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Opinion How Democrats are winning back Catholics

Donald Trump is having a hard time keeping many Catholics in the GOP column. It’s one of many serious problems he faces in the general election. “Catholic voters, who have been key to picking the winning ticket in almost every modern election, reject Trump decisively,” John Gehring writes. “In 2012, President Obama won the overall Catholic vote 50 percent to 48 percent.”

A Pew poll in July showing Trump leading Clinton 55 to 38 percent among Protestants but trailing 39 to 56 percent among Catholics raised eyebrows. Within that, race and ethnicity play a factor. (“Hispanic Catholics overwhelmingly favor Clinton over Trump, while white Catholics are evenly divided between those who prefer Trump and those who favor Clinton.”) Hispanic Catholics favor Clinton by a stunning 77 to 16 percent. FiveThirtyEight notices another pattern: “Catholics who attend Mass weekly have increased their support for the Democratic nominee by 22 percentage points relative to 2012. They support Hillary Clinton at about the same rate as fallen-away Catholics; even though among white, non-Hispanic Catholics, those who attend Mass less frequently are slightly more likely to be registered Democrats.” This runs counter to the historic trend that more religiously active voters are more inclined to vote Republican.

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There are a number of explanations, which may collectively explain the phenomenon.

Some of the aversion to Trump may stem from the candidates’ specific actions. “Trump attacked the wildly popular Pope Francis as being ‘disgraceful’ and a ‘political pawn,’ ” Christopher Hale wrote for Time last month. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence made the ticket worse, he suggests: “He fought hard against Pope Francis and the Catholic Church’s attempt to resettle Syrian refugees in Indiana. Citing security concerns after last November’s Paris attacks, Pence tried to pressure the local Catholic Charities into longer welcoming and housing refugees fleeing violence and terrorism in the Middle East.” It certainly helps that for her running mate, Clinton chose a religious Catholic in Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who once went on a mission to Honduras.

Trump’s anti-immigrant fervor certainly plays a part. Labeling Mexican immigrants “murders” and “rapists” doesn’t sit well with Hispanic Catholics, nor with Catholics whose families originated in Europe. “Part of Catholics’ DNA is an appreciation for how Irish and other immigrants toiled and thrived in the shadow of a suspicious, fiercely anti-Catholic culture dominated by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants,” Gehring observes.

Catholic doctrine instructs followers to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable, including immigrants, first. Catholics individually and institutionally certainly have a long history of fighting poverty, hunger, and homelessness and tending to the needs of newcomers. Trump, whose evidence of charitable works is lacking, by contrast equates “greatness” with success and wealth. It never seems to cross his mind that every person has a right to personal dignity and respect — or that the highest virtue is not building the next skyscraper but helping the less fortunate. It may well be that the self-centered and materialistic Trump offends Catholics for whom caring for others is a fundamental religious precept.

It may also be a matter of style, says Gehring:

[Catholicism] is a thinking religion. For Trump, his my-way-or-the highway pronouncements often seem to view facts and argument as distractions. For Catholics, our moral and intellectual tradition asks us to consider the complexity of “both-and” conclusions rather than the comfort of “either-or” false choices. Catholicism is intellectually rigorous and built on centuries of tradition that still leave room for nuanced debate, a hallmark of education at Catholic colleges and universities across the country.

Some or all of these factors may play a role. And it’s of course true that many non-Catholics are offended by Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and selfishness. After all, Trump is having trouble with lots of groups (e.g. women, college educated voters). You don’t need to be Catholic or religious at all to find Trump’s conduct off-putting. By the same token, however, Trump embodies so many qualities and views that are antithetical to Catholics, he may create the perfect storm for Republicans. Trump may very well send Catholics running toward Clinton. If so, like so much else, it will be his own darn fault.