Don­ald Trump is the least ap­peal­ing Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ate to ser­i­ous Cath­ol­ics in as far back as I can re­mem­ber,” said John Carr, the dir­ect­or of the Ini­ti­at­ive on Cath­ol­ic So­cial Thought and Pub­lic Life at Geor­getown Uni­versity. “This is a very sec­u­lar, very liber­tari­an, very un-Cath­ol­ic ap­proach to polit­ics.”

Polling backs up Carr’s the­ory. Pew Re­search Cen­ter data com­par­ing a June 2016 poll to one from June 2012 (which Fiv­eThirtyEight dis­played graph­ic­ally here) shows Cath­ol­ics who at­tend church weekly mov­ing de­cidedly to­ward the Demo­crat­ic camp. While Rom­ney led Obama with those voters by 4 points, Trump trails Clin­ton by 20 points. Cath­ol­ics who do not at­tend church weekly also moved to­ward Clin­ton, though less de­cidedly, while evan­gel­ic­al voters who at­tend church weekly did not.

In 2012, Cath­ol­ic voters moved sig­ni­fic­antly over the course of the elec­tion, but the shift thus far is not­able giv­en what ex­perts say is a clear dis­con­nect between Trump’s rhet­or­ic and Cath­ol­ic cul­ture.

Trump’s stance and re­marks on im­mig­ra­tion could ex­plain much of his chal­lenge with Cath­ol­ic voters, ex­perts said, and no pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee has won the pop­u­lar vote without also win­ning among Cath­ol­ics, dat­ing to 1972. Cath­ol­ic voters today are dis­pro­por­tion­ately His­pan­ic, and many non-His­pan­ic white Cath­ol­ics still view their an­cest­ors’ im­mig­ra­tion and eth­nic her­it­age as part of their own iden­tit­ies. That might not jibe well with rhet­or­ic that some view as anti-im­mig­rant.

In a series of 2010 fo­cus groups with Ohio voters de­signed to dif­fer­en­ti­ate Cath­ol­ic and prot­est­ant views on im­mig­ra­tion, re­search­ers found what they dubbed the “El­lis Is­land vs. Home De­pot” dis­tinc­tion. For non-Cath­ol­ic Chris­ti­ans, im­mig­ra­tion con­jured im­ages of day-laborers look­ing for work and touched off con­cerns about se­cur­ity and law en­force­ment. Cath­ol­ic re­spond­ents, mean­while, were more likely to men­tion their own an­cest­ors’ jour­neys to the United States, fre­quently through El­lis Is­land.

Most Cath­ol­ics “think of their for­bear­ers as im­mig­rants to Amer­ica who worked very, very hard,” ex­plained John Port­mann, a pro­fess­or of re­li­gious stud­ies at the Uni­versity of Vir­gin­ia and the au­thor of Cath­ol­ic Cul­ture in the USA. “So the idea of keep­ing out Mex­ic­ans—al­most all of whom are Cath­ol­ics—doesn’t sit well with even Cath­ol­ics on the Right.”

Trump’s rhet­or­ic, Carr said, “brings back echoes of ‘No Ir­ish Need Ap­ply.’”

Oth­ers say Pope Fran­cis’s fo­cus on so­cial justice could be mak­ing re­li­gious Cath­ol­ics more open to Demo­crats. Steph­en Sch­neck, the dir­ect­or of the In­sti­tute for Policy and Re­search and Cath­ol­ic Stud­ies at The Cath­ol­ic Uni­versity of Amer­ica, said a “Pope Fran­cis factor” might be push­ing ob­ser­v­ant Cath­ol­ics to think more about is­sues of poverty, so­cial justice, and cli­mate change com­pared to the so­cial is­sues where Demo­crats nor­mally clash with the church.

The Pope him­self made a brief ap­pear­ance in the cam­paign earli­er this year, sug­gest­ing Don­ald Trump was ‘not a Chris­ti­an’ and knock­ing his pro­pos­al to build a wall. Robert P. Jones, founder of the Pub­lic Re­li­gion Re­search In­sti­tute and a schol­ar of re­li­gion in Amer­ic­an life, noted that the Cath­ol­ic church hier­archy ap­pear­ing in the middle of a pres­id­en­tial cam­paign was something of a re­versal from re­cent his­tory, such as a 2004 con­tro­versy where a car­din­al threatened to deny John Kerry com­mu­nion over his stance on abor­tion.

“Deny­ing com­mu­nion to Kerry, that was a sig­nal, in many ways a par­tis­an move. … In some ways we’ve got the flip side of that, where the most pub­lic thing we have is this con­flict from Trump and Pope Fran­cis,” Jones said.

While Trump and the pope provide an un­usu­ally prom­ising back­ground for Demo­crats look­ing to tar­get Cath­ol­ic voters, it may fall to Kaine to seal the deal. His long his­tory of work with the Cath­ol­ic Church could be an as­set to the cam­paign.

“Someone who has had this kind of Je­suit edu­ca­tion and took his re­li­gion ser­i­ously enough to spend a year of his life work­ing on a mis­sion … if you’re a white Cath­ol­ic brought up in Cath­ol­ic schools who’s gone to Mass, that’s the kind of life tra­ject­ory that would seem au­then­t­ic and re­cog­niz­able,” Jones said.

But Kaine’s nas­cent status as a vice pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate has already il­lus­trated some of the chal­lenges that Demo­crats will face in court­ing more re­li­gious Cath­ol­ic voters. In a CNN in­ter­view last week­end, Kaine was forced to walk back pre­vi­ous re­port­ing that sug­ges­ted that he had shif­ted his po­s­i­tion on the Hyde amend­ment, a pro­vi­sion de­signed to pre­vent tax­pay­er fund­ing of abor­tion.

The Demo­crat­ic plat­form this year con­tains lan­guage call­ing for the re­peal of the Hyde Amend­ment, a po­ten­tial stick­ing point with re­li­gious Cath­ol­ic voters. Ul­ti­mately, many Cath­ol­ic voters may end up mak­ing a choice in the same way as the rest of the coun­try: pick­ing the less­er of two evils.

“Don­ald Trump makes it harder for Cath­ol­ic Re­pub­lic­ans, and Tim Kaine makes it easi­er for Cath­ol­ic Demo­crats, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy choice,” Carr said.

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