There are nearly 60 million Catholics of voting age in the United States, and Donald Trump wants all of them to vote Republican this fall. On September 21, Trump went so far as to hire Catholic (failed) presidential candidate Rick Santorum to lead a “heavyweight” group of advisors to appeal to the denomination.
There are two problems with that approach: Catholics generally don’t vote Republican, and even if they did, they won’t vote for Trump. Theology, demographics, and Trump’s own words will doom the GOP’s efforts with Catholic voters in 2016.
Collecting just a simple majority of Catholic voters could swing the election toward Trump, especially since the margin of victory in the past two elections has been under 11 million votes. But since 2000, Republican presidential candidates have only won over the demographic once out of the last five elections. Though many Catholics worldwide hold conservative positions on issues like abortion and birth control, the majority of American Catholics don’t. Polling shows that most U.S. Catholics support marriage equality, the use of contraception, and are even in favor of permitting access to abortion in some cases.
Now, it’s true that the more conservative Catholics could, in theory, make an ideal base for Trump. They, unlike the majority of U.S. Catholics, oppose abortion entirely — an issue that forms the basis of much of Trump’s current efforts to appeal to the denomination. Still, they find Trump’s laser-like focus on “doing business” and “winners and losers” unappealing. New polling released this week shows that Trump trails Clinton by 27 points with Catholic voters. Kaya Oakes, an instructor at the University of California, Berkeley who has written extensively on American Catholics, told MTV News that “Catholics seem to be leaning toward Clinton, probably because she leans closer to the social justice values and care for the marginalized message many Catholics heard growing up.”
Trump’s difficulty aligning with the values held by American Catholics won’t be his only problem when it comes to getting their votes. His nativist campaign runs counter to a religious denomination that is increasingly made up of immigrants. In 1987, Latino Americans made up just 10 percent of American Catholics. By the time Pope Francis — a native of Argentina and the first pope from South America — visited the United States for the first time in 2015, that number had jumped to 34 percent, owing to an influx of immigrants from Mexico and Central and South America.
Many Latino Catholics were raised in a “Liberation Theology” tradition, which prioritizes caring for the poor, the homeless, refugees, and the needy in order to fulfill Christ’s teachings. Liberation theology was particularly influential in Central and South America in the 1970s and 1980s, as priests and nuns stood up against oppressive right-wing dictatorships across the region. Those who did risked their lives; Sister Jean Donovan, who worked to help refugees of the Salvadoran civil war, was raped and murdered by members of the country’s National Guard, just months after El Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot to death while celebrating mass. The legacy of these martyrs and liberation theology in general, once squashed by the Vatican as “Marxist,” have heavily influenced the modern-day Church — and the modern-day Pope.
While Trump has urged that refugees be blocked from entering the U.S., Pope Francis has repeatedly met with refugee children. He told the press following his visit, “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian” — a direct shot at Trump. “When Pope Francis came to the U.S. last year and spoke to Congress,” said Oakes, “that was the central message of his talk: welcoming the immigrant. And given the browning of American Catholicism versus Trump’s fantasy wall, immigration will continue to be a major issue at the parish level, which will impact how people vote.”
With all that in mind, Trump’s failure to connect with American Catholics ultimately isn’t just about immigration, refugees, or border security. Catholics are taught that the poor and the poor in spirit — people who are truly humble before God and others — are uniquely blessed, and that the greatest sign of love is to be willing to die for one’s friends. Matthew Schmitz, editor of the conservative religious journal First Things, wrote in August, “Christianity is a religion of losers. To the weak and humble, it offers a stripped and humiliated Lord. To those without reason for optimism, it holds up the cross as a sign of hope. To anyone who does not win at life, it promises that whoever loses his life for Christ’s sake shall find it.” That's not the GOP’s message in 2016 — and it sounds absolutely nothing like Donald Trump.
Trump’s own Catholic liaisons don’t disagree. They even used to say so. In a statement released earlier this year, before he endorsed Trump, Joseph Cella, the founder of the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, said, “Mr. Trump’s record and his campaign show us no promise of greatness; they promise only the further degradation of our politics and our culture. We urge our fellow Catholics and all our fellow citizens to reject his candidacy.” It sounds like American Catholics are way ahead of him.