The Republican Party has been, for decades, the de facto home of the American pro-life movement. Accordingly, the Republican Party, flawed and imperfect as it is, has earned the electoral support of a majority of the most observant religious Americans, including strong support from observant Catholics. So it makes sense that, when the Obama administration began its concerted campaign of restricting religious freedom and rolling back conscience protections, the Republican Party also became a vehicle for the defence of religious freedom against the encroachments of the state and progressive authoritarianism.
This same Republican Party is now indisputably the party of Donald J Trump, a man whose commitment to these same causes of life and liberty is, at the very best, one of convenience.
On Tuesday, the new Party of Trump won a decisive and stunning victory. In fact, it won a whole series of victories. Republicans will now control the White House, both houses of congress and a commanding majority of state houses and state legislatures. President Trump will have the opportunity to appoint at least one justice (and possibly two or more) to the Supreme Court. Such appointments are for life, and can dramatically reshape the constitutional landscape for decades to come. By these measures, the Republican Party is as strong as it has been in at least a generation.
While Trump’s victory was driven by a multitude of disaffected white, middle- and working-class voters who were motivated by worries over immigration, political correctness, and elite insouciance in the face of the challenges of a globalised economy (comparisons to Brexit abound), it is hard to imagine that Trump could have won without the support of millions of socially conservative voters, including, it seems, a majority of Catholics.
Those who reluctantly supported Donald Trump as the lesser of two evils were subjected to almost daily humiliations – pressed to explain their continued to support for a candidate whose erratic behaviour and statements seemed to set new records for boorishness in a public figure. How many times did one hear the exclamation: “Surely, this latest outrage must disqualify him!”
Millions of Catholics supported Trump, not because of his race-baiting and misogynistic rhetoric (to say nothing of his actual behaviour), but in spite of it. Many social conservatives supported Trump, not because they believed that he shared their commitments to the unborn or religious freedom but because, for all his repulsive behaviour, he appeared the only viable alternative to a woman they see as an existential threat to the causes of life and liberty: Hillary Clinton.
Clinton proved unpalatable to more than just social conservatives and Catholics. With Hillary Clinton on the top of the ticket, Democrats saw a collapse in voter support – down almost 10 per cent from 2012 when Barack Obama was elected.
Trump closed the GOP deficit among Latino Catholics by a whopping 12 points compared to 2012 – an unexpected pickup for a candidate not known for his soft stance on immigration or high opinion of Mexican immigrants, and one which speaks to the awfulness of candidate Clinton.
One might think this would bode very well for the pro-life cause. And there is certainly an argument to be made that it might: Democratic opposition is outnumbered and reeling, the GOP will have a chance to reshape the Supreme Court, and President Trump can end the attacks on religious freedom under the so-called “HHS mandate” with little more than the stroke of a pen. There is opportunity, but there is also great risk.
In the weeks and months leading up to the election, many argued (including me) that pro-life support for Donald Trump, even if he were to be elected, might well prove a Faustian bargain – destroying the credibility and witness of religious and social conservatives who allied with a man unfit for the office and ultimately doing grave damage to the very causes they hoped to advance by supporting him.
An impulsive vulgarian who heaps humiliation on his supposed allies even as he is trying to win an election, is unlikely to suddenly become compliant and sensible once he is safely in office. If things go very badly the social conservatives could conceivably find themselves marginalised in a Republican Party reshaped by Trump – a political orphan unwanted by either party. Trump is not a man known to keep his promises, to put it mildly, and it’s far from certain that he will feel politically beholden to reluctant social conservative allies.
Now that Trump has won the election, these concerns loom all the more. Along with millions of others who care deeply about the sanctity of life, the freedom of the Church, and the health of the family –both those who voted for Trump and those who did not – I am very keen to be proven wrong. There is much work to be done.
Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC and the author of Red, White, Blue, and Catholic.