The rise of Donald Trump in the race for the Republican nomination is based in part on a consensus among conservative Catholics in America, who prefer him over the other Republican candidates (Cruz, Kasich and Rubio), who vaunt a far less marked religious appeal. There were signs of this during the primaries in various states, most notably in Michigan. What's most interesting is that the xenophobic and nationalist candidate has earned the vote of a majority of Catholic Republicans, either unaware or uninterested in the fact that Pope Francis said, just three weeks ago during his return flight from Mexico, that Trump's message "is not Christian."
The phenomenon of Catholic Trumpism lays bare several deep internal contradictions and trends at work in American Catholicism. The first deals with the evolution of the American Catholic church and its inherent political alignment. In 2008 the election of Obama to the office of the President highlighted a stratification of votes among Catholics not only along social and ideological lines, but ethnic lines as well. In the last two presidential elections, white Catholics voted by a large majority for Republican candidates, while non-white Catholics voted for the Democrats. The success of Trump (who stood out during the early part of Obama's presidency for accusing the President of not being born in the United States, and therefore having been elected illegitimately) among conservative Catholics is therefore part of a trend that was already clear during the previous decade within the American church. A church, worth noting, that is still run by white leadership, but with a majority that will cease to be white well before the midway point of this century, turning largely Latino and Asian, along with a small Afro-American minority.
Catholic support for Trump cannot be explained simply by the fears and decline of white America's lower middle class.
The second element can be seen in shifts in the role played by pro-life vs. pro-choice in relationsihps between the church and politics in America. For the past 40 years, starting with the Supreme Court's decision in 1973 to legalize abortion, the abortion issue has been the critical factor for the American church, whose bishops aligned staunchly with Republicans from 1980 onward first and foremost for their anti-abortion stance.
Seduced by the partially-instrumental positioning of the GOP, Catholic bishops feel abandoned by a Republican Party that risks nominating a person who is unafraid of distancing himself from the party orthodoxy on this issue. The pro-life agenda has disappeared not only from the Democratic Party, but from large part of the Republican Party as well. Trump earns the votes of most conservative Catholics despite his more than flip-floppy position on the issue. Social, economic and immigration issues have overtaken abortion in importance within the white conservative Catholic church, whose members are now clinging desperately to Trump, terrified to lose "white supremacy" within American society, as well as by the deindustrialization and impoverishment of the American middle class.
The third element is the involution of political culture among conservative American Catholics. Catholic support for Trump cannot be explained simply by the fears and decline of white America's lower middle class. Instead it should be viewed through the lens of decadence within the neo-conservative Catholic intelligentsia in the US during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. On one hand the "victimology" elaborated by bishops and conservative Catholic Americans concerning the religious freedom of Catholics around the country who felt under fire from the Obama administration has found its surrogate in the ethnic and nationalistic victimhood professed by Trump against Latinos and the Chinese. On the other hand, there is a culture of moral excommunication of a political adversary, now one of the distinctive features of Trump (who adds theatrical elements that further perfect the media circus that is US presidential primaries).
During the early '90s, conservative American Catholicism morally and politically excommunicated Bill Clinton, and in 2008 it was Obama's turn -- the only difference being that the "excommunication" reserved for Obama was not merely political and moral, but also civil and not devoid of racial undertones, aimed constantly and consistently at undermining and delegitimizing his presidency. The libertarian rhetoric of the Tea Party, with its "let's take back our country" (in other words, let's take it out of the hands of an African-American president), is extremely similar to Trump's brand of xenophobia -- two things that American bishops proved themselves incapable of reacting to, back then and today. It's a short step from libertarian-liberalist rhetoric to the death of the key idea of "the common good" for Catholic morality, and the Republican Party already took this step over the course of the past decade.
From a certain point of view, Trump is merely the tip of the iceberg of this perversion, which is at once moral and theological: the social and moral depth of the message candidates close to the religious right, like Cruz and Rubio, are sending is not much more Christian than Trump's manifest moral illiteracy.
The fourth element: Pope Francis' "American problem" has shone a light on the hypocrisies and contradictions that exist in American Catholicism. The majority of American bishops and conservative American Catholics are not following Francis: in part this is due to the Pope's message; in part because a peculiar feature of American Catholicism has emerged over the past decade. According to "the American equation," that which is good for America is good in and of itself; American Catholicism lives within a similar illusion. On March 7th of this year, two of America's most famous conservative Catholics, George Weigel and Robert George, published an appeal to conservative American Catholics asking them not to vote for Trump. Not only did this appeal (which was also signed by other academics) include not a single quote from Pope Francis (even though the Pope had already been quite clear in statements on Trump), it built the anti-Trump argument based on an interpretation of the church's social teachings that is identical to that of American liberal capitalism: their thesis is that Trump is no good for Catholics because Trump is no good for American capitalism. Furthermore, the document depicts the Obama administration as a period of deep constitutional distortion (and not for its use of drones), as well as damaging to the social and economic fabric of a free America, which the country must recover from, but not by running to Trump. It's an appeal that lays bare the hypocrisies of neoconservative America, which still refuses to forgive anything to with President Obama (especially his health care laws), but is willing to forgive everything about George W. Bush, including the disastrous wars in the Middle East, the use of torture, the destruction of social welfare policies and what little of the welfare state that existed in America after Clinton left office.
The moral excommunication brought to bear on Obama starting in 2008 and today on Hillary Clinton by conservative American Catholics is now backfiring on those among the political and intellectual elite who played around at being wizard's apprentices as they manipulated the various and diverse ethnic and ideological positions in order to delegitimize the Obama presidency.
No wonder America's white lower middle class is now turning to Trump, a man who is not afraid to point a finger at the disasters of the Bush era. In their own way, Catholics for Trump are presenting the country and the American Catholic church with the bill for a moral and intellectual bankruptcy that it will not be easy to recover from, even for one of the most important churches in modern global Catholicism.
This post first appeared on HuffPost Italy. It has been translated into English and edited for clarity.