Over the past several months many in America and abroad have expressed bewilderment at the meteoric rise of Donald Trump. In the last few weeks, this astonishment has come to focus especially on his broad and unexpected support from evangelicals.
The New York Times has called it “one of the prime paradoxes of the 2016 election.” At Public Discourse Nathan Schlueter frames the paradox concisely: “There is no evidence that a Trump presidency would promote evangelical values; in fact, there is more evidence that he would oppose them. Yet Trump continues to be the favorite candidate of evangelical voters.”
A Talking Points Memo headline thus raises the obvious question: “Why Are Evangelicals Supporting the Unrepentant Donald Trump?” Ben Shapiro asks even more pointedly: “Have evangelicals ever supported an unrepentant, pro-Planned Parenthood, adulterous strip club owner before?”
Valid points, and reasonable questions. The nearly exclusive focus on the evangelical vote, however, seems to have prevented most commentators from raising the same points and questions with respect to the similarly significant Catholic vote.
The Catholic Blind Spot
Full disclosure: I am neither an evangelical nor a Catholic, but like many other confessional Lutherans I have often identified myself theologically as an “evangelical Catholic.” Beyond the realm of doctrine, where many differences of course remain, confessional Lutherans in America have also frequently found themselves allied with both Catholics and evangelicals in the political realm, most obviously on life issues and, more recently, matters of religious liberty.
Because religious liberty and the right to life are among those “evangelical values” confessional Lutherans and Roman Catholics share—and because they are under assault—I, too, find myself anxiously asking the above questions; but also asking them about America’s Catholics. Why are they supporting the unrepentant Donald Trump? Have they ever supported an unrepentant, pro-Planned Parenthood, adulterous strip club owner before? And why are so few in either the old or new media asking these questions?
One probable answer to that last question is simply that many remain unaware of Trump’s astonishing support among Catholics, not least on account of the unhelpfully blinkered nature of much exit polling. As Brian Kaylor points out, in the last presidential election Catholics constituted more than a quarter of Iowa’s voters, turned out in greater numbers than evangelicals did in Nevada, and did so by more three-to-one in New Hampshire. Yet when addressing religion this year, Republican exit polls in all three states “only included a question about evangelicals.” “How did Catholics vote?” Kaylor asks. “We do not know.”
What We Do Know about Catholics and Trump
But we are not completely in the dark. Reporting on Monmouth University surveys has placed Catholic support for Trump at 30 percent in New Hampshire (where he took 27 percent of the evangelical vote), for example, and 44 percent in Iowa (where only 22 percent of evangelicals voted for him).
In heavily evangelical South Carolina, where a third of evangelicals voted for Trump, Monmouth had 42 percent of Catholics doing the same. Beaufort County, the only majority-Catholic county in the state, went to Trump with 30 percent of the Republican vote. Exit polls from much more Catholic Massachusetts placed Trump’s support from Catholics at an incredible 53 percent, four points higher than his support among evangelicals there.
Nor are state polls the only means by which to measure support for Trump. The comparative data national opinion polls have generated is equally revealing. Calculating the net favorability of candidates (by subtracting “very unfavorable” proportions from “very favorable”), the Barna Group finds Trump’s net favorability among evangelicals at -38. Not only was it twice as high among Catholics, at only -19, but Catholics viewed Trump more favorably than did any other religious category Barna denominated. When the same poll specifically asked respondents to choose a preferred candidate, evangelicals named Ted Cruz. Catholics? The unrepentant, pro-Planned Parenthood, adulterous strip club owner.
Trump’s favorability among Catholics is further confirmed by the Pew Research Center, which finds 54 percent of Catholic Republicans claiming he would, if elected, be a good or great president. Cruz (52 percent) and Rubio (51 percent) polled almost as well, but no candidate surpassed Trump.
Despite the obsessive focus on the admittedly bizarre evangelical infatuation with Trump, what the above seems to suggest is not only that Republican Catholics favor Trump more than they do any other candidate, they favor Trump more than evangelicals do.
Trump Also Gets Catholic Democrats
But there’s more. Trump isn’t simply dominating among Republican Catholics; he’s also drawing Catholic support from Democrats. According to Pew’s 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study, 37 percent of American Catholics are (or lean) Republican, while 44 percent are (or lean) Democrat. Yet pollster John Zogby noted earlier this year that, in Trump versus Clinton polling, “Trump is ahead among Catholics—a group that Democrats have won every election since 1992.” (Let’s not dwell on this “prime paradox,” that for more than three decades the Catholic vote has been in the pocket of the party that’s explicitly supported Roe v. Wade in every platform since that decision.)
Still there’s more. Catholic support for Trump appears unhindered even after his recent and very public spat with the pope. Trump described as “disgraceful” Pope Francis’ assertion that “this man is not a Christian if he has said things like that.” The “things” in question were Trump’s proposed immigration policies, not least the building of a wall along the border with Mexico. Yet Monmouth pollster Patrick Murray notes that, contrary to the pope himself, a “whopping 76 percent of Catholic Republicans said they favored building a wall across the Mexican border and 61 percent specifically said they approved of Trump’s immigration plan.”
Partly prompting the bewilderment about evangelicals backing Trump has been the fact that prominent evangelical leaders—from Al Mohler and Russell Moore to James Dobson and Max Lucado—have publicly criticized him. None, though, is to evangelicalism what the pope is to Catholicism. For Catholic voters to defy the Democratic Party machine is remarkable enough; but to defy both party and pope? For Trump? For the unrepentant, pro-Planned Parenthood, adulterous strip club owner?
“I am completely baffled by the Trump and evangelical numbers,” says Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and director of its Evangelicals in Civic Life program. As am I. But I am even more baffled by the Trump and Catholic numbers.
Should those numbers help propel Trump to the Republican nomination, Catholics no less than evangelicals will own it. In that case, evangelicals and Catholics together—and, yes, probably more than a few “evangelical Catholics”—will likely find themselves doing penance.